University of Southern California

Ken Merchant
USC: Great for Theory, Great for Practice
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USC provides a near ideal setting for doing the types of research that are and should be valued in professional schools like Marshall and Leventhal. Why do I say that?

I believe that with but rare exceptions, leading-edge management and accounting practice is ahead of academic theory. The best of the smart practitioners out in the “real world” figure out how to deal with the complex and often changing sets of opportunities and constraints with which they are faced. They develop rich knowledge sets and learn how to deal with the specific, complex sets of contingencies with which they are faced.

Given this belief, what should be the primary role for academic researchers in professional schools? It should be to find and understand that leading-edge practice and to help students to acquire as much of that “wisdom” as they can. (Those students can and should include practitioners whose practices are not on the leading edge.) Only rarely can the wisdom be summarized in a “parsimonious” academic model with, say, only three parameters. So that is goal #1—find and make sense of leading-edge practice. Then, after understanding what managers do and why they do it, researchers can sometimes interact with the practitioners and help to advance practice. There are some prominent examples of these forms of “useful” research, but they are more rare than most academics will admit.

So what does this view of reality have to do with USC? A lot! USC is in the middle of a large, important city and region with a vibrant business community. At USC and in the greater Los Angeles area it is easy to get access to many smart business people in world class organizations. This access is essential for developing the needed rich understanding of practice. In the quest for interactions with practitioners, I have taken the time to get involved in the activities of the local chapters of Financial Executives International and the National Association of Corporate Directors. Many times I have taken advantage of the generosity of members of the Trojan Family and other local practitioners who volunteered their time to help me understand the problems they are facing and how they deal with them. I have leaned on them to talk with me, to complete survey questionnaires, to share their organizations’ internal data and, importantly, to come to class to convey their wisdom directly to my students. Despite some obvious advantages of being located in a small university town (e.g., housing prices), I would feel isolated in one, and my research would suffer.

I made the decision to come to USC just over 21 years ago. After my choice of spouse, it was the best decision I ever made!