Universities are frequently viewed as ivory towers, where academics are removed from the realities of everyday life. But business is an applied field, and business schools have long been concerned about solving real-world problems. For example, as educators, we have mutually benefited by engaging with both industry and local communities to provide our students with classroom experiences that help prepare them to solve the problems they will face in industry.
Aligning Academic Research with Societal Impact
It is no surprise, then, that university administrators are increasingly asking academic researchers to approach their research in a similar way. They want to encourage research that has a greater impact on business and society, as significant financial and human capital is invested in doing this research. As the international accreditation body, Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, reports, “Intellectual contributions impact society both by advancing management knowledge and practice and by addressing important policy questions. What appears to be missing is a mechanism for connecting the dots between research on managerial or corporate processes and processes affecting organizational competitiveness and societal well-being.”1
To align business academic research with the call for more externally impactful work, we propose that business academic research should focus on four distinct steps in the process of yielding societal benefit:
- The creation and publication of research findings
- The awareness of these findings
- The use of the findings
- The potential benefits to society when these findings are successfully implemented
It is likely that academic researchers will implicitly agree to participate in the parts of this process over which they have direct control—namely, creating and promoting good research. But they may bristle at the idea of being held accountable for the indirect use of their research findings to enhance business and society.
The Science of Social Impact Assessment
The science of social impact assessment is nascent. Traditional approaches to measuring the influence of academic research focus on holding professors accountable for the number of academic papers they publish, the prestige of the journals in which they publish, their citation counts, and/or their media mentions. These measures are quantifiable and easily available, which explains why they are widely used. But clearly these metrics are focusing on the first two steps—creation and awareness—of what is a larger process of social change. We certainly hope that our own research findings become not only known but also used and potentially benefit groups in society. Yet it does not seem fair to hold academics accountable for the entire process of social change that can span years and over which they have limited control.
The Relational Engagement Approach
Instead, we advocate for a middle-ground position, where some researchers nudge the production of knowledge toward greater societal relevancy by including key constituencies in the research process. Specifically, consider the “relational engagement” research approach, where academics collaborate more actively with nonacademic stakeholders and work to co-create before, during, and after research is completed. Not only will such a process yield findings that better balance relevance against rigor, but additional benefits will present themselves that do not arise in traditional approaches to doing research.
In our forthcoming article in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, we highlight the generative potential of the relational engagement approach across the entire social impact process and provide examples of researchers who are already experimenting with variants of this approach. But here we highlight three direct outputs of the relational engagement process that are mutually beneficial for both researchers and end users: productive interactions, enhanced capacities, and improved social networks.
First, a relational engagement approach is based on the assumption that researcher and user interactions are more productive when stakeholder exchanges increase the rigor and relevance of the research. Knowledge does not flow down from the researcher to the user but arises in a complex and multidirectional co-learning process. A relational engagement approach recognizes the dynamic and value-laden terrain of social problems and incorporates these insights directly and indirectly into the research process.
Second, when researchers and external stakeholders work together closely, they are more likely to develop a range of enhanced capacities. A researcher might share a new analytical tool or contribute a broader perspective given their experience across diverse research contexts. The external stakeholder may have key local knowledge about a setting or a phenomenon upon which the success of an intervention may rest. Collaborators with boots on the ground are more likely to be abreast of timely and unfolding new issues.
Improved social networks
Third, a relational engagement approach involves collaboration and is more likely than traditional research approaches to build important social networks with stakeholders. The resulting network effects include creating new contacts, reinforcing social bonds, increasing the two-way exchange of information, building trust, and developing a sense of solidarity. When a network of different people with varied capacities all mobilize around solving a specific problem, it is more likely that a solution will emerge than when academic researchers work alone. A persistent finding is that multidisciplinary research teams are more likely to generate findings with societal benefit; this is due, in part, to the diverse perspectives and tools that are brought to bear. Similarly, alliances among researchers and users are likely to benefit from a broader perspective. And when innovations do arise, a social network already exists through which new ideas can disseminate.
The United Kingdom
In the United Kingdom, a nationwide experiment on evaluating the societal impact of research is well underway.2 This exercise in trying to evaluate the impact of research illuminates the significant challenges and the infeasibility of a one-size-fits-all solution. Across all university fields, an analysis of the 6,679 impact cases found a three- to nine-year time lag among those highlighted as the best cases. This analysis also revealed an astonishing 3,709 different pathways for how research findings can generate a societal benefit.3 These findings suggest that both university administrators and professors should work to foster institutional frameworks and resources that provide flexibility and can foster the manifold creative pathways by which research findings can yield societal benefit.
1 AACSB International (2008), “Final Report of the AACSB International Impact of Research Task Force,” p. 23 (accessed July 21, 2016), [available at http://www.aacsb.edu/~/media/AACSB/Publications/research-reports/impact-of-research.ashx].
2 Research Excellence Framework (2014), “Results and Submissions,” (accessed September 3, 2014), [available at http://results.ref.ac.uk/].
3 HEFCE (2015), “The Nature, Scale and Beneficiaries of Research Impact: An Initial Analysis of Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2014 Impact Case Studies,” research report, (accessed February 2, 2015), [available at: http://www.hefce.ac.uk/media/HEFCE,2014/Content/Pubs/Independentresearch/2015/Analysis,of,REF,impact/Analysis_of_REF_impact.pdf].
Julie L. Ozanne, Brennan Davis, Jeff B. Murray, Sonya Grier, Ahmed Benmecheddal, Hilary Downey, Akon E. Ekpo, Marion Garnier, Joel Hietanen, Marine Le Gall-Ely, Anastasia Seregina, Kevin D. Thomas, and Ekant Veer (2016), “Assessing the Societal Impact of Research: The Relational Engagement Approach.” Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, In-Press. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1509/jppm.14.121 (download Full Paper here)