IB Frontline interview: research section

Introduces the second section of my IB Frontline interview talking about my research, creativity and the future of IB research

Ilgaz Arikan conducts wonderful interviews with scholars in International Business in the Frontline IB Conversations series. I was honoured to participate and thoroughly enjoyed my interview. As the full interviews are a bit long, I have cut my interview up in the three key sections: personal, research, and mentoring. Below is the research section of my interview.

For more interviews with senior IB scholars, see this repository page on my website or the Frontline IB Conversations webpage. The interviews are also available as podcasts on all services, including Spotify, Amazon, Google, Apple, Tune In, and iHeartRadio.

Ilgaz was kind enough to send interviewees the questions in advance. As I am not good at improvising, I did reflect on the questions beforehand; I even wrote out some rough answers. In the 30-odd minutes available Ilgaz wasn't able to ask all questions. So, I have reproduced a cleaned-up version of my answers below.

Questions and answers

How would you explain your research in a country pub?

I would probably go for a recent project with one of my former Melbourne PhD students Shea Fan. She looked at the challenges that Australian or US-born ethnic Chinese face when they return to China. MNCs often assign ethnic Chinese as expatriates to China as they assume they will have an easier time than Western-looking expatriates. Shea has studied how these individuals manage their identity to ensure that they can stay true to themselves, but also benefit from the trust generated by their ethnic similarity.

However, this would be way too complex for a country pub. So what I would say is how I have explained it in a 1-minute video I did on the topic: the way people look from the outside might not reflect how they feel from the inside. This is obviously true for race and ethnicity as much as it is for other visible demographic characteristics such as age and gender.

More generally, it is about making people look beyond appearances and not automatically classifying someone in a particular group because of their outward appearance. This is of crucial importance in day-to-day life, because ultimately nearly anything we do in organizations depends on productive interactions with others.

What are the omitted variables in IB research?

I would say anything at the micro level of analysis, there is a lot of talk about “firms do this, firms do that”, but firms don’t make decisions, individuals do! Recently, IB scholars have started to talk about the micro-foundations of for instance strategic decision-making or knowledge transfer. But I don’t always get the impression they have realised that micro scholars in a variety of disciplines have been looking at this for many decades.

We are also still bad at fully incorporating context (see also: The importance of context in IB). What I feel most strongly about though is omitted countries. IB has long meant AB: Anglophone Business. Most of the IB scholars you have interviewed were either born or educated in the UK or the USA. Now that younger IB academics come from a much wider range of countries this will be hopefully be changing in the near future.

Mostly though, I am concerned about the lack of methodological variety in IB. For a long time much of our research was either survey or interview based. Now the default choice seems to be working with whatever archival quantitative third-party data is easily available (see also: Research Methods in IB – Trends and Future Agenda).

How about lab or field experiments (see also The ins and outs of experimental research in IB and Management), how about ethnographic studies, how about lexicographical analysis, how about big data, how about action research, how about big multi-country primary data collection? There are certainly studies that apply each of these methods, but they are in a minority. In the publication process working with secondary data seems to be the easiest option these days and I do think our field is poorer for it.

How would you describe creativity in scholarship?

For me creativity has not been about pathbreaking conceptual or theoretical developments. I am afraid I am not a big conceptual thinker; I am very much an incremental empirical researcher. For me being creative is about doing research on topics that others don’t seem to be interested in.  Much of it simply derived from my own needs as a researcher, so a very practical motivation.

For instance, as much of my research used surveys with Likert scale type questions and I am a non-native English speaker, I started to wonder what the effect was of respondents responding in English versus responding their native language. So, I led two large-scale research projects about this with data collection in some 30 countries. This also led to a publication about response styles, i.e., whether different countries differed in the extent they used different parts of Likert scales.

Second, as I was interested in demographic diversity in organizations, I thought I should also start looking into academia itself and with Isabel Metz did research on gender and international diversity in editorial boards, which although it had been studied in many other fields had not been studied in Business & Management.

Third, when I was getting into research leadership at the University of Melbourne as Research Dean, I also started doing research in bibliometrics, looking at which metrics and data sources could be used to measure research performance in the Social Sciences. Most research in the field of bibliometrics to date had focused on the Natural and Life Sciences. Obviously, this also included my work with the Publish or Perish software.

Where do you see IB research in the next 5-10 years?

I know where I would like it to be, much more global, much more diverse, and much more inclusive. I would like us to study the 99%, not just the 1%. I talked earlier about the lack of diversity in the countries we study, but there are plenty of other examples. In expatriation for instance, we have studied the 1% privileged internationally mobile people, company assigned expats, usually from developed countries to developing countries, rather than look at the 99% of mobile populations, which includes migrants and refugees.

But the focus on the 1% also characterizes our profession. We tend to celebrate the top 1% of scholars, in fact these interviews are an example of this. This is perfectly natural, we can’t expect you to interview the 99%, you are already spending so much time on this! But I am a little concerned about these interviews turning into hero worshipping. I would prefer to focus on how we can help the 99% to thrive in academia.

We focus on the 1% too in our academic work priorities too with a single-minded emphasis on publishing in a narrow set of top journals. I would like us to think more about how our research can help the world to become at least a slightly better place, whether that’s the big world or the small world around us. What is our impact on society, on our students, on our mentees, on other scholars? (See also: Relevant & Impactful Research: From words to action - From outcome to process).

How did the culture of IB scholars evolve over time? What did we lose? What did we gain?

I think we have long struggled to be taken seriously as a discipline and have therefore focused too much on emulating the perceived rigour of Economics and Strategy rather than on doing what we do best: taking context seriously (see also: The importance of context in International Business).

As a result, I see a lot of standardization and narrowing of methods and interests, going over the same topics again and again. However, I also see lots of young academics from a very wide range of countries who are passionate about studying different things. These days, I see my role mainly as helping these academics carve out an existence in an increasingly competitive academic environment.

More generally academia has globalized just as much or possibly even more so than society as a whole: competition for jobs is truly global. At Middlesex University I don’t think we have appointed any British academics for quite a while. We have had a large recruitment round recently and our appointments were in majority Iranian, with others coming from Russia, China, Brazil, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Turkey. Universities need to become much more aware of the challenges this creates in supporting these academics over their career trajectories.

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