Professor Derek Pugh: a memorial comment

Image of the late Professor Derek Pugh

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Professor Derek Pugh, who died on 29 January 2015, was one of Britain’s best known management researchers. He was very well respected and made an outstanding contribution to the business and management research community. In this article, Professor John Child, who knew him well, reflects on Derek's life and work.

Following Derek Pugh’s death on 29 January 2015, many leading academics in the UK and abroad have testified to his significant formative influence on their early careers. What is striking is that this influence resulted not only from Derek’s truly seminal contribution to the field of organisational studies but in many cases from the generous encouragement and guidance they received from him as doctoral students or early career researchers. In my own case, it is no exaggeration to say that without Derek I would not have been able to pursue the career that I have followed. He offered me my first academic post after a spell of working in industry, and he taught me most of the tools of my trade while I was a member of his team at Aston University and the London Business School between 1966 and 1973. This piece is therefore written with immense sadness at Derek’s passing but equally with deep gratitude.

Derek’s career and a full list of his publications are available from his personal website, He bequeathed a copious output from which we can appreciate his pioneering contributions to research and scholarship. His significant and wide-ranging efforts to foster the professional development of management and organisational studies are also well recorded. Less well appreciated, and in fact sometimes misunderstood, are the values and perspectives that informed Derek as researcher, scholar, and academic entrepreneur. These address the question 'What did Derek Pugh stand for?' and should, I believe, be seen as the core of his legacy.

It is, of course, best to let Derek himself tell you what he stood for, and there are several pieces in which he discussed his work and the philosophy that informed it. Particularly enlightening is the extensive article Derek wrote on the occasion of his retirement in 1995, in which he reflects on his professional career up to that point (Pugh, 1996). Another insightful source is the conversation that Royston Greenwood had with Derek about the same time (Greenwood, 1997). Derek had accomplished most of his original work when he retired although he continued to be active for almost another twenty years, producing revisions of his books and devoting a great deal of time giving talks to various doctoral programmes and to the British Academy of Management (BAM) doctoral symposia. He kept going as long as he could. As late as 17 January 2015, he wrote to me how pleased he was to have finished the 6th edition of his best-selling book with Estelle Phillips, How to get a PhD, by the target date of end-2014. In the same vein, Greg Bamber has recalled how at a recent British Academy of Management conference, Derek mentioned that he was by then living in an aged care home, but that he had discharged himself to participate in the conference!

I shall focus on three aspects of what Derek stood for as an academic leader and which I experienced firsthand. These concern:

1. The requirements for research to have value.

2. The qualities of a good researcher and research team.

3. The development of the management studies profession and of young professionals.

1. Requirements for research to have value

Derek believed that research on management and organisation is most likely to have value when it addresses significant issues, adopts a contextualized, interdisciplinary and comparative approach, and is conducted by capable researchers who are given sufficient resources to conduct their investigations thoroughly, including extensive and uninterrupted time. These conditions applied to the programme of comparative organisation research that Derek led at Aston University (the so-called Aston Programme), and contributed in no small way to its success. As he recognised, it is much more difficult today to secure the same favourable resources for research, especially uninterrupted blocks of time.

Derek was always insistent that the conclusions researchers draw should be empirically based, or at least capable of being put to an empirical test. He saw himself as an 'unreconstructed positivist', adopting a 'realist, determinist approach to analysis' more concerned with the physics rather than the metaphysics. In particular, Derek maintained that organisation exists over and above something constructed in people’s minds. He argued that if this is not appreciated the study of organisation becomes trivialized, leaving an agenda for organisational reform with no point of reference and no force.

Derek’s perspectives on organisation and social science in general were richly informed by a range of disciplines. His belief in the value of integrating insights from different disciplines was fostered by his early work in Edinburgh’s then interdisciplinary Social Sciences Research Centre and became embodied in a career that encompassed posts in Social Medicine, Human Relations, Industrial Administration, Organisational Behaviour, Systems and International Management. While Derek took deserved pride in being appointed as the first British Professor of Organisational Behaviour in 1970, he insisted that this title should define a much broader interdisciplinary approach than was normally associated with the term in North America. Derek believed in the value of theoretical eclecticism and the freedom to advocate one’s preferred theoretical standpoint, but was adamant that arguments should be capable of being assessed empirically. Hence the importance he attached to the operationalisation of concepts, which led to one of his major breakthroughs in organizational studies. Although Derek shied away from theoretical dogmatism, he admitted that the framework that he and his colleagues applied in the Aston Programme was a deterministic one. It amounted to an early statement of structural contingency theory; whereby context was seen to shape organisation structure, which in turn shaped organisational behaviour.

Some have assumed that Derek’s self-proclaimed positivism means that comparative organisational research would only use quantitative data. On the contrary, he was insistent that any measurements had to be informed by previous conceptualisation and by prior qualitative exploration. The researchers on the original Aston study spent a whole year working out their conceptual framework. They then devoted considerable time to conduct qualitative investigations within organisations in order to develop the variables, scales and items they eventually employed. Derek often warned PhD students to beware of pursuing a quantitative study before prior qualitative work had helped to build a framework for their quantitative design.

Coming to social science through degrees in psychology, Derek was committed to replication as a necessary basis for the accumulation of knowledge. This procedure, taken for granted in scientific and medical research, gains little credit today in management research. Derek argued that the first Aston study needed to be replicated in other settings in order to get some idea about the consistency (and hence potential generalisability) of its findings as well as to expand the boundaries of the original study. So the first study conducted in the Midlands region was followed by a National study of which I was given charge. By 1973, there were already over 20 studies using all or part of the Aston methodology, the data from which were entered into the ESRC’s Survey Archive.

2. The qualities of the good researcher and research team

Derek’s view of the good researcher and research team can be summarised by the qualities we nowadays take for granted as requirements for successful innovation – a willingness to learn, to engage in open debate and discussion, and to immerse oneself in the situation being studied. The practices adopted in the Aston Programme illustrate these themes.

It was a basic tenet of the Aston Programme that researchers should always recognise the limits of their knowledge and remain alert to additional information including that challenging the validity of their preconceptions. For example, the full interview schedule used to collect information on the context, structure and performance of organisations ran to over 100 pages. Typically questioning would be spread over, say, 10 interviewees. The back of each page was deliberately left blank. The purpose, as Derek repeated many times, was to enable the interviewer (in the days before digital tape recorders) to note anything that fell outside the scope or meaning of the categories being employed and/or processes such as decision-making which might shed light on the connections between variables. Derek saw such notes as enabling researchers to learn from unanticipated inputs and to refine their theoretical understanding accordingly. He used to say: 'This is how researchers can conduct their own R&D'. In the National study, when information from each interview schedule was being transcribed into a structured writing-up schedule, the research team spent six weeks of daily group discussions going through every schedule paying particular attention to the unstructured data, discussing how to interpret these, and their implications for how scales should be scored.

Derek recognised that a good researcher needs sound training, which accounts for the importance he attached to doctoral training. The Aston Programme’s reliance on interviewing middle to senior managers from different functional areas demanded a high level of understanding and adaptability on the part of the interviewer. The Aston team had secured the cooperation of several local managements who agreed that their organisations could serve as training grounds for new recruits like myself. Following some weeks of desk study, I conducted a full set of interviews in two such firms accompanied by an experienced member of the team. Despite having undertaken many interviews in my PhD research, only then was I considered to be someone who could be let loose in the field. Later on, as we recruited associate researchers, it became my turn to serve as a fieldwork trainer in a similar way.

Open debate and discussion was also facilitated by the physical layout of the research unit’s premises during its time at Aston University. Each member of the unit, including Derek, had a desk in one large room. Any member could raise an issue at any time and the team would stop to discuss it. We did not feel any inhibition in challenging each other’s opinion; including Derek’s which he did not flinch from stating in forceful terms! There could sometimes be heated arguments and, as Derek himself admitted (Pugh, 1996, p.250), he occasionally became the focus of hostility from junior members of the team. Yet I never experienced a situation in which Derek fell back on asserting his authority, even when some colleagues urged him to do so. Roy Payne once said that Derek was the most participative manager he knew. In addition to the research room there was a secretarial office and two quiet rooms which were available for personal reading, sub-group operational discussions, receiving visitors, or simply for escape from the hot-house.

The team was not only a working unit but also a social one. Strong personal friendships developed and most members remained in contact with one another despite dispersing literally across the world as they pursued their careers. Even years later, there were several reunions. We took it in turns each summer to organise a day-long picnic for everyone and their families in the countryside outside Birmingham. This was a keenly awaited event and did much to cement social bonding.

Fieldwork in most of the research Derek has led involved on-site visits, often by pairs of researchers, to interview respondents. 'Know your data' was one of Derek’s fundamental codes and he regarded personal involvement in data-gathering as a requirement for this. His belief in the necessity for an empirical basis to scholarly inquiry led naturally to an insistence that empirical evidence and the researcher’s understanding of it, should be of the highest quality. He was appalled, as I am, at how in recent years the convenience of databases, and pressure to publish at speed, is leading many researchers to analyse and report data with which they only have an arms-length relationship. They rely on second-hand data that have dubious (or at best unknown) validity, have a tenuous connection to their theoretical concepts, and offer the temptation to mistake the statistical 'significance' readily achieved in large samples for meaningful analytical significance. This is the antithesis of Derek’s view of sound management research and analysis. He frequently pointed out that levels of statistical confidence do not indicate analytical importance or meaningfulness.

3. The development of the management studies profession and young professionals

Derek played an active and continuing role in the development of the UK’s management studies profession. He was a founder member of the Association of Teachers of Management (ATM) when it was established in 1960. He became editor of its newsletter and over the next six years developed it into the professionally produced ATM Bulletin. As Chairman of the ATM he was instrumental in launching a new journal in 1970, Management Education and Development. In his foreword to its first issue, Derek saw the new journal as building upon both the ATM Bulletin and the series of Occasional Papers that ATM had launched in 1965. The journal later evolved into Management Learning. Eventually, the ATM came under the influence of consultants and trainers, who were primarily concerned to link management studies to practice, and this was one of the considerations encouraging the formation of the British Academy of Management (BAM) as an academy in 1986. Derek was a keen supporter of BAM from the start, and he became the first editor of its Newsletter in 1987.

Derek took up other editorial roles that contributed importantly to the development of awareness of management and organisation studies as a field of study. From 1966-1986 he was General Editor of the Library of Modern Management published by Penguin to which he signed up many of the then leading scholars to edit a volume in their subject area. He also became editor of two series published by Ashgate. Mention should also be made of the three volume set of books published by Gower that Derek co-edited and which brought together key papers from the Aston Programme.

Having been part of the evolution of Aston University from the Birmingham College of Technology and subsequently College of Advanced Technology, Derek was keen to assist the development of the polytechnics which were later to become the post-1992 new universities. These institutions provided much of the postgraduate management education available in England and Wales before the entry of established universities into the field. The Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA) was set up in 1965 to oversee the degree awarding powers of the polytechnics. Derek served as a member of the CNAA’s Research Committee for Management. When the National study was launched within the Aston Programme, Derek initiated a unique arrangement which assisted the research training of selected staff from two polytechnics. In return for such staff giving part of their time to assisting with fieldwork, the Aston unit undertook to train them in fieldwork techniques, allowed them to share in interviewing as well as questionnaire design, and then offered them opportunities to publish as co-authors. A major benefit to the research project of this collaborative arrangement was that of resource – it enabled 82 companies to be visited, over 800 managers to be interviewed, plus almost 800 questionnaires on managerial attitudes and roles to be completed, all on a grant of just over £7,000.

Many members of BAM, including many who have become BAM Fellows, have personally benefitted from the way that Derek applied his commitment to professional development to the training of doctoral students. His book with Estelle Phillips on How to get a PhD became a bible for successive waves of students across the world. He tirelessly travelled the country giving talks on the conduct of research at many universities and BAM conferences, even at an age when few of us would have the energy to do this. It was a manifestation of Derek’s total commitment and professionalism. We shall not see his like again for a long time.

About the author

John Child is Professor of Commerce at the University of Birmingham and Fellow of the British Academy of Management. Before entering the academic field, Professor Child worked for Rolls Royce. He then worked as a Research Fellow in the Aston Programme of Organisation Studies - described above - before moving to the London Business School. He returned to Aston in 1973 as Professor of Organisational Behaviour, and served as Dean of Aston Business School from 1986-89. He was seconded to be Dean and Director of the European Community’s management program in China in 1989-90, building it into the China-Europe Management Institute, the forerunner of the China-Europe International Business School [CEIBS] in Shanghai. In 1991 he was appointed Diageo Professor of Management in the University of Cambridge and Fellow of St. John’s College, Cambridge. He returned to the West Midlands in 2000, taking up the Chair of Commerce at Birmingham University.

Clark, T. ed. Advancement in Organizational Behaviour: essays in honour of Derek S. Pugh. Aldershot: Ashgate, 1997.

Cooper, C. ed. Who’s Who in the Management Sciences. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2000. Entry for Derek Salman Pugh, pp.361-364.

Greenwood, R. and Devine, K. Inside Aston: a conversation with Derek Pugh. Journal of Management Inquiry, 6 (3) 1997, pp.200-208.

Loveridge, R. The Aston Studies: a journey towards a science of administration? In M. Witzel and M.Warner, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Management Theorists. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Pugh, D. S. A taste for innovation. Management Laureates, 4 1996, pp.235-276.


Derek Pugh's website