Pioneer of Mangement Research Methodology: Mark Easterby-Smith, 1948-2020

Mark Easterby-Smith
Mark Easterby-Smith

Mark Easterby-Smith, a pioneer in the creation of research methodology for management studies and co-author of the foundational text of that field, died on April 15 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 72.

Easterby-Smith, emeritus professor in the Department of Organisation, Work and Technology at Lancaster University Management School, had said he was ‘lucky’ to be present at the genesis of serious work in organizational studies and management research methodology. The record suggests that his contributions magnified any luck he may have encountered; writing in the journal Management Learning in 2009, the University of Houston’s Dusya Vera observed, “Reviewing Mark Easterby-Smith’s work means reviewing the evolution of the organizational learning field as a whole, from its early beginnings to its current state.”

While Vera in that piece specifically complimented Easterby-Smith’s contributions to the journal, it was another piece of writing that cemented his reputation.

With Richard Thorpe and Andy Lowe, he wrote Management Research: An Introduction, which saw 10 print runs in its first edition. A later preface noted, “The first edition of this book appeared in 1991, at a time when there were very few management research methods books on the market. … The success of the book was attested by the sales figures, and by the fact that it had become the most highly cited management methodology book in the world according to Google Scholar.”

“The contribution Mark made with the publication of Management Research was a first attempt to identify and justify methods and philosophies specific to researching in the field of management and business,” his colleague Thorpe wrote in a moving memorial to Easterby-Smith. “It is through this book [one of 10 he wrote or co-wrote] that Mark is so well known as it has been a first port of call for many generations of doctoral students who were setting out on their research and needing to find somewhere to start.”

Mark Easterby-Smith was born February 5, 1948 in the post-war baby boom. His father, Victor, was a career officer in the Royal Navy and his mother, Margery, drove ambulances for the Women’s Royal Naval Service during the Blitz. Growing up he attended the Rugby School in Warwickshire and when he entered higher education at Durham University he studied engineering, working in the chemical industry for a while before deciding for a career in academe. He earned a Ph.D. in organizational behavior at Durham and took his first post as an academic, a research assistant, there in 1972, evaluating management training and development.

“My early life as an academic,” Easterby-Smith later recalled, “involved a series of short-term research contracts, often funded by industry or government. This led me to appreciate the interdependency of theory with both the practical concerns of companies and the issues of policy makers at the national level. As a result of these early experiences of insecurity, I have developed a style of entrepreneurship, and to some extent opportunism, in my research career.”

In 1978 he took a post as lecturer at Lancaster’s then-new Centre for the Study of Management Learning. Thorpe wrote that Easterby-Smith alongside Donald Binstead and John Burgoyne evolved the center into “of the leading centres in the UK focusing on the study of management learning.” Easterby-Smith research and taught there, Thorpe noted, and with his colleagues “worked to create institutional mechanisms to develop management learning as a serious academic discipline.”

“I have built up a reputation in two main areas [at Lancaster],” he said, ”organizational learning and management research methodology. In both areas I was lucky to be there at the beginning of serious research work, and I have therefore been able to follow, and to some extent influence, the evolution of these fields.”

“My work on research methodology,” Easterby-Smith summarized on his Lancaster profile page, “involves trying to redefine ideas derived from the broader social sciences into the context of management research. I argue, for example, that researchers need to take special note of the political context in organizations, the problems of access, and ethical issues to do with the action orientation of most managers.”

Explaining further in the “Management Research” entry in The SAGE Encyclopedia of Social Science Research Methods, he explained:

Not only do most managers feel that research should lead to practical consequence, but they are also quite capable of taking action themselves in the light of research results. Thus, research methods either need to incorporate with them the potential for taking actions, or they need to take account of the practical consequences that may ensue with or without the guidance of the researcher. At the extreme, this has led to a separation between pure researchers who try to remain detached from their objects of study and ACTION RESEARCHERS or consultants who create change to learn from the experiences.

Vera, in her article for Management Learning – a journal Easterby-Smith edited from 1981 to 1987 and published from 1989 to 1993 under the then-name Management Education and Development – cited three areas where Easterby-Smith’s influence was outsize, starting with that entrepreneurship he himself noted:

“Mark’s entrepreneurial spirit, flexibility, and intellectual curiosity have led him to evolve dynamically as the field has evolved. From his roots in management education and development, Mark initially focused on learning organizations and differentiated them from organizational learning. He moved on to link these concepts to the popular idea of knowledge management and, recently, to dynamic capabilities. As a result, Mark’s body of work is holistic and comprehensive.

“Second, consistent with his view that the organizational learning discipline has been dominated by quantitative methods and positivist approaches, Mark has pursued qualitative work that contributes to the learning field through rich case data and novel theories.

“Finally, in a body of knowledge in which diverse terms and definitions abound and interconnections among these terms are frequently absent, Mark Easterby-Smith has taken the role of an organizer, an integrator, and a builder. … He has a keen critical eye for connecting the social sciences, clarifying concepts and vocabulary, and enriching one domain with the wealth of another.”

“Indeed,” she said, “the way in which Mark Easterby-Smith has evolved and supported the community may be his greatest contribution.”

The term “greatest contribution” appears several times in any discussion of Easterby-Smith. Thorpe’s take is that his “most significant and sustained contribution” was being among the group that brought the British Academy of Management into being in 1986. He served in various leadership capacities with the learned society and eventually served as chair in 2004 and president in 2006.

“He was instrumental in developing BAM’s focus on capacity building,” the organization noted on its website, “in particular our rightly renowned doctoral support programme, and played a key role in establishing our network of Special Interest Groups.” Sir Cary Cooper, BAM’s founding president, remembered him as “a great colleague and friend, a real gentle soul and wonderful human being.” In 2010 Easterby-Smith received BAM’s Richard Whipp Lifetime Achievement Award.

His time at Lancaster saw him direct many of the university’s units, including its doctoral program; graduate school and his home department. He retired from full-time duties in 2014, the same year Lancaster awarded him a ‘distinguished professorship.’ Away from campus, for eight years, from 1980 to 1988, he directed the International Teachers Programme, and from 1989 to 1997 co-ordinated the UK government’s Economic and Social research Council’s (ESRC) Management Teaching Fellowship Scheme, in which he interfaced with 25 business schools and 180 early career academics. In 1997 he was named an academician of the Academy of Social Sciences; in 1999 the ESRC appointed him to its training board; and from 2003 to 2007 he was a senior fellow for the Advanced Institute of Management Research.

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