Collaboration Is the Key to Impact

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Monday, February 6, 2023
By Nicole Robitaille
Illustration by iStock/Dreamcreation
If academics want to conduct research that will make a positive contribution to society, they must work with practitioners to co-create knowledge.
  • Collaborative research can benefit academia, practice, and society, as illustrated by a multidisciplinary research effort to identify behavioral interventions that encourage people to register as organ donors.
  • To ensure their research has a real-world impact, academics must build connections with practitioners and publish their scholarship in outlets that business leaders are likely to see.
  • Research partnerships are so valuable because academics know the theory and the science, but organizational leaders know their business and their clients.

Most academics hope that their work will make an impact—but how they define impact is beginning to change.

Traditionally, scholarly impact has been measured by citation counts, the h-index, and journal impact factors. During the digital and information-sharing age, new gauges have emerged, including altmetrics and bibliometrics such as mentions on social media and in online news media.

But today’s researchers are increasingly focused on the impact their research has on society and the economy. While this impact is harder to measure than clicks and counts, it arguably is more important to the world. And one of the best ways to deliver impact beyond the scholarly ecosystem is to co-create knowledge with the people and organizations that can implement changes on the ground.

A Real-Life Example

I have seen firsthand how co-created research can be a positive force for good. While completing my PhD at the University of Toronto, I was part of the Behavioural Economics in Action at Rotman (BEAR) center, and I began working part-time as a researcher with Ontario’s Behavioural Insights Unit. There, I was fortunate to be part of a collaborative research project that brought together academic and public service stakeholders to explore how behavioral insights could improve organ donor registration in the largest populated province of Canada.

Organ donor registration is an interesting topic for academic inquiry. Several studies have focused on how to increase awareness and support for organ donation, but the real issue appears to be how to encourage people to follow through on their intentions to donate. In Ontario, while more than 90 percent of the population supports organ donation, only one in three people have registered their consent to donate. We wanted to find ways to bridge the intention-action gap.

Tackling the problem of low donor registrations is not just an interesting academic challenge; it has meaningful practical implications. In Ontario, roughly 1,500 patients are currently on the wait list for an organ transplant. In 2021, 120 people on the list died waiting, and the gap between those needing transplants and those receiving them continues to widen. Increasing the number of individuals registered as donors is one way to address this growing demand, and the government and various agencies spend a significant amount of time and money on this goal.

Our team of multidisciplinary researchers and policymakers conducted a field experiment in Ontario to test behavioral interventions that might increase new organ donor registrations. We had our best response when we asked people this question: “If you needed a transplant, would you have one? If so, please help save lives and register today.” By framing the situation as reciprocal altruism, we prompted individuals to take a new perspective on organ donation—and among the people in our sample group, registration rates increased by 80 percent.

The research project was a win-win. Academically, we advanced our theoretical understanding of human behavior and learned that we can influence consumers by presenting them with promotional materials at the right time.

Practically, we developed interventions that could be adopted by others working in the organ-donation space. Furthermore, we were able to achieve these results without changing the registration policy default, which can be costly and raise ethical concerns. We also were able to show how low-cost, scalable marketing solutions can be leveraged to improve performance within public service and nonprofit organizations.

The project was a win-win. Academically, we advanced our theoretical understanding of human behavior. Practically, we developed interventions that could be adopted by others working in this space.

If everything from our study holds constant over time and our best-performing intervention is introduced across the province, we can expect roughly 225,000 additional new registrations annually. Given that one donor can save the lives of up to eight people and enhance the lives of 75 others, such an increase could have a meaningful impact on thousands of people. We should find out soon, since Ontario recently introduced a new registration form that includes the reciprocal altruism prompt.

By co-creating knowledge and working in partnership with practitioners, we hope to reduce the intention-action gap in the context of organ donation, improve public policy, and enhance societal welfare. We are pleased that our work has been recognized with a Responsible Business Education Award from the Financial Times.

The Academic-Practitioner Divide

The organ donation research project is just one example of how a collaborative approach can advance academia, practice, and policy, while benefiting society at large. There are many success stories of such collaborations within the field of marketing, which is my area of expertise, as well as other disciplines.

Still, there is a large chasm between research and practice, although opinions are divided as to why. Some see it as a knowledge translation problem, others as a knowledge production problem. The fact is, researchers and practitioners often have differing interests, time constraints, and motivations. Many believe that scholars can advance science only by doing science and practitioners can improve practice only by doing real-world interventions.

While it is possible to conduct research and develop practical solutions simultaneously, two challenges make it difficult to co-create knowledge:

A lack of connections between academics and practitioners. Business schools can address this problem in three primary ways.

First, they can build bridges between these two groups by creating research centers that partner with business. For example, I have started several projects through the Scotiabank Centre for Customer Analytics at the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Through these projects, I have worked with business partners to improve the adoption of digital government services and reduce the peak energy consumption of corporations.

Second, schools can facilitate relationship-building through academic-practitioner workshops. I’ve participated in a number of such workshops hosted by universities and government agencies. They have focused on topics such as using behavioral insights to inform public policy and relying on research to improve the financial well-being of consumers. Other academics have proposed creating more of these conferences and events to connect the business and academic worlds.

Third, administrators can encourage academics to take on advisory roles within industry and government as a way to foster relationships that could yield opportunities for knowledge co-creation.

Two challenges make it difficult to co-create knowledge: a lack of connections between academics and practitioners and a failure to transfer knowledge.

A failure to transfer knowledge. Many managers do not read academic journals for insights on how to improve practice. Therefore, academics must seek other avenues for getting their insights in front of those who can use them.

For example, I took many opportunities to share my research about organ donation registration. I prepared an article for Smith Business Insight, a knowledge mobilization platform at the Smith School that’s dedicated to translating research insights for a general business audience. I wrote a second article on the topic for Harvard Business Review, and a third piece for The Conversation, a website that presents informed commentary and analysis from Canadian academics and researchers on topical issues. In addition, I appeared in a media segment on a morning TV show in Calgary. All of these outlets helped me expand the reach and impact of my research.

Finding the Right Fit

The opportunities for knowledge co-creation have expanded with the arrival of big data, which allows researchers to gain access to timely data and helps organizations better utilize the information. The rise of reporting on environmental, social, and governance issues also provides researchers with opportunities to shape the future of business and tackle societal issues. These ESG topics encourage scholars to explore concerns beyond performance and the bottom line.

The trick to co-creating research on any topic is finding the right fit between academics and practitioners. Remember, people from each group have differing time constraints, interests, and motivations.

Academics, as a rule, are slow. We like to read, think carefully, and take our time. Business leaders, on the other hand, tend to work faster and expect more immediate results. Government officials, in my experience, tend to be a mix of both. Before any of these individuals attempt to work together, they must understand each other’s timelines and communicate clearly about their processes.

Collaborators also must agree on the topics they want to study. Sometimes an organization wants answers to questions that aren’t interesting to academics on a theoretical level. On the other hand, sometimes academics design studies to test ideas that could never be implemented in real life. While it can be valuable to gather information just for the sake of knowledge, academics who want to ensure actual impact with their work should know the practical constraints and applications of their research.

It's also important for both parties to check their egos at the door and acknowledge what they don’t know. I’m not an expert on organ donation, tax compliance, or energy consumption—all topics I have collaboratively studied. But I do know how to change people’s behavior. When my partners share their expertise with me, we can work together to achieve our collective objectives.

On the flip side, organizations sometimes have ideas about solutions that they think will work. But when an expert runs experiments in the field and analyzes the resulting data, managers may learn that their proposed solutions aren’t all they imagined, so they need to be open to outside solutions. That’s why partnerships are so fantastic. Academics know the theory and the science, but organizational leaders know their business and their clients.

The key for creating successful collaborative research partnerships is to understand these potential challenges at the outset and make time to address them. Theory matters, science matters, practice matters. The right collaboration can be a beautiful meeting of the minds as partners create and deliver projects that help change the world.

Nicole Robitaille
Assistant Professor of Marketing, Smith School of Business, Queen’s University
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