What is business and management studies?

by Professor Peter Buckley FBA

28 Apr 2021

Socially distanced corporate meeting in an office

Business and management studies are the interconnected subjects relevant to managing an organisation or business. Management is capable of achieving many objectives: stewardship, conservation, growth, economic development, social needs – including the necessity to make a living. It is also capable of malign results if employed for greed or avarice. Business and management studies concerns the management of the whole of the planet’s resources, including human resources, entailing a multi-perspective view across time and place, giving due weight to context.

The art of getting things done through people.

– Mary Parker Follett

The wide scope of business and management studies has led to its division differentially across teaching institutions into related functional areas. These include marketing, innovation, logistics, communications, entrepreneurship, accounting and finance. The importance of the people side of management – human relations management – is frequently emphasised, even as a definition of the task. The need for an encompassing approach is clear, but is, as yet, unachieved.

Business management consists of organising, planning, coordinating, directing, setting objectives and analysing business activities. The related, but wider, concept of management is the process of planning, decision making, organising, leading, motivating and controlling human, financial, physical, natural (“land”) and information resources to reach an organisation’s goals. The goal is not necessarily profit – effectiveness is having the right goals as well as efficiently achieving them. Times of difficulties, like a global pandemic, raise management questions about the goals of efficiency versus resilience, trade-offs of freedom versus security, and heightened risk.

Strategy, in business and in other organisations, involves forecasting, planning, commanding, coordinating and control as according to Fayol. Managers transform resources into utility, into useful goods and services subject to constraint, imitation and imagination limits. These processes take place at interpersonal, institutional and macro-environmental levels. Managerial processes involve trade-offs, compromises and cost/benefit assessments, and a critical skill is lateral thinking. Management of resources is not only delivered by “command and control”; it is also achieved by cooperation, coordination and orchestration. Modern businesses have to consider not only shareholders, but also the wider constituency of stakeholders – suppliers, customers, partners and civil society.

Entrepreneurship plays an important role in management. The critical feature of the entrepreneur is judgemental decision making. This applies particularly to small firms but “intrapreneurship” in large companies is critical for innovation. Entrepreneurial decision-making is critical in developing the specialisation exhibited for instance within Adam Smith’s iconic pin factory, where the division of labour and specialisation drive growth.

Centralisation versus decentralisation within companies is also a critical judgemental variable, treated within organisation studies. The interpersonal role of the manager as leader, team member, information-disseminator, allocator, negotiator and orchestrator enables perspectives from psychology and sociology to be brought to bear.

The cross-cultural and multinational operations of firms give rise to the analysis of globalisation and to international business and management. The identification of management with an organisation, usually a business firm, can be extended by considering managing beyond the firm and organisation. Networks for “the corporation” exist both inside and outside the firm. Global supply chains (GVCs) are a perfect example of where internal control and external relationships are orchestrated to achieve efficiency and resilience. The mix of networks and hierarchies can be configured to achieve flexibility and agility.

There is a conflict in management studies between "the boardroom view” versus “the bird’s eye view” where the wider impact of the studied organisation on society is taken. Governmental policy aspects are also relevant – both from the point of view of the management of policy and its impact on society. The impact of business decisions on its environment and the context of decision-making are vital. Business and management's effects on the natural environment, on society and governance (ESG) are increasingly prevalent, as reflected in their impact on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Ethics and corporate social responsibility (CSR) increasingly concern business, not only in as constrained by regulation, but also in compliance with private authority and standards.

As in any area of research and teaching endeavour, there remain contested issues: among these are the relative importance of knowledge versus skills in management teaching, attitudes towards critical managements studies, relationships with the founding disciplines, and the impact of new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, on the unique status of human decision-making in managing resources. Business and management studies remain a rich kaleidoscope, a multi-perspective view of human endeavour in need of a harmonised approach.

Professor Peter Buckley FBA is Professor of International Business at the Centre for International Business University of Leeds (CIBUL). He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2014. For more information on business and management studies, read our report Business and Management Provision in UK Higher Education (2021).

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