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Changing How Research Makes an Impact

May 6th, 2019

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Impact Summit 1
Credit: Chris Kendig

Change doesn’t happen overnight, especially in education.

For years, academics and business executives alike have questioned whether the insights from business school research conducted are getting into the hands of those who need it. The debate about “rigor versus relevance” is age-old. While the answer may seem simple, the process of getting there is complex.

The Fox School of Business is committed to pushing this conversation forward. On Friday, March 29, the Fox School’s Translational Research Center (TRC) hosted the 2019 Impact Summit, bringing together deans, faculty and students from across disciplines and parts of the world to determine how schools can move the needle of impact in tangible ways.

The attendees sought to answer the question: How can business school leadership change the way research is conceived, produced and implemented to prioritize impact?

These are five lessons business school leaders can apply:

1. Start at the top. “It takes time to re-engineer a school at a systems level,” said Tarun Khanna, a professor at the Harvard Business School. However, a top-down perspective is key to encouraging institutional change. 

Jerry Davis, associate dean at the Ross School of Business, highlighted the University of Michigan’s experiments with the promotion process. By making research impact a more significant part of an associate professor’s evaluation, he advised, deans can use promotion structures to affect change in the way their faculty conduct research. Getting top business schools across the country to agree on a new evaluation structure would be even more influential.

2. Instill impact’s importance early. The attendees also discussed tackling the issue of impact from the opposite side—starting with junior faculty and doctoral students. Elizabeth Cowley, deputy dean of the University of Syndey, said that in Australia, “faculty are encouraged to build a narrative of the long-term impact [they] have had on some sector of society.” Attendees agreed, remarking on the importance of letting junior faculty members define for themselves how they would want to make an impact and develop a strategy based on that objective. With doctoral students, the starting point should be their research questions—advisors should ask if it is grounded in a real-life phenomenon and has relevance in the business world.

3. Systematically engage with business. “Business leaders tend to look at our schools primarily as labor markets for sourcing the MBAs and business graduates,” said Joanne Li, dean of the business school at Florida International University. “We need to help them recognize us as knowledge markets as well. We are able to produce expert knowledge vital for their business growth and survival.”

Brent Beardsley, the chief strategy officer at Vanguard, talked about the value of an advisory board made up of executives, entrepreneurs and academics. “That mix is really rich,” he said. “This is a lab outside of the walls of Vanguard’s large institution that can get out in front of market trends and themes.”

Participants championed the creation of a brokerage platform between companies and universities that could connect those who have real problems to those working on practical solutions. Simple activities like business sabbaticals for faculty, corporate engagement in research projects and programs like Fox Management Consulting can help faculty to better define their research questions.

4. Use teaching as a tool. One speaker suggests a change in vocabulary to underscore the importance of teaching. “We shouldn’t be referring to a ‘teaching load,’ said Gautam Ahuja of SC Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University. “It’s not a load, it’s a tool.” Academic leadership can encourage faculty to step into the shoes of learners, focus on practical insights in the classrooms and foster intellectual questions with relevance. Stronger connections to industry, through practitioner conferences, relationships with practice faculty and co-teaching with executives can also benefit classroom outcomes.

5. Be a community hub. Business schools will also benefit from a stronger community connection. “We should be known by the community where they can come to get ideas,” said Will Mitchell, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. Attendees brainstormed ways to make research more accessible but noted that faculty will need different reward structures and training to bring that to fruition. Ideas like three-minute presentations or one-page summaries of academic papers can help get ideas out of academia and into the real world.

Ronald Anderson, interim dean of the Fox School, remarked at the end of the day that a lot was learned. “Disruption is going to have to be part of the process,” he said. “Technology and innovation are changing higher education, and research is going to have to address that.”

The event, a follow-up to the 2018 Editors’ Summit, is part of a series of initiatives by the TRC to change how both academics and practitioners view business research. Other activities have included the TRC’s Seminar Series, which invites executives to share their viewpoints on faculty research presentations, and case writing workshops, which encourage faculty members to learn and perfect their skills in writing and submitting teaching cases for publication.

Learn more about the Fox School’s Translational Research Center.

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