#ThinklistImpact: Changing the meaning of impact in academia

Posted in: #thinklist, Impact

The Centre for Business, Organisations and Society designed the #thinklist to highlight the most influential or interesting academics talking about issues of responsible business online. It was created in recognition of the value of discussions we have online, and in the hope of sharing insights with a wider community. Twice a year, a new thinklist is released. This time, it’s the #ThinklistImpact, celebrating scholars who influence practice. 

Here guest co-curator Nicholas Poggioli introduces the #ThinklistImpact, with a piece exploring the value of impact work in higher education. In it he asks if the traditional route to academic success has distorted the scholarly understanding of impact, and explains how he hopes the #ThinklistImpact will change this. He also draws attention to the different types of impact, explaining each category with an example from the list.

What does impact mean in business scholarship? The #ThinklistImpact highlights business scholars active on social media who are changing the meaning and roles of impact in responsible business research, teaching, and practice. These scholars and organisations push the boundaries of impact in the profession by redefining and recontouring what impact can mean in scholarly careers. They also encourage us to consider that any work we do has some kind of impact, and it is our responsibility to define what impact we hope to have and how best to achieve it. Impact comes in many forms, including bringing understanding to something previously not understood, building and supporting community, creating products or services people need or want, helping solve problems, contributing part of what makes an organisation thrive, and more. 

Why academia has historically misunderstood impact

The traditional meaning of academic impact narrowly prioritises publishing research results in a small number of peer-reviewed journals. This view assumes the peer review process identifies and publishes high impact research and rejects low impact research. Recent reconsideration of whether peer-review accomplishes this suggests the causal relationship might be reversed. Rather than high impact work causing publication, publication might cause scholars to categorise research as high impact, regardless of whether it materially influences the understanding or practice of business management. Low interest in academic journals from those outside academia further undermines the argument that journal publication equals impact. Perhaps the greatest impact of this work is on scholarly career progression. Should our own career promotion be the sole impact of research?

In response to these and other issues, some business academics are reconsidering the meanings of impact. New forms of impact are drawing attention and becoming legitimised in the profession, including impact through engaging in and informing public policymaking; connecting research with practice; incorporating human rights into management research, practice, and teaching; and increasing the demand for management research outside academia. The #ThinklistImpact is both a response to this broadening and a contribution to the conversation about what impact can and should mean for business scholars. I highlight four thinklisters who exemplify new forms of impact and who are expanding the possibility space for responsible business scholars and scholarship. These thinklisters show innovative, courageous new visions of what it means to have impact as a responsible management scholar.

Scholars with impact

Dr. Helen Etchanchu exemplifies the type of impact which informs policymaking and influences the meaning of impact in management academia. At Montpellier Business School, she is Associate Professor and the Communication and Organizing for Sustainability Transformations (COAST) Chair supporting achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. She co-founded Organisation Scientists 4 Future that inspires and organises academics to act on climate change. She is an elected city councillor and is responsible for her local municipality's sustainability transition, demonstrating how scholars can link their research to public policy. Her website includes a section on public engagement, alongside the standard section on research. This work demonstrates new possibilities and forms of scholarly impact, and Dr. Etchanchu's success in these efforts helps legitimise these forms of impact for other scholars.

Prof. Dorothée Baumann-Pauly's work is expanding impact to include new subjects and social issues, specifically the intersections of business and human rights. She directs the Geneva University Center for Business and Human Rights and is Research Director at the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights. She deeply connects scholarship to practice through working with companies to advance human rights issues in corporate practice. Prof. Baumann-Pauly co-edited the first textbook on business and human rights and co-founded the Global Business School Network for Human Rights and the Business and Human Rights Young Researchers Summit. Her work supporting early career researchers is instrumental to maintaining an expanded view of scholarly impact to include attention to human rights and other social issues traditionally excluded from business research, teaching, and practice.

While individual scholars are essential to shaping new impact meanings and demonstrating how to enact them in scholarly careers, organisations also play important roles in responsible business academia. The Network for Business Sustainability is a membership-based organisation that integrates academic research with practice to advance sustainable development. NBS innovates new ways to increase access to and demand for management research outside academia. More than 35,000 business leaders follow and contribute to the Network, and it facilitates a community of more than 170 other sustainability research centres around the world. These achievements place it as a leader in conceptualising research impact and connecting research and practice across the globe.

A second, relatively new organisation is The Impact Scholar Community, founded in 2020 to build and support a network of early career scholars wanting to connect their research to impact. This effort builds on and is in part possible because of Dr. Ethanchu and Dr. Baumann-Pauly showing how it is possible to organise scholars around new forms of impact and support junior scholar career development. And the Community builds on the success of the Network for Business Sustainability demonstrating what a member-based organisation can accomplish on reconceptualizing and having impact. Since its founding, the Impact Scholarly Community quickly grew to hundreds of members, suggesting strong interest among early career scholars in connecting their work to forms of impact they find meaningful and motivating. By building and supporting this interest, the Impact Scholar Community is influencing the possibile space for impact in responsible management research.

Bridging the gap between academia and the world it studies

It remains unclear whether or how management academia's reconsideration of impact will result in lasting change to the profession. Critics have long accused business scholarship of focusing too much on research as a means of career progression. Business scholars have so far rejected broad, material changes that would open the profession to having greater impact on practice, policy, human rights, and other areas. And there are convincing arguments for insulating scholarship from wider impact. Insulating scholarship is necessary to enable scholars to research subjects without clear ties to serving practical or applied interests. However, it seems misguided for scholarship to be so insulated from those interests that no one but other scholars cares about what knowledge is produced. That degree of insulation risks theory and teaching becoming divorced from and irrelevant to the empirical world supposedly being studied and understood. If there is little demand for business scholarship outside business academia, what does that say about what business scholars produce? Regardless of the answer, impact will likely remain a contested topic and its meanings will change over time. #ThinklistImpact members are deeply engaged in the conversation about impact. They show through their work and success that many different forms of impact are possible and maybe essential for building robust, complete management theory and for teaching how to successfully and responsibly practice business management.

Posted in: #thinklist, Impact

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