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Academy of Management Journal

2012, Vol. 55, No. 2, 256260.



This editorial continues a seven-part series, Publishing in AMJ, in which the editors give suggestions and advice for
improving the quality of submissions to the Journal. The series offers bumper to bumper coverage, with installments
ranging from topic choice to crafting a Discussion section. The series will conclude in June with Part 7: Qualitative
Distinctions. -J.A.C.

Afterthought (noun): AN ENDING AND A BEGINNING

1. a reflection after an act Our thoughts are shaped by the ideas of Whetten
2. something secondary or expedient (1989) and Corley and Gioia (2011), who so very
3. an action or thought not originally intended cogently answered the question, what is a theoret-
ical contribution? We believe discussion of this
By the time authors begin to craft a Discussion important manuscript dimension can be enhanced
section, a long, sometimes arduous journey has been through the use of a technique that treats the pas-
traveled. Study design and execution are normally sage as a twofold, somewhat paradoxical entityas
well advanced, and the prospect of submission for both an ending and a new beginning, realized con-
publication consideration looms large. Thus, it is per- currently. It constitutes an ending in the sense that
haps not surprising many authors view the Discus- discussion of theoretical implications helps to
sion as a perfunctory exercisea final, obligatory bring closure to a study, illuminating its major in-
hurdle to be overcome with dispatch so as not to roads in a broad and reflective fashion. It also rep-
delay a manuscripts transition to under review resents a new beginning in that it recasts contem-
status. In approaching their Discussion as a technical porary theoretical understanding, bringing to light
formality (i.e., an afterthought in the mold of defini- new and valuable ideas. In our experience, this
tions 2 and 3) rather than as a forum in which to approach has helped authors illuminate the two or
explore more deeply the significance of their work three most critical theoretical insights afforded by
(definition 1), authors forego a number of valuable their research investigation. We conclude with a
opportunities. Among them is the chance to summary of common pitfalls, or tendencies that
strengthen their studys message, and in the process, compromise the effective summary of theoretical
convince readers of their manuscripts larger, under- implications.
lying value. Another is the opportunity to embed
their study more fully in the existing literature and
thus engage like-minded scholars in a rich, robust Theoretical Implications: An Ending
theoretical conversation, perhaps even shape the fu- Why do scholars choose to undertake a particular
ture direction of that discourse. study? In most instances, it is because they are
These all-too-common lapses lead us to explore captivated by a research question posing a novel
how authors might better approach the discussion and important challenge of broad consequence.
of theoretical contributions. To be certain, Discus- The same is true of readers interest. It is perhaps
sion sections encompass several dimensions, in- not surprising then that the most impactful studies
cluding practical implications, study limitations, are ones which explore larger questions of theoret-
and future research, each of distinct importance, ical significance over issues of more incremental
and thus requisite components of any complete scope (Colquitt & Zapata-Phelan, 2007). Although
Discussion. That said, we restrict our attention to the aim of resolving a grand puzzle plays a central
theoretical implications. In our experience as asso- role at the inception of any research study, its
ciate editors, we have found this aspect, which is meaning, if not allure, is often lost on authors by
both important and highly rewarding, often consti- the time they arrive at the Discussion. Intricacies of
tutes a major stumbling block. Thus, our aim is to conceptual development, study design, and analy-
outline some means of more plainly elucidating sis often lead to losing sight of the broader theoret-
contributions to theory. ical challenge that started researchers on their path.
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2012 Geletkanycz and Tepper 257

Yet an impactful Discussion section retains that Finally, successful Discussion sections afford a
focus. Better said, it makes a point of revisiting the synthesis of their studies empirical findings. They
studys original theoretical motivation, and it does examine results of hypothesis tests in an aggregate
so for a number of reasons: First, a return to the fashion, weaving them together to present a uni-
works theoretical catalyst is a means of effecting fied, theoretically grounded narrative of the stud-
orderly completion. Recap affords a basis on which ies discoveries. Of course, some empirical findings
to assess progress on the mission of resolving a may be unexpected, or even contrary to expecta-
theoretical puzzle. Of course, the original theoreti- tions. In that case, reconciliation is in order; so too
cal question need not be perfectly solved; the in- is further examination of causal arguments to help
vestigation may, for example, have uncovered some readers, and indeed the field at large, to better
unanticipated issues or problematic assumptions. understand the underlying phenomena. The end
Nevertheless, revisiting theoretical motivation af- result, however, is always the same. Namely, inte-
fords a valid reference point, one appreciated by gration not only fosters development of a single,
authors and readers alike. In reaching a papers coherent messagefar more likely to resonate with
Discussion section, most readers (as the papers readers than a mixed message but also affords the
authors originally were) have been sustained by the chance to underscore the cohesive nature of a
tension inherent in the studys motivation. Revisit- studys conceptual model, thus lending incremen-
ing ensures that authors deliver on their studys tal credence to its design. Agarwal, Echambadi,
early promisethat is, they answer the underlying Franco, and Sarkar (2004) demonstrate this skill-
theoretical question(s)and so fulfill their com- fully. Their Discussion section synthesizes the re-
pact with readers. sults of individual hypothesis tests, integrating
Second, a return to the original theoretical moti- them in a manner that imparts a clear and parsimo-
vation of a paper affords a means to cogently and nious theoretical account of corporate spin-outs.
succinctly address the so what? question. Among
the more common reasons manuscripts are rejected
Theoretical Implications: A New Beginning
at AMJ is their failure to offer a meaningful theo-
retical advance. Of course, the effort to do so begins Perhaps the most straightforward implications
months, if not years, before manuscript submis- are those derived from a logical interpretation of a
sion, with topic choice (see Colquitt and George, studys findings. What do the results tell us about
From the Editors, AMJ 54: 432 435]) and its sub- underlying theoretical constructs, principles, and
sequent clear articulation in a manuscripts Intro- their relationships? When do these patterns
duction (see Grant and Pollock, From the Editors, emerge, and in what context? How do they refine
AMJ 54: 873 879). However, the Discussion sec- appreciation of the underlying theory? These are
tion affords a venue in which to answer this ques- but a sampling of first- order theoretical implica-
tion more robustly than before and to articulate in a tions that might be advanced. More interesting and
richer fashion how the study changes, challenges or valuable are insights that delve deeper into ob-
otherwise fundamentally refines understanding of served relationships to address the question why?
extant theory (and/or its core concepts, principles, In exploring this dimension, authors begin to ex-
etc.). As experts in a given area, researchers often amine more fully underlying mechanisms and pro-
fail to appreciate that others may not share the cesses causal explanations that both enrich un-
same theoretical interests and/or see their underly- derstanding of a given theory and allow readers to
ing merit. Thus, an effective Discussion section not make greater sense of complex organizational phe-
only reports the studys theoretical inroads, but nomena (Whetten, 1989). Critical here is a bridge
also contextualizes them in a fashion that makes between a studys findings and the larger literature.
clear their larger utility for students of organiza- It is only through a connection to broader under-
tion. Sherer and Lee (2002) offers an excellent dem- standing that the theoretical value added of a
onstration. The authors both answer the theoreti- given study can be interpreted and, indeed, appre-
cally grounded questions that gave rise to their ciated (see Rynes, From the Editors, AMJ 45:
research and frame those responses in a manner 311313 and Bergh, From the Editors, AMJ 46:
that casts light on some under-appreciated aspects 135136).
of resource dependence and institutional perspec- Of course, a studys objective findings are not the
tivesspecifically, how their core processes con- exclusive source of valuable insight. Their juxtapo-
spire to drive innovation. Such elaboration shows sition relative with earlier results often affords rich
how scholars and practitioners might better capi- and meaningful theoretical nuance. This is appar-
talize on these theories for purposes of understand- ent, for example, in the case of competing evidence.
ing management and organization. An exploration of departures from earlier findings
258 Academy of Management Journal April

can reveal unexpected boundary conditions, or per- flecting upon the discoveries that have accrued
haps even questionable assumptions. It can also over the course of their study, authors are well
shed light on previously overlooked gaps in theo- served by attending not only to anticipated (i.e.,
retical understanding, such as unanticipated con- supported) findings, but also to prominent and un-
tingencies and/or critical omissions in definitions anticipated insights (e.g., nonfindings).
of focal constructs. Such is the case in Seibert,
Kraimer, and Liden (2003); those authors explain
how their theoretical work brings reconciliation to
seemingly divergent perspectives, and correspond- If the above sections outline some guidelines and
ingly, nuanced understanding of the role social suggestions, it is equally important to recognize
capital plays in career success. Although diver- some of the common errors authors make in artic-
gence from earlier findings is quick to captivate ulating their studies theoretical contribution. Our
reader interest (Weick, 1989), findings consistent experience suggests three are highly prevalent: re-
with prior research can also help to hone more hashing results, meandering, and overreaching.
subtle dimensions of understanding (Hollenbeck,
2008). Siebert et al., for example, discuss how con-
Rehashing Results
trolling for previously identified predictors of ca-
reer success strengthens the contribution made by The transition from the Results to the Discussion
their primary focus on network structure and social marks a change in a narratives focus, from review-
resources. Whatever the particular pattern (i.e., ing what emerged in the study to explaining why
consistency or divergence), again, it is the explora- the findings are important and how they change the
tion of findings relative to earlier, related work that conversation that the research joins. A common
often illuminates previously unappreciated theo- mistake authors make is to devote too much discus-
retical insights. sion to summarizing and resummarizing the results
Finally, we find that authors also effectively in- of their hypothesis tests while devoting too little
form theoretical understanding by exploring the attention to explaining what the results mean. In
path that led to discovery of their studys findings. some cases, authors restate the findings in the first
Few research investigations follow a linear trajec- few paragraphs of the Discussion section and then
tory. The final draft is often a portrayal of the most move on to other subsections (practical implica-
refined ideas (i.e., what worked), yet less successful tions, limitations, future research directions, and so
efforts may prove equally informative. This is es- on) without addressing the studys theoretical im-
pecially true if and when other theoretical perspec- plications whatsoever. As readers transition to a
tives were explored and found wanting. In fact, one Discussion section, the studys findings are fresh in
of the tests of any studys theoretical inferences is their minds. Consequently, whats needed at this
the extent to which they hold up to the challenge of point is not a rehashing of the results, but a
alternative explanations. A post hoc reflection thoughtful interpretation of why the findings are
attending to the plausibility of other accounts lends important and worthy of dissemination (in the form
incremental support to a studys conclusions and of a published article). It is appropriate to remind
also potentially illuminates important differences readers of the papers key findings, but only as the
among theoretical perspectives. This is demon- departure point for explaining how the results
strated, for example, in Faems, Janssens, Madhok, bring resolution to the puzzle that motivated the
and Van Looys (2008) Discussion section, which research to begin with and set the stage for new and
not only examines the merits of alternative per- promising lines of inquiry.
spectives on the governance of alliances, but also
illuminates key differentiating aspects of structural
and relational perspectives.
The same is true of unsupported hypotheses. The second kind of mistake authors make in their
They often constitute a rich, yet commonly fore- Discussion sections, meandering, occurs when a
gone, way to inform theoretical understanding. Our narrative references numerous theoretical implica-
experience as associate editors suggests there is tions, some or all of which seem disconnected from
reluctance among many scholars to attend to (much each other, the papers hook (see Grant and Pol-
less retain) unsupported hypotheses. Yet the failure lock, From the Editors, 54: 873 879), and/or the
to find rigorous support for key theoretical argu- papers theoretical development (see Sparrowe and
ments is in itself informative and rather thought- Mayer, From the Editors, AMJ 54: 1098 1102).
provoking, and such findings are certainly helpful Meandering implications subsections lack focus
to continued theoretical development. Thus, in re- and come across as superficial. A papers discus-
2012 Geletkanycz and Tepper 259

sion of theoretical implications should cohere strong implications to which authors may legiti-
around a small number of important issues that are mately lay claim gives rise to claims that cannot
covered in great depth. The implications them- plausibly derive from the results. One way of
selves will likely reside at a higher level of abstrac- avoiding this pitfall is to think about what the
tion than the data and parsimoniously explain the implications subsection will look like before writ-
results of the hypothesis tests, both supportive and ing a papers Introduction and Theory sections. If it
unsupportive. What can authors do to avoid craft- seems difficult, if not impossible, to outline an
ing an implications subsection that meanders? In- implications subsection that feels meaty and per-
stead of identifying implications for each result, suasive, it is likely that the project lacks the depth
they might follow the better strategy of focusing on and scope that aligns with AMJs mission.
what the findings mean collectively. When it
comes to beefing up theoretical implications, au-
thors should resist the temptation to simply slip in CONCLUSIONS
an extra implication or two. Having completed a Ultimately, publishing refereed journal articles is
draft of the implications, they might find it is a means to the end of making a contribution to a
worthwhile to go back and ask whether the subsec- specific body of knowledge. The variation in mis-
tion is as focused as it could be. Do the implications sion statements across journals reflects differences
close the loop on the specific problems that are in the kinds of contribution(s) journals value and
introduced in the papers opening? In other words, aim to publish. At AMJ, theoretical advance is a
do they cohere with the research questions and primary emphasis, and it is in their Discussions
theoretical inroads identified in the Introduction? that authors can make plain their accomplishments
Are there opportunities to reduce the number of on this dimension. Our experience shows that the
implications that are addressed, while deepening best Discussions (in addition to outlining their
the coverage of those that remain? Attending to studies limitations, practical implications, and
these matters will make for a more focused and suggestions for future research) provide a clear and
persuasive presentation of a papers contributions compelling answer to the original research ques-
to theory. tion, cast in a theoretical light. Of course, this ne-
cessitates a meaningful connection to the broader,
Overreaching relevant theoretical literatures and, in the interest
of advancement, illumination of new and impor-
A third mistake authors make in their Discussion tant insights uniquely generated by the immediate
sections involves deriving sweeping conclusions investigation. In short, a Discussion section affords
that outstrip the data. In an effort to convince read- a venue in which to elucidate how a study changes,
ers that their work has important and wide-ranging challenges, or otherwise fundamentally advances,
theoretical implications, authors may overreach. existing theoretical understanding. The quality of
Admittedly, there may be some subjectivity associ- this section, and of a paper more generally, is
ated with this judgment, as one persons overreach greatly enhanced by avoiding three mistakes, best
may be anothers grand implication. Reviewers are summarized as not doing enough (rehashing), do-
likely to conclude that an author has gone too far ing too much (meandering), and going too far
when a narrative drifts into domains that seem (overreaching). We hope that with this knowl-
disconnected from the empirics and/or went un- edge in hand, authors may more willingly em-
mentioned in the papers opening or theoretical brace not only the opportunity, but also the re-
development. When authors experience a strong wards of contributing more cogently to ongoing
temptation to weave new (i.e., previously unmen- theoretical conversations.
tioned) theory into the Discussion, they should give
Marta Geletkanycz
some thought to how they might introduce those
Boston College
ideas earlier in the paperperhaps using them to
strengthen the papers hook. Bennett J. Tepper
Overreaching is also more likely to occur when Georgia State University
authors treat their papers theoretical implications
as an afterthought in the mold of definitions 2 or 3,
rather than definition 1. Having crafted a papers REFERENCES
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