Impact and What It (Could) Mean(s) for Us

Christof Backhaus, guest contributor to SERVSIG
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Academic Impact in Service Marketing
Key Takeaways

​W​hat? The impact of academic research is a hotly debated subject.

So What? There is a great deal of pressure from businesses, government, etc to show value of research via impact.

Now What? Business practice and scholarly research can be mutually benefitial and collaborative research approaches may be a solution for academics to consider.

On the Quest for “Making a Difference”: Impact and What It (Could) Mean(s) for Us

Impact – used in an academic context, it’s a big word for sure. Working in the UK and being involved with impact at our School, I have been invited to give a brief overview on impact and related developments, and outline a (my) perspective on the topic, including some implications for us as service marketing academics.

So, What’s It All About?

We all know about requests such as to get “out of the ivory tower” or to disseminate academic results in a more proactive, readably-scientific way – as it was recently formulated by two leading German politicians. In a similar vein, and in light of the generally growing pressures to justify the utilization of public money, political institutions and funding bodies in the UK and also in other countries such as Australia, the Netherlands, and France are now increasingly taking outer world-impact into account, when assessing the value of academic research and allocating funds. For example, when it comes to submitting a grant application to a funding institution such as the Economic and Social research Council (ESRC) in the UK, a detailed impact plan has to be worked out. This plan outlines e.g., beneficiaries of the research, how they will benefit, and how the body of knowledge planned to be generated in the project will be disseminated.

Another area in which such developments have brought about quite a change in UK higher education, is the Research Excellence Framework (REF). The REF is an assessment exercise, in which academic research excellence across all UK higher education institutions is evaluated, and which represents an important instrument of research funding allocation. The most recent REF round took place in 2014, and, for the first time included non-academic impact of research as one out of three evaluation areas. Thereby, in addition to research outputs (65%) and environment (15%), impact contributed with a 20% weighting to the overall quality profile of all participating academic institutions.

Impact and the UK REF System

In the last REF, impact was considered in a broad sense as an “effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment, or quality of life, beyond academia“. The assessment approach looked as follows: The impact which, e.g., research carried out in a particular Business School has had in the period between Jan 2008 and Jul 2013 was evaluated by an expert panel. The panel members examined a certain number of impact case studies submitted by each institution. Each of these case studies contained a verbal description of the impact that emerged around a certain area of research or particular papers. The case studies were then rated, looking at the reach and the significance of the impact described (subsequently, all REF impact case studies submitted were published in a database which can be accessed via

Naturally, the REF inclusion of impact has provoked some discussion, with reactions among scholars ranging from “…just another new bandwagon and burden put on academics” to “…no problem, I do it anyway”. Thereby, it has to be noted that impact and knowledge dissemination are intensively discussed within Academia as well – for at least 50 years. Two decades ago, Don Hambrick, former President of the Academy of Management, noted in his Presidential Address: “if we believe in the significance of advanced thinking and research on management, then it is time we showed it. We must recognize that our responsibility is not to ourselves, but rather to the institutions around the world that are in dire need of improved management’’ (Hambrick 1994, p. 13). In 2010, Herman Aguinis and colleagues diagnosed that “the need to establish the significance of our work seems as timely and current today as it was 15 years ago” (Aguinis et al. 2010), referring to Hambrick’s (1994) advice. Having participated in some related discussions at this year’s AoM conference myself, this still seems to hold today. Of course, the underlying reasons for the “academic-practitioner-gap” are multi-faceted, with growing demands in a variety of (fundamentally different) areas of academic activity representing one important aspect.

While it is not for me to evaluate political measures aiming at bridging that gap, I see impact-related developments in a positive light in general. With emphasizing impact, policy indirectly addresses a request which has been formulated by researchers themselves, namely implementing an incentive to engage with practice. As Gary Latham pointed out: “It is unlikely that many of us will present our findings at practitioner conferences, let alone take time away from our research to write articles for their journals, if we are not rewarded for doing so in the academic settings where the majority of us are employed” (Latham 2007, p. 1030). Not saying that there is no room for basic research, it is good to have mechanisms in place that help foster impact-oriented scholarship. Thereby, trying objectively to consider academic impact is naturally a complex issue, and the REF 2014 approach represents just one of many ways of incorporating impact as an outcome of academic research.

What Does The “Rise of Impact” Mean For Us As Service Marketing Academics?

Acknowledging the increase of the importance of impact, I think it does make sense to proactively engage with the topic. That is, at the beginning of a research project think about aspects such as potential stakeholders, disseminating results, and capturing evidence. One particularly suitable pathway to impact is the “collaborative” research approach: I have often observed that business practice and research can effectively go hand-in-hand, and, for mutual benefit, come up with relevant and rigorous solutions to important problems. The practitioner’s viewpoint is sometimes essential to uncover and specify such problems and practical needs. The researcher, on this basis, can bring in the methodological know-how, and ensure scientific rigour. Finally, knowledge can be disseminated to other stakeholders more effectively, if it is done in a cooperative manner.

Looking at impact-achievements and the current status of service marketing research – with a lot of things happening at the scientist-practitioner-interface – I believe that the impact agenda provides a huge opportunity for our discipline and us as academics. In this sense, let’s further strengthen the impact profile of our discipline. Often, not that much more is needed to make a good piece of research an excellent piece of impact.

Read the original column (October 29, 2015) and similar columns at SERVSIG

Author Bio:

Christof Backhaus, guest contributor to SERVSIG
Christof Backhaus is Professor of Marketing and Director of Impact at Newcastle University Business School
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