Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


How crises such as COVID-19 disrupt the flow of management knowledge – and why it matters

Timothy Clark, Marlieke van Grinsven, Stefan Heusinkveld

New research on how management practitioners come to use management knowledge in the different relevant contexts of their working lives permits us to better understand the impact of major crises, such as COVID-19, on the broader flow of management knowledge. Exploring these implications is of particular importance given that management knowledge – and management ideas in particular – has the potential to profoundly impact management and organizational practice and thereby the working lives of many people in contemporary society.

The COVID-19 pandemic has posed major challenges to many organizations and their management. Lockdown in different countries have meant significant structural changes to working arrangements, the operation of many sectors of the economy and supply chains. Only a few sectors have been relatively unscathed. It is understandable therefore that management practitioners around the world have had significant concerns about their organization’s viability, how to get their work done, and how to best support their employees in times of crisis. Management knowledge, in the form of actionable ideas, is essential in guiding management practitioners in dealing with these issues. Traditionally, this knowledge is widely disseminated via business schools, but also through a variety of established knowledge entrepreneurs such as management consultants, book publishers and management thinkers (frequently referred to as management gurus). Yet, crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic will likely disrupt the extant flow of management knowledge to managerial audiences and beyond in a number of critical ways. Drawing on an advanced model of flow developed in our new book, The flow of management ideas, we consider a number of notable implications arising from such a crisis that not only matters to the management knowledge sector, but also to the managerial community at large, and ultimately all those who work in organizations.

COVID-19 and the nature of management knowledge demand

The demand for particular management knowledge changes fundamentally as a result of major macro-level developments. Indeed, the emergence and widespread prevalence of a managerial discourse on specific management solutions tends to coincide with major social, economic, and technological developments As we have seen, under influence of COVID-19, management ideas, such as those related to home-based teleworking, may instantly yield considerable traction in a practitioner community. Such major changes in management knowledge demand is of significance not only for knowledge entrepreneurs that need to quickly adapt to changing patterns of demand, but also for management practitioners who are strongly and immediately pressured to search for legitimate actionable ideas to address the perceived organizational challenges that these developments may bring about, whilst at the same time maintain attention to their daily operations and other – equally valuable – ideas that may have the potential to enhance the functioning of their organizations.

COVID-19 and the dissemination of management knowledge

Knowledge entrepreneurs – those involved in the supply of management knowledge to practitioners – face a rapidly changing landscape for their knowledge and ideas as a result of COVID-19. The pandemic also has major implications for the nature of disseminating this knowledge. Traditional and widely established channels that have facilitated the flow of management knowledge, such as face-to-face events, have been – due to COVID-19 induced social distancing restrictions – practically impossible for the last 20 months and may even have altered the way we perceive mass events for years to come. At the same time, other internet-based channels – or hybrid forms – have gained a lot of attention and traction as a viable alternative. As indicated in our model of flow, important forms of management knowledge dissemination may occur outside these traditional channels. Yet these channels have more limited possibilities to win and retain converts to the ideas being disseminated in more traditional ways. How – in an online environment – does one create affiliation and coherence amongst an essentially differentiated audience, and sense the market to anticipate incipient preferences amongst managers? As a result, traditional knowledge entrepreneurs are not only pressured to quickly adopt to internet-based channels of communication, but also radically rethink the effectiveness of their rhetorical practices and persuasive strategies typically employed in face-to-face events.

COVID-19 and the dynamics of managerial audiences

The COVID-19 pandemic has also impacted significantly on managerial audiences, and their activities and role in the flow of ideas. An absence of face-to-face events entail the danger that managerial audiences may remain much more differentiated in their orientation towards particular ideas. Not just because in an internet-based environment knowledge entrepreneurs have less possibilities to create some form of coherence amongst a broad and differentiated target audience. Equally important is that the COVID-19 pandemic affects the different activities individual audience members engage in. Indeed, the model in our book shows that these activities prior to, during and after events, are often neglected, but play a critical role in establishing the managerial audiences’ orientations towards particular ideas and the individuals promoting them. Thus, the increased reliance on internet-based communication technologies may allow managerial audience members to access a wider range of events, channels and knowledge experts, but disrupt the normal social processes on which dissemination relies during and after events. There is thus greater unpredictability in how ideas spread amongst the managerial audience and which ideas catch hold. In addition, the typical characteristics of internet-based technologies in combination with the lack of face-to-face interaction with their peers may result in management practitioners becoming locked in a bubble and thereby limit their opportunities to critically evaluate the value of particular knowledge and consider alternatives. Finally, and related, we also found that managerial audiences may be much more engaged in their own textual productivity via new social media such as company websites, Twitter and LinkedIn which may be driven by the need to increase their online visibility. In this way, they have gained significantly in terms of power compared to the traditional knowledge entrepreneurs not the least because of other management practitioners increased reliance on these channels in a COVID-19 context.

Closing remarks

Drawing on an advanced model of flow developed in our new book we have indicated how crises such as COVID-19 may have a number of critical implications for the flow of management knowledge. Here we have argued that considering both the short-term and long-term effects of such crises not only matters to those who supply management knowledge such as via different forms of management education, but also to students of management and the managerial community at large.

The Flow of Management Ideas by Stefan Heusinkveld, Marlieke van Grinsven, Claudia Groß, David Greatbatch and Timothy Clark

About The Authors

Timothy Clark

Timothy Clark is Provost and Professor at Singapore Management University. His research focuses on oratory in management guru lectures and the nature of consultancy work. The publi...

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Marlieke van Grinsven

Marlieke van Grinsven is assistant professor at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Her research focuses on narrative constructions of organizational realities in processes of change...

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Stefan Heusinkveld

Stefan Heusinkveld is associate professor at the Radboud University Nijmegen. His research concentrates on the production and consumption of management ideas, and professions. He h...

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