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 #ThinklistImpact guest curators Garima Sharma and Zahira Jaser continue our thinklist blog series, sharing their thoughts on impact and highlighting some of the scholars who “connect research to practice whether through consulting or collaborating with business or civil society, providing training to organisations, or writing books and media articles that directly target stakeholders outside academia and which seek to inform practice.”
As curators of the #ThinklistImpact, we both felt strongly that ‘research-practice collaboration’ should be included as a category of impact given our own efforts toward such collaboration. Garima has been studying the process of research-practice collaboration for several years now, and has seen how this approach has great potential to affect change in practice. Her research sheds light on the processes through which managers and researchers co-create knowledge. Zahira spent 15 years in practice before she became an academic. She has since continued to collaborate with practitioners for knowledge generation through research, executive training, and case study writing. She also writes articles in practitioners’ outlets (such as HBR and MIT SMR) to reach executive audiences, and generate practice-based exchanges.
In curating the Thinklist, we decided to define this type of collaboration as “partnership with those outside academia”, which we see as an exchange of knowledge, data, and insights between researchers and practitioners. Such broad framing helped us look for thinklisters who have forged innovative partnerships.
Our process for understanding and conceptualising impact
In order to better understand and categorise the types of impact we were seeing in the #ThinklistImpact, we conceptualised a spectrum of partnerships. This spectrum spanned from ‘collaborative research’ to ‘collaborative practice’ to ‘collaborative teaching’.
We also decided that each of these categories had two dimensions: (1) ‘epistemic authority’, meaning who has the authority to generate knowledge - an authority that is usually bestowed upon the researchers, and (2) ‘kind of knowledge produced’. These two dimensions gave us three different nuanced categories of impact work.
We explain each below and illustrate each category with a thinklister (with the understanding that many thinklisters on our list operate in multiple impact spaces). Importantly, each of the thinklisters below (indeed everyone included on the list) also talks about their collaborations or impact on social media, furthering the influence of power of this work. This online ‘translation’ of impact was an important criteria for inclusion in the list.
Collaborative research for producing academic and practical knowledge: In this collaboration, epistemic authority is shared between the researcher and practitioners. Both researcher and practitioner are ‘experts’ on the topic. Therefore, impact is seen in the production of both academic knowledge, such as in abstract frameworks and ideas, and in practical knowledge such as in tools for practice.
Thinklister, Tima Bansal, illustrates this approach to impact. Over the last decade and a half, Tima has forged many partnerships for impact through the Network for Business Sustainability, and more recently through the Lab at Innovation North. The Lab at Innovation North brings academics together with Canadian businesses to reimagine the corporate innovation process, so as to consider the interests of all system actors, not just the business. The Lab does it by juxtaposing academic insights with practical experience, and disseminating the learning in Innovation Compass, a tool that will be freely available to all businesses interested in responsible innovation.
Collaborative practice for producing academic knowledge with practical implications: In this collaboration, the epistemic authority lies increasingly with the researchers. Practitioners are important collaborators as they are the source of knowledge at the centre of the researcher attention but researchers retain greater epistemic authority, in terms of engaging participants in the research process when needed. The knowledge produced is both theoretical and it can be turned into practical. Researchers feed back their emerging and final insights to practitioners, which in turn allows the researchers to further refine their insights.
Vivek Soundararajan illustrates this approach to impact. Vivek has been studying the garment supply chain in India for over a decade asking questions related to precarity of workers, and inequalities inherent in the arrangements such as those related to caste. Vivek and his team have collaborated with several players in the garment supply chain such as workers, manufacturers, and industry association leaders. They often have fed back their emerging insights and organised workshops with these practitioners to take these insights from theory to practice.
Collaborative teaching for practical knowledge: in this approach, epistemic authority lies almost solely with the researcher. The researcher role is the one of the ‘expert’ helping practitioner reach their goals. Consulting, training, case study and practitioner book/article writing are some examples of this type of collaborative approach that can foster impact. Whilst the researcher comes to the partnership as an expert, the process of delivering on the training or writing a case study refines the theoretical ideas. Each teaching or consulting interaction is a source of enhancement, and greater understanding of the theoretical.
Cathy Clark on the Thinklist illustrates this approach to impact. In her own words, she is ‘helping entrepreneurs & investors impact the world’ through her evidence-based pedagogy around social impact and impact investing. Through the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship (CASE) at Duke University, Cathy has created the CASE i3 Consulting Practicum. This has so far matched over 30 teams of MBAs with global impact investing firms. More recently - in partnership with the UNDP, hundreds of practitioners, and academics from around the globe - she created a 10-hour free course to help a business or investor improve their measuring practises so as to better manage their social and environmental impacts. Her position as ‘expert’ has also seen her become a member of the advisory board of several impact investing and sustainable business organisations.
In conclusion we recognise that collaboration between practitioners and academics is key to bridging the practice-research gap. This can happen in many different ways - these different forms can be unpacked by exploring where the epistemic authority lies, and what kind of knowledge is created. In this short blog post, we have identified three illustrative examples, which hopefully contribute to a better understanding of impact that will benefit researchers more broadly. Partnership between academic and practitioners can be fuzzy and multifaceted, so by no means our categorisation is complete. But in describing these illustrative categories, we hope to outline the different ways in which research-practice collaboration can foster research impact on practice.