Advancing Management Research, or Advancing Elite Interests?

The Advanced Institute of Management (AIM) spent nearly £30 million of ESRC money in over a decade in an attempt to raise the dismal standard of research in management studies. AIM determined to back the academic rather than the research proposal, a bold and worthy venture that was always likely to fail. And fail it did, because most of AIM’s resources went to the elite of management studies, who used them to improve its own performance in the Research Assessment Exercise.


My co-authored paper about AIM is just about to be published in the British Journal of Management. It has been given open access status for the next three months by the BJM’s editor. So, too, has a rejoinder to our paper, penned by Robin Wensley and Andy Neely, ex-directors of AIM.  We had anticipated a response, but something substantial, something fierce and furious, not what is little more than a note, tame and tired – and downright curious.


The rejoinder’s authors direct our attention to the final director’s report and they provide a url for the British Library, where AIM publications are being stored. This leads nowhere. They provide another url for British Library collections. This also leads nowhere. Even so, it is possible to register with the British Library, navigate manually through the British Library website to the AIM repository and then through a list of AIM publications. The list is headed by AIM Research: A Final Review by Sandra Dawson, Robin Wensley and Andy Neely, the final director’s report. Beating hearts be still. The title leads only to another report altogether – Managing to Improve Public Service, edited by Jean Hartley and Alan Pike. The experience is a metaphor for the contrast between what AIM promised and what AIM delivered.


Wensley and Neely remind us that AIM has been fully evaluated by Technopolis for the ESRC. The evaluation is confidential, but they refer us to its executive summary, which has been published by the ESRC. There are, in fact, two executive summaries, the original one, which is part of the Technopolis evaluation and just as confidential, and the published version, which is shorter (though still described as written by Technopolis). Both have the same roots, some paragraphs being identical, but the shorter executive summary has been watered down, presumably for public consumption.


Omitted are such lines as:

  • “The over-investment in senior academics at the start of AIM limited the initiative’s additionality.”
  • “There is no strong evidence that AIM has made a substantial contribution to improvements in the overall quality and quantity of management and business research in the UK.”

This is not to say that the public executive summary is not hard-hitting. It states that there has been no measurable improvement in management research during the AIM years, but blames structural factors rather than AIM.


According to the contract under which Technopolis evaluated AIM, the ESRC’s evaluation committee was responsible for publishing the executive summary “following discussion”. However, we know what the evaluation of AIM and its executive summary contain only because The Economist procured them under Freedom of Information legislation. To be exact, The Economist has acquired a redacted version. While most redactions are probably of names and institutions, it is in the nature of redaction that what is hidden is unknown.

The evaluation of AIM runs to 98 pages, plus appendices. Much is consumed by fruitless bibliometrics, but the rest is very much to the point. Given that our paper is an observation on AIM and not an evaluation, the congruence is remarkable. This is no surprise. Drafts of our paper were made available to those privy to the AIM evaluation and were described as compatible and complementary. Drafts were also made available to the ex-directors of AIM, who did not respond.


There is a wider issue here, and a more important one than how AIM performed. We have fought tooth and nail for the publication of our observations on AIM and are obliged to the British Journal of Management for seeing their worth, though our paper went through many BJM referees and two sets of lawyers. The paper had previously been rejected by several leading journals and at least two conferences on management research, most commonly on the grounds that it was just plain wrong. Never has a paper endured so much checking and change. Our paper may well be wrong even now, but this is for our peers to judge.


The ex-directors of AIM have written their rejoinder not as academic peers, but as heads of an institution. No doubt the ESRC redactions hide the names of many more in senior posts. It was unlikely that anyone outside those in responsible institutional positions would ever see the Technopolis evaluation. As a confidential report, it could be used to counter the arguments in our paper. This does no credit to those charged with raising the standard of management research.


More broadly, a confidential evaluation, redacted for some undisclosed purpose, is no way for a public body to account for the expenditure of public money. To claim, as Wensley and Neely do in their letter of rebuttal to the Financial Times, that the executive summary published by the ESRC is the executive summary of the Technopolis evaluation is – now, what is the word? – misleading. In their BJM rejoinder, Wensley and Neely declare explicitly that the executive summary published by the ESRC is “unedited”: it is not.


Fundamental to academic research is the academic’s responsibility to comment on matters of moment. AIM certainly comes into this category: it was a brave experiment, well worth the endeavour, but captured by the elite of management studies. That our observations on AIM very nearly suffered the same fate may be testament to their merit.

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About smacdonald

Stuart Macdonald was, until recently, Professor of Information and Organisation at the University of Sheffield. His research has long been on the role that information plays in innovation and in change more generally. It is from what he calls an ‘information perspective’ that a range of issues have been investigated. These currently include work on intellectual property rights, particularly patenting by universities; management consultants and especially their role in the BBC; high technology as myth; the importance of copying in innovation, and on the performance of the Advanced Institute of Management. A major research strand has emerged almost by accident: the role performance indicators play in academic publishing. He is also general editor of Prometheus, a journal that takes a critical stance in its attitude to the study of innovation.

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