Guest blog by Dr Robert Lomas: Lecturer in Technological Management; member of the Operations and Information Management group and author of Mastering Your Business Dissertation (2011) Routledge, Oxford.
Twitter @Dr_Robert_Lomas Amazon Author Central Page:
Choosing the dissertation topic for your MBA, Masters or undergraduate business degree is potentially the most empowering step you can take towards mastering a new business skill. But which business skill? With only three months and 15,000 words available you will be unable to solve the questions of life, the universe, and everything, or even tackle the fundamental truths of business and management. But don’t despair, simply focus on something achievable.
When you pick a direction for your business dissertation research, you can either embark on a self-development process that will transform your managerial life, or condemn yourself to a tedious chore that will have little business value and which you might never complete. Your choice of topic is never easy because it involves an academic Ménage à trois which you may be about to experience for the first time.
Who are the main stakeholders in a business dissertation topic?
There are three stakeholders involved in the success of a business dissertation. These are
1. The university, who must accept and judge its academic merit.
2. You, the student, who must write it.
3. Your current or prospective employer, who will use the dissertation to judge your potential.
A successful dissertation is important for all stakeholders – but remember your employer is a wild card, particularly if you are doing an Executive MBA or other company-sponsored degree. They can dominate the whole choice process for good or bad, often without you realising what is happening.
You may be self or family funded (in which case the role of the employer may be filled by the bank manager who lends the money, the spouse who agrees to the use of family savings, the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’ who sponsor your adventure, or your financial conscience as you risk the contents of your own pocket). But if you are sponsored to undertake your business degree by your employer, their business needs will have to be central to your dissertation. And even if you have an altruistic family sponsor, you will still feel a pressure to show that you are worthy of their trust and may set yourself unachievable targets.
Your choice of dissertation topic must deliver to all the stakeholders, so how do you achieve this balancing act? To have any chance of success you need to be clear about the motives of each of the three parties.
1. What are the university’s motives for the choice of business dissertation topic?
Academic motives include
● To be able to award an appropriate degree to a successful candidate
● To ensure that students develop and demonstrate useful business skills
● To maintain academic standards and pass on accumulated knowledge to the next generation of managers
● To help students learn how to learn, so that they can successfully adapt to new circumstances
● To help students gain a passport that opens doors to new areas of employment or promotion, so that they become respected alumni
2. What are the student’s motives for the choice of business dissertation topic?
Possible motivations I have observed in business students include
● To obtain an MBA or business Masters/undergraduate degree
● To gain a passport that can open doors to new areas of business
● To increase earnings
● To get the best possible mark for the least possible work
● To demonstrate knowledge and understanding, and so become respected in the business world
● To learn about a chosen business problem
● To learn to successfully adapt to new circumstances and business problems
● To learn about themselves as business people/managers
3. What are the employer’s motives for the choice of business dissertation topic?
Employer motives include
● To create staff with appropriate business qualifications
● To improve their staff’s management skills
● To use the incentive of sponsorship to retain and motivate staff who might otherwise move on – which can work in two ways
● through golden handcuffs (you agree to stay with the employer for a fixed number of years after graduating)
● through increasing job satisfaction and providing skilled candidates for internal promotion
● To create a pool of staff who know how to learn, and can adapt to new circumstances rapidly and effectively
● To obtain cheap, yet knowledgeable, management consultancy, by means of supervised and guided research conducted by an individual with an in-depth knowledge of the firm
● To increase the long-term profitability of the company by ensuring it is well managed
● To tap into academic sources of information which would be extremely expensive to procure commercially.
● To improve the knowledge base of the firm
How can you avoid conflict when choosing your business dissertation topic?
With so many different motives at play, your choice of business dissertation topic can easily cause conflict. Think tactically about specific research questions to avoid zones of incompatibility rather than pitching yourself right into them. Conflict is possible when one stakeholder’s motives are not shared by any of the others, or when the interests of two stakeholders coincide but are not shared by the third.
● The university may be keen to network with a local employer and therefore be keen to meet their research interests – but the student may not be interested in the problem that engages the employer and the university
● The university may encourage a student who would like to research a particular problem of business theory that is currently fashionable in academic journals but has no practical interest for the employer
● The employer and the student, for sound commercial reasons, may want to research a problem that the university regards as academically trivial and of insufficient intellectual content to be worthy of a degree dissertation
In order to avoid these conflicts, you need to focus on areas of agreement between all stakeholders, such as
● To obtain a degree
● To improve the student’s skill level
● To make the student a more attractive candidate for promotion (though the employer will naturally consider internal promotion more desirable than external advancement)
Staying within this zone of comfort ensures that you don’t choose a rapid route to failure by your choice of business dissertation topic. Think carefully before choosing your business problem and consider all your stakeholders before you commit.
What do you think is the most difficult aspect of managing the expectations of your university and employer, whilst still satisfying your own interests and desire to learn?