Academic Research With Mass Appeal

Photograph by George Frey/Bloomberg

Business professors are great at writing jargon-filled, hard-to-digest research papers. But every once and a while, they knock it out of the park with the general public. A small pool of research achieved such blockbuster status in 2012 by becoming the most read, most downloaded, or most written-about pieces authored by professors at top business schools. Tax evasion, finding a job, and the benefits of teaching employees Spanish are some of the topics that got non-students reading.

At Harvard Business School, an excerpt from Clayton Christensen’s book How Will You Measure Your Life? was the year’s most read preview of forthcoming research. The passage uses the downfall of Blockbuster and the rise of Netflix as an analogy for how we may end up paying a high cost for small decisions.

Christensen notes how Blockbuster decided not to invest in a model to rival Netflix. The company may have saved money in the short term, but wound up filing for bankruptcy. Similarly, he explains, when we ignore the cost of crossing a moral or ethical boundary “just once,” it becomes easier to cross that boundary again and could lead to major consequences. The book, published May 15, is No. 6 on the New York Times list of best-selling hardcover business books.

At the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, professors observed that banks recognize when customers are evading their taxes—and they lend to them anyway, not based on reported income, but based on what the bank’s estimate of their actual income is. The hot spot for this body of research? Greece—where the authors list doctors, engineers, private tutors, accountants, financial-service agents, and lawyers as the primary tax evaders.

At the Wharton School, Peter Cappelli did an interview to preview his book Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs, published by Wharton Digital Press. It became the most read story on the school’s research website. Cappelli discusses the inefficiencies many employers have in their hiring philosophies. For example, he says companies may appear to be “saving money by keeping positions vacant,” but they don’t understand the true cost of keeping a position open.

At the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, the year’s best-selling case study focused on a Best Buy HR manager in Texas who sought to boost sales to Latinos. The case shows how the manager proposed to quantify for her bosses the financial return of using Rosetta Stone to teach the sales staff Spanish.

And finally, at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, researchers found that spending time wisely makes people happier. They applied their findings to the workplace by following companies that let their employees “fundamentally design how they spend their time” at work and outside of work “in ways that are creative and innovative.”

Be warned: This collection isn’t all light reading and it’s still jargony in spots, but it’s not a bad way to spend a lunch break.

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