Many different factors determine whether academic research genuinely makes an impact.
In order to “investigate how management research may be mobilised into practice”, a team led by Michael Fischer, senior research fellow in organisational behaviour and leadership at the University of Melbourne, interviewed 45 “managers in six knowledge-intensive organisations operating in the UK healthcare sector”.
Although many were committed to “evidence-based medicine”, “few respondents accessed or used management research in their work”. Those who did become “knowledge leaders” by using research often did so for complex and highly personal reasons explored in the paper “Knowledge leadership: mobilising management research by becoming the knowledge object”, which has just been published in Human Relations.
A manager the authors call Clive “saw the deployment of management research as a means of powerfully exerting influence within settings that appear resistant to organizational change” – an approach that had been “strongly influenced by a commercial logic that Clive attributed to his childhood grounding in his parent’s healthcare business”.
“James”, by contrast, felt the need to arm himself with extensive research-based evidence because of “an underlying fear of humiliation”, since he came from a poor background and was always afraid of “look[ing] stupid…when talking with people smarter than me”.
Yet underlying these different factors that spur managers to become “knowledge leaders”, Fischer et al conclude, is usually “intensive and sustained personal engagement in management research – especially at doctoral or related postgraduate levels”. It is this that leads some of them to become “knowledge objects”, the kind of people who adopt certain research ideas as part of their identity and mission, and who are therefore far more likely to mobilise them successfully at work.
So how can researchers make it more likely that managers will take up their work in this way?
Look out for ‘hybrids’
“Don’t just write a paper and expect it to be taken up,” says one of the paper’s co-authors, Gerry McGivern, professor of organisational analysis at Warwick Business School. “Remember that the process takes time and that you need to invest in long-term relationships.” The crucial techniques are “all about having conversations, being mindful of where they resonate and following up on those conversations…Go out and talk to organisations you would like to affect.”
One obvious opportunity comes from the people one meets during the course of research projects. Professor McGivern suggests that it is always worth looking out for the “hybrid” individuals who are naturally interested in research and how to make use of it in organisational contexts, so “remember who they are and contact them. Disseminate your findings to them as much as possible.”
Research published in journals may well need to include a level of theoretical and statistical detail that may be boring and/or baffling for busy managers. So researchers who want to make an impact shouldn’t rely on publication alone, in Professor McGivern’s view, but may also need to “translate their work into English or communicate very complex ideas in simple terms” for practitioners to take up (and sometimes “translate” even further for their colleagues).
One way of doing this is through feedback and triangulation workshops at the end of a research project, so you can check whether participants understand the research and whether it makes sense to them. This can also be a good moment to bring in policymakers (while obviously respecting the confidentiality of those who have supplied research data).
Another good technique, continues Professor McGivern, is creating “safe spaces” where “knowledge leaders” get a chance to “engage with research, innovate and shift practices”. These need to be places where people are able to explore ideas that have never previously been discussed in their organisations, and where researchers listen carefully and then appropriate levels of detail about their work.
Adopting the general principle that “it’s good to talk” can often have unexpected benefits. Some of Professor McGivern’s own research has focused on the complex role of the “doctor-manager” within the National Health Service. Since healthcare and academia are similar in the large numbers of specialist professionals who have to take on managerial responsibilities, casual conversation with colleagues have often sparked considerable interest and alerted him to intriguing parallels.
Even teaching can have an indirect effect well down the line. “It is often during their postgraduate years,” Professor McGivern points out, “that people are most stimulated and even moved by academic research, and keen to mobilise its ideas into practice.” Inspiring future managers while they are on campus as master's students can be a great way for them to adopt some of your research insights at a later date.