Want Impactful Research? Seek Stakeholder Input

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Wednesday, October 25, 2023
By Esmari Huysamen, Mark Smith
Photo by iStock/SDI Productions
When schools deploy stakeholder engagement strategies throughout the research process, academics are encouraged to address socially relevant problems.
  • Publications in peer-reviewed journals and research with societal impact are not mutually exclusive—they simply target two different audiences.
  • Events and initiatives that invite stakeholders to share their challenges with faculty and students spark valuable conversations about how business school research can work toward solutions.
  • A dedicated research office can facilitate interactions between scholars and stakeholders, as well as train faculty to disseminate their research to wider audiences via blogs, traditional media, and social media platforms.

Business scholars face a double hurdle: They not only are expected to publish rigorous scientific work, but also are under increasing pressure to show the importance of their research beyond academia. These two goals are not incompatible, but if schools do not prioritize impact in their faculty’s research, they are likely to achieve only the first.

Traditionally, research impact has been measured primarily by citation counts and the number of publications in top-tier journals. Despite mounting criticism of this approach, research institutions still evaluate faculty based on these factors for the purposes of promotion and tenure. Business schools further encourage researchers to publish in journals rated highly by the Chartered Association of Business Schools, Financial Times, and Australian Business Deans Council, largely due to standards set by accreditation bodies, incentives set by funding institutions, and performance management objectives established by the schools themselves.

At the same time, many of these same accrediting bodies, funding institutions, and business schools are calling for research with impact, and they are criticizing business and management scholars for doing research that lacks real-world relevance. Even so, academia still has not dramatically changed its faculty incentives.

Fortunately, there is a way that schools can generate research that is both rigorous and impactful: They can consistently promote strong engagement with different stakeholders in research activities, so that they can learn what problems these groups struggle with most. In fact, “stakeholder involvement” is among the key principles of the Responsible Research in Business and Management initiative (RRBM). RRBM emphasizes that productive interactions between researchers and other actors make the path to societal impact more transparent.

The seven strategies described below are designed to engage stakeholders throughout the research process. By deploying some or all of them, schools will empower their faculty to produce scholarship that addresses socially relevant problems.

1. Gather Stakeholder Feedback

It’s essential that academic leaders gather feedback from stakeholders to determine how to achieve societal impact in ways that align with the school’s vision, mission, and research priorities. To that end, schools can design initiatives that encourage faculty to collaborate and have conversations with stakeholders—including practitioners, community members, policymakers, and NGO representatives—about their challenges and the solutions they need most.

One such initiative is the global Four Day Week initiative run out of Boston College. In this project, which spans many countries, research teams work with a consortium of companies to identify the challenges, opportunities, and knowledge gaps related to adopting a four-day work week.

2. Facilitate Multidisciplinary Collaboration

Complex societal problems require multidisciplinary solutions. For that reason, another key pillar of RRBM’s principles is “valuing plurality and multidisciplinary collaboration.”

For example, the Centre for Conflict and Collaboration at Stellenbosch Business School in South Africa collaborates with organizations ranging from the United Nations to grassroots peace and reconciliation movements across the African continent. The school’s researchers also work with data scientists from various universities to harness the power of big data on economic outcomes of conflict zones. As a result of these collaborations, researchers can see their work play a greater role in equipping stakeholders on the ground to effect positive change across the continent.

3. Open a Dedicated Research Office

Schools can help their researchers build relationships with stakeholders and the broader community by establishing a dedicated, forward-thinking research office. With its eye on the business school’s mission, a research office would facilitate interactions between researchers and more diverse audiences, garner stakeholder feedback to inform research questions, and promote broad social relevance—in short, its mandate would be to develop faculty’s capacity to generate positive impact.

An active research office could empower scholars by overseeing the following activities:

  • Training academics to write opinion pieces, speak to traditional media, use social media and other outlets to disseminate their research, and develop communication strategies to valorize their scholarship and reach wider audiences.
  • Offering workshops for publishing in specific outlets, such as The Conversation.
  • Maintaining a social media presence to distribute research news in accessible formats.
  • Collaborating with the marketing and communications departments of the business school and parent university to share research news.
  • Identifying and supporting collaboration opportunities across disciplines.
  • Coordinating events that bring together faculty and different stakeholders.

Setting up an effective research office requires additional staff with backgrounds in public relations or scientific valorization. If a school has an existing research office, it might want to ensure that the office is structured to include a formal engagement function; or, if creating an office is not possible, schools could designate an individual to help faculty and student researchers more frequently connect with stakeholders.

No matter what approach schools adopt, it can be effective only if school leadership commits to providing ongoing support, obtaining buy-in from different stakeholders, and securing backing from the parent university.

4. Create Cultures of Impact

Working together, school leaders and management researchers can take three steps to cultivate cultures that support research impact. First, researchers and administrators can establish new policies (such as reductions in teaching loads) that will free up researchers’ time to build and maintain relationships with stakeholders.

Second, faculty and administrators can create new opportunities for engagement. As mentioned above, these opportunities might include formal events such as discussion forums, roundtables, and workshops where stakeholders interact with staff and students. Such interactions would provide multiple perspectives on societal challenges, encourage multidisciplinary collaborations, and generate conversations about how business school research can work toward solutions.

Schools can cultivate cultures of impact by establishing policies that free up researchers’ time to build relationships with stakeholders and by making engagement part of workload and performance targets.

Finally, schools also can make engagement part of each academic’s workload and performance targets. Engagement also can be considered as part of each professor’s performance management and career development. That leads to the point below.

5. Change Faculty Incentives

One of the most important steps that schools can take to promote impactful research is to offer incentives that reward stakeholder engagement. This will require school leadership to involve all players in the conversation—particularly the university’s human resources and finance departments, which must agree that interacting with stakeholders to inform research questions is a critical activity. Those responsible for the parent university’s social impact agenda also should be included.

Not all incentives require formal changes to performance management strategies and promotion policies. For example, Grenoble Ecole de Management in France offers a visibility bonus to reward academics who invest time and energy in sharing research results online or in the press. Any school can publicly celebrate and recognize its researchers who succeed at achieving impact. Such celebrations can help shift the culture of a business school.

6. Emphasize Journal Publication and Impact

To adhere to standards set by accreditation bodies such as AACSB, business schools cannot ignore the guidelines for publishing in highly rated journals. However, to repeat a point made earlier, publishing in peer-reviewed journals and showing the impact of research beyond academia are not mutually exclusive. The two activities simply target different audiences—academics and the broader public. In other words, one research study can have twice the impact.

Journal articles are written in language that often is not comprehensible to wider audiences, contributing to the impression that academic research is detached from reality or socially irrelevant. Schools can overcome this barrier by presenting research differently for different audiences. Either the researcher or research office staff can translate the core message and actionable insights of a scholar’s work into language appropriate for blogs, opinion pieces, videos, and interviews on television or radio, as well as for dedicated portals.

7. Use the Right Metrics

Over time, as AACSB’s Standard 9 underscores, the understanding of research impact has changed to encompass societal impact. But measuring this aspect of research presents a challenge, because societal impact presents in ways that can be far less tangible than citation counts. That’s why schools cannot promote impactful research without first determining the metrics they should use.

Fortunately, frameworks for understanding and evaluating societal impact have been piloted throughout the world, and schools can use these frameworks as guideposts in their evaluation efforts. Perhaps the most prominent among them are the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the U.K.’s Research Excellence Framework. Schools also might look into using Altmetric (short for “alternative metrics”), a suite of tools that measures the broader impact of research by tracking online mentions and discussions about particular studies.

A global framework such as the SDGs can be complemented by regional or national priorities. One example of a regional framework is the African Union’s Agenda 2063. Or, in South Africa, the National Research Foundation has created a framework to advance research with societal impact, and the government has released a white paper calling for research that supports sustainable development across South Africa. 

Every school has its own unique set of researchers who reflect the particularities of its ecosystem, and each school may need to adopt different measurements for each field. With that in mind, schools can refine their approaches based on their missions, strengths, and chosen focus areas, as well as launch initiatives in the areas of greatest importance.

It’s time for academic administrators to adopt practices and design policies that take the changing landscape of research into account.

For example, Stellenbosch Business School has taken this mission-based approach to research with its Futures Studies and Foresight initiative, which is part of its Institute for Futures Research. For this initiative, researchers advise businesses on how to prepare for different possible futures. In the process, faculty can have societal impact by changing the way organizations do business.

Similarly, researchers involved with the school’s African Centre for Development Finance might achieve societal impact by contributing to changes in government policy. They also can collaborate with international organizations, work with banks, and pursue research that supports inclusive development and strengthens financial systems.

Expanding the Research Ecosystem

It is important to note that business school research is part of a broader ecosystem, where academics and research offices are not the only actors in play. Journals and their editors, consortia such as the RRBM, and accrediting bodies also play roles in encouraging more impactful research. In fact, RRBM’s initiatives have been successful in part because, from the beginning, the group included journal editors and accreditation bodies in its activities.

Now, because of RRBM’s influence, certain journals ask researchers to write blogs or make videos on their academic papers to reach broader audiences. Some journals also require impact statements as part of article submissions. If more journal editors adopted similar policies, academics would reach more people who would benefit from the findings of rigorous research.

That said, impactful research cannot happen without engaging stakeholders, both in its conception and dissemination. Moreover, these interactions should be viewed not just as ways to solicit information from stakeholders, but as two-way communication between researchers and stakeholders. Through ongoing conversations and relationships, business schools can ensure their research output is both relevant to their ecosystems and inspired by society’s grand challenges.

Management research is facing an existential moment, as calls for its impact and relevance grow louder and society’s grand challenges become more urgent. In response, it’s time for academic administrators to adopt practices and design policies (related to faculty development, workloads, recruitment, reward, and valorization) that take the changing landscape of research into account.

Engaged scholarship is a new way forward for academics, who need to collaborate more closely with the end users of their research findings. With the support of active research offices and strong stakeholder engagement, schools can adopt policies that are tailored to creating societal impact. Those that do will attract and empower more talented academics who want to work with others to address society’s pressing challenges and produce more research that makes a real difference.

Esmari Huysamen
Research Manager, Stellenbosch Business School, Stellenbosch University
Mark Smith
Director, Stellenbosch Business School, Stellenbosch University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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