In the grand scheme, the goal of academic research is to advance the state of human knowledge. While this necessarily entails diving into some fairly esoteric weeds, I won't pretend that management scholars have it too tough in that regard (at least compared to chemistry). At the same time, our field is somewhat unique in that few people know what it actually means to study management (at least beyond an MBA). For years, people have been asking "so, you're getting a PhD in how to make money?" That's a fair question, but pursuing a PhD isn't usually a ticket to fame and riches. Instead, academic research in management explores topics such as innovation, entrepreneurship, organizational behavior, and strategy. And because you're now thinking, "those don't really sound like real scientific pursuits either," it's probably worth digging a bit deeper.
The field has its roots in economics and sociology. Adam Smith was writing in the late 1700s, and sociologists such as Max Weber in the late 1800s, but management didn't really emerge as a discipline until the early 1900s. Around that time, Chester Barnard drew on his experience at AT&T to lay out a comprehensive theory of how organizations and executives behaved, and Frederick Winslow Taylor began conducting rigorous comparisons of various production systems. The first dedicated MBA was offered in 1921 at Harvard, at which point scholars and practitioners were interested largely in how to effectively and profitably manage businesses. As time passed, however, the field expanded and evolved: scholars began to explore how organizations change and adapt to their environments (Lawrence & Lorsch, 1967), what makes industries different and firms successful (Porter, 1980; Barney, 1991), and how organizations learn, interact, and grow (Henderson & Clark, 1990; DiMaggio & Powell, 1983; March, 1991). Today, the field covers innumerable topics from the role of cognition in decision-making to the structure of social movements to the origins of creativity. And while I know some of CRTVTY's readers are far more qualified than I to describe the formal boundaries of the field, that's a good summary of what our work is all about.
The big question is, why does any of it matter? Fundamentally, all of these topics relate to how the building blocks of the human world (economies, societies, and technologies) grow and change. Management scholars want to understand why the world we live in looks as it does: why is Silicon Valley such an innovative powerhouse, why do analog watches still exist, why did the wind industry take off but solar didn't, and why do people make better decisions when they're given less time to think? By examining those "little" questions, we are slowly shining a light onto more fundamental issues regarding our economy and society. My research, for instance, is motivated by a desire to understand how new industries and technologies come to be, so I'm exploring how electric vehicle companies collaborate with their partners and decide which products to build. My coworkers study topics as diverse as what makes government-sponsored science parks effective, how entrepreneurs identify opportunities, and how social movements have shaped the history of the biodiesel industry. All in all, it's pretty fascinating stuff, and offers a lot of promise for shaping the world around us by creating dynamic economies, relevant technologies, and successful businesses. Or, of course, for making money.