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Should McKinsey Design Retract Its “Business Value of Design” Report and Related MDI Index?


By Charles L. Mauro CHFP and Paul W. Thurman DBA, MS

Two weeks ago my research partner, Paul Thurman, and I published an analysis of the McKinsey Design “Business Value of Design” (BVD) report and MDI Index. That analysis articulated the numerous research problems with the report and put forward the opinion that its findings were, from a research perspective, both inaccurate and unsupportable. For any of you who have not read the original report and then the critical analysis, you should consider doing so as the combination is both insightful and, at the same time, deeply concerning. Should McKinsey retract its BVD report? Here are the issues…you decide.

It turns out that for all of us involved in design or design research, no matter what the variant, there has been for decades an on-going question as to exactly how much value professional design actually contributes to the success of corporations, and for that matter, non-profits and government agencies. As noted in our review, many famous designers and research institutions have examined this question with more or less the same outcome…good design is good business (quote from Thomas J. Watson). The McKinsey BVD report attempts to add to this important question and related research literature, but falls short in ways surprising for a world-class management-consulting firm.

This raises an interesting and important question: should the larger universe of DESIGN simply overlook what is misleading research and give McKinsey a pass, or should DESIGN adopt the same standard as virtually all other professional disciplines that engage in research and publication of research findings, and expect a retraction of the McKinsey BVD report? This might seem like McKinsey-bashing, but it is actually quite the opposite.

This question is larger than McKinsey Design and the BVD report. It actually goes straight to the issue of how we value DESIGN and how strongly DESIGN as a professional discipline should adhere to what is widely considered simply good professional research practice. Such practice dictates that authors of research found to be incorrect, faulty or simply sloppy are often forced by peers or publishers to retract their research. That is what real professions do. If DESIGN is going to finally achieve the same level of acceptance as engineering, marketing, legal and even product management, DESIGN must strive for the production of professional-level research? In fact, the existence of a viable body of professional research literature is critical to any discipline being identified as an actual profession.

Research papers and publications that are found to be deceptive or incorrect are often retracted by their authors. The process of peer-review and validation is a central tenet of all forms of research on which a given discipline bases its practice. If design as a profession allows the McKinsey Design BVD report to stand without retraction, the BVD report will do the exact opposite of its original objective. It will in effect devalue design by setting the example that design as a professional discipline is accepting defective research and false assumptions. To be clear, McKinsey Design did not publish its research through a peer-reviewed publication, and as such, there is no option for forcing retraction. However, the McKinsey BVD report was very widely quoted and reported based on statements made by McKinsey in the reports launch video and the report itself. Many, major online design publications and blogs reported on the McKinsey BVD report. Should they now also report on questions about the report? You decide, but in other professions, this is common practice.

In the end, this entire controversy is not good for design research. In my opinion, now is a critical time for DESIGN as a professional discipline because, for the first time, DESIGN is being widely examined for its possible contributions to corporate and social good. Allowing poorly executed design research to be proffered and widely quoted damages all design disciplines, not just the reputation of McKinsey. The fact that a renowned management-consulting firm published the BVD report is beside the point.

This raises the final question: Should McKinsey fully and immediately retract the BVD report? McKinsey certainly has the right, and one would think the responsibility, to republish the BVD report based on resolution of the issues identified in the critical analysis. Given the resources and expertise resident within the McKinsey firm, this would be a welcome update to the BVD. However, in the end it is up to the DESIGN press and DESIGN community to decide. How do you vote? Enter your decision here.

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