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Trying to change the world through research? You’re not alone. Sustainability centre staff and directors around the world share this challenge. On March 4, 2014, they met on a webinar to discuss strategies for doing research with impact. If you’d like to participate in future interactive webinars, join the Sustainability Centres Community.

The webinar’s featured speakers included Prof. William Young (University of Leeds), Pam Laughland (Network for Business Sustainability), Tim Faveri (Tim Hortons Inc.) and Dr. John Robinson (University of British Columbia). Centres participating in the webinar came from many countries, including Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Spain, Germany and Costa Rica. This primer summarizes their insights.

Three Approaches to Doing Research with Impact

Research often fails to impact practice: the so-called “research-practice gap.”  Centres at universities around the world are fighting to increase impact through creative research approaches.  Webinar participants identified three such approaches, and gave advice for those seeking to do something similar.

1. Bi-lateral collaboration

The University of Leeds’ Business & Organizations for Sustainable Societies Research Group (BOSS) spent three years building a strong research relationship with retailer Asda, a subsidiary of Wal-Mart. Their current collaborative research places a post-doctoral researcher within Asda’s operations to develop tools for motivating consumers to reduce household food waste.

Prof. William Young, BOSS Director, shares process advice for developing this type of bi-lateral research relationship.

  • Be in the room: To find corporate partners, go to the physical and virtual spaces where managers meet, such as practitioner conferences.
  • Be patient: Relationship building takes time.  It took three years of relationship building before Asda was ready to engage in deep collaborative research.
  • Have a strong research record: If companies are going to engage in academic research, they want to work with the best.  Ensure you have a strong research record and use it to increase your credibility.
  • Allow companies to test you out: Companies, especially those that have never dabbled in academic research, may want to test the waters before committing.  Consider offering early support by placing your best students in internships or sharing research and research contacts.
  • Take an institutional perspective: It may be tempting to guard your corporate contacts, but you can strengthen these relationships by sharing.  Companies will appreciate if you can connect them with faculty whose research interests align with corporate needs.
  • Be persistent:  The pace of business is faster than the pace of academia.  Managers have many competing priorities and research may be low on the list.
  • Place researchers within companies: Having researchers work directly within a company facilitates deep understanding and institutional change.  This leads to greater impact.

To learn more about impactful bi-lateral research, contact Prof. William Young at c.w.young@leeds.ac.uk.

2.     Multi-lateral collaboration

The Network for Business Sustainability (NBS) at Ivey Business School launched its Leadership Council in 2008.  The Council is a long-term research partnership with 18 Canadian businesses, government bodies and non-government organizations. NBS facilitates research co-creation between Council members and international research teams on topics relevant to business, and disseminates findings broadly.  Pam Laughland, NBS Managing Director, and Tim Faveri, Director of Sustainability and Responsibility at Tim Hortons Inc. (a founding Council member) share insights on key steps in this process:

Read the full list of 2014 Leadership Council challenges, which include acting for tomorrow today, creating resilient sustainability programs, fighting consumer apathy, improving sustainability in value chains and more!

  • Recruitment: Organizations represented on the Council are (a) cross-sectoral and (b) sustainability leaders. Cross-sectoral representation avoids competitive concerns, increases candid dialogue and maximizes innovation.  Members’ sustainability leadership ensures that the topics addressed are cutting-edge.  It also lends credibility to the research outputs and increases their likelihood of implementation at other firms.  The individuals representing organizations on the Council are also important: they should be tenacious and able to push the sustainability agenda internally.
  • Topic selection: Research with impact must be driven by user needs. Each September, NBS convenes Council members to identify Canada’s top business sustainability challenges.  The two top challenges become the topic of major research projects.  Council members self-select into Guidance Committees, to guide the research process.
  • Call for researchers: NBS issues a broad call for proposals to recruit the world’s best research team.  The project’s Guidance Committee helps select the successful team.
  • Monthly check-ins: NBS facilitates monthly calls between researchers and Guidance Committee members to discuss research progress.  This ensures Council members continually shape the research.
  • Actionable products: To maximize usefulness to managers, research content is short and actionable, including components such as decision-making tools, checklists and visual frameworks.
  • Broad dissemination: Knowledge products are widely disseminated to managers.  NBS shares content via its website, newsletter, workshops and practitioner conferences.

Council members appreciate participating in the research process, says Faveri. They value sharing best practices at annual meetings and use resulting research to inform sustainability strategy.

3.     Change institutional norms

The Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) is now a living sustainability laboratory at the University of British Columbia.  Dr. John Robinson, CIRS co-founder, describes the centre’s creation as a 10-year process of deep institutional change.  The process was challenging and educational.  Dr. Robinson faced five major obstacles:

  • Role of the university: Universities always aren’t always engaged in community change. Faculty members feel that they work not for the university, but rather as individuals with global colleagues.  Motivating faculty members to engage and do research with impact requires changing the university culture.
  • Path dependence: Institutional norms make change difficult.  Changing university culture requires changing institutional rules like job descriptions, performance evaluation criteria, codes of practice and professional or regulatory requirements.
  • Coordination: Universities are bureaucracies.  You may need to engage 10 different departments to create a centre. Directors should pay regular visits to people with the power to disrupt their activities to ensure ongoing support.
  • Momentum: Showing regular progress maintains support. Publicly celebrate small victories.
  • Partnerships and team building: Involving diverse partners both on and off campus will deepen a centre’s support and impact.  Impactful centres act have the patience and flexibility to unite diverse stakeholders, creating a partnership that is greater than the sum of its parts.

To learn more about creating impact through institutional change, contact Dr. John Robinson at john.robinson@ubc.ca.

Source: Bansal, P., Bertels, S., Ewart, T., MacConnachie, P., & O’Brien, J. 2012. Bridging the Research-Practice Gap. Academy of Management Perspectives, 26: 73-92.

Centres Community Webinar Series

Regular webinars allow direct dialogue between centres from around the world. Webinar topics reflect member challenges and focus on topics related to sustainability teaching, research or practice.  This document summarizes discussion on research with impact during a webinar hosted in March 2014.

About the Sustainability Centres Community (SCC)

Hundreds of sustainability centres at business schools around the world are dedicated to driving sustainable business. These centres teach, conduct research and work with industry to facilitate social and environmental change. The SCC advances collaboration between centres by allowing them to (1) find one another using searchable profiles, (2) share opportunities on a Community forum and (3) share best practices through regular webinars and success stories published monthly.  Add your centre to the Community now!