Monday, October 12, 2009

But, Is It Research?

I am embarking on a development effort to create quest based learning tasks in Second Life. This is a part of the vein of work that I have been pursuing with virtual worlds and video games. A question that faculty often have to deal with when pursuing their interests is - Well, that all sounds very interesting, but, is it research?

Business schools have an inferiority complex when it comes to research (and rightly so) leading the faculty to question such pursuits with regard to their validity as research endeavors. This is an incredibly important topic for business school faculty, so I thought I would digress a bit on this issue of research.

Business school research is, at best, a poorly defined concept, with definitions and criteria varying widely from school to school and among faculty members within a school. Under the most lax definitions, everything is research and under the most stringent, nothing is research. So clearly the concepts needs a little clarifying.

Wernher von Braun is credited with the oft cited observation "research is what I am doing when I don't know what I am doing". The original quote included the modifier "basic" which changes the meaning slightly. However, this is the version that you see cited most often.

If not knowing what you are doing is the criteria for research then business faculty across this great nation and around the world are doing a great deal more research than they are getting credit for. And their is some justification for this claim. Research is the process by which we create new knowledge. And if we already know what we are doing, then we are not creating anything new.

Plato struggled with this same problem. He wondered how you could recognize truth unless you already knew it was truth. This, in turn, led to his observation that you never really learn anything new, you just remember things you already knew. This is actually an astute observation on Plato's part. But, I will just make him look silly if I try to explain it.

Putting aside the philosophical subtlties regarding truth and knowledge, I think it is fair to say that when people do not know what they are doing, we should take it at face value. That is, it is not research. They simply do not know what they are doing. At the same time we do not want to completely ignore the fact that in order to do research you must step away from the things you know and discover things that you don't know. Just exactly how that is done can be very tricky at times.

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