How to Translate Research without Dumbing It Down

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Researchers often think they need to remove abstraction when they translate research for managers. That’s not true.

Anyone who has engaged in research translation can attest that it is far from easy. At the Network for Business Sustainability (NBS), we have spent years working with researchers on research translation. In a series of blog posts, we will share our experiences. Here, we talk about how to keep what makes research special while increasing its practical utility. 

On the surface, research translation seems like a straight-forward exercise, a low-hanging fruit for researchers who want to effect change. After all, researchers have done all the hard work of conducting research. How hard can it be to make the findings accessible for practice?  

Examples of research translation are everywhere, often found in outlets such The Conversation, Harvard Business Review, and online blogs. It’s necessary to share research insights more widely. But it’s not always clear what aspect of a scholarly work is most valuable.  

Common approaches to translation can misdirect

Translated research often seems to follow a recognizable template that aims to make findings more concrete and grounded in managers’ reality. 

You’ve seen this approach in blogs and management books in airport stores (when people traveled!). Core elements include: 

  • An engaging title, often promising an easy-to-apply formula. Numbered lists are notoriously appealing, resulting in articles that offer “5 Steps to Action” or “3 Paths to Change.” 

  • A specific application, emphasizing the research’s relevance to a context or challenge.  

  • Recommendations for concrete action.  

  • Anecdotes and examples. These humanize the content, show relevance, and provide models. 

This approach to translation has many strengths. It tends to be easy for busy readers to understand, and it builds on writing strategies that are effective in drawing people’s attention. For example, psychological research shows that people love stories — those anecdotes and examples.   

However, this model also has drawbacks, particularly related to the concreteness or specificity it promises. Formulas and recommendations can offer inappropriate certainty to users. And they don’t take advantage of one of the strengths of research. At its best, academic research produces ideas and theories that are abstract; they identify a general principle that extends beyond any specific context.  

When research translation abandons this abstraction, researchers may feel frustrated – as though their work has been dumbed down or misrepresented. And managers can feel misled.

We suggest a slightly different strategy for translation, one that may better retain the unique and important contribution of academic research. This is a strategy for translation that has been raised by a few researchers [1] but ironically remains within the bounds of academic publications, and it is one that we have found valuable at NBS. 

Keep the abstraction of research when translating

Abstraction is a strength, not a weakness, in research translation. Abstract ideas are portable from one context to another because they are ‘bare bones,’ not linked to a context. In a sense, they are similar to an emoji. The lack of embellishment allows people to readily see themselves in the idea or image.  

Keeping abstraction is a deliberate act in translation. In particular, it means accepting that translated content does not have to be prescriptive. The researcher does not need to explicitly tie the findings to a context, or identify the actionable elements.  

Rather, thoughtful managers can identify the relevance [2] of abstract ideas. Abstract concepts allow for flexibility of meaning such that managers across different organizations have the ability to interpret and use the idea in their unique context. [3]  Practitioners’ local knowledge will likely make them more effective in finding the application, and the process may lead them to become more engaged and invested. 

For example: a manager may come across an abstract concept such as a “learning organization” and apply it as they think through an organizational problem such as pivoting after a global crisis like COVID-19. The researcher cannot make the original framework concrete enough to cover all contingencies faced by the managers, but the abstraction in the framework can be generative. Abstraction thus allows for and even enables application. 

Tima Bansal, NBS Executive Director, commented recently on the role of researchers: 

“I do feel there is value in academic thought, as we try to analyze the why and how. A prescriptive approach not only masks the how and why, but it assumes that we can control our context, which allows us to prescribe solutions.  

“I’ve been advocating for a more systems approach to theorizing, which recognizes that organizations are complex and aren’t fully knowable or controllable. So, one can only nudge a system and there are several ‘good’ practices, not single ‘best’ practices.” 

Translation does mean simplifying language 

In a sense, the work of translation is making the abstraction as clear as possible. Translation is successful when the translator eliminates writing that obscures the concepts. Ways of writing sometimes acceptable in academia can prevent your message from getting out. Focus your efforts on the standard banes of writers: passive voice, convoluted sentences, complicated vocabulary, and research jargon. Simplifying means streamlining sentences, using easier vocabulary, and so forth.  

You can find ways to engage readers that don’t compromise the concepts you’re presenting.      For example, stories can still be helpful. In a future blog, we’ll explore additional aspects of engaging writing. What remains important is not to blindly make translation an exercise of making insights concrete.

A model for translation 

Garima recently experienced the generativity in sustaining abstraction. She was invited to share research-based insights on a panel on post-COVID workplaces for managers from small and medium-sized businesses in India. She decided to share insights from a wonderful piece of research by Kim et al. that theorizes the ‘long present.’ She struggled for days to figure out how to translate the idea. 

She soon realized that her efforts had focused on coming up with concrete practices for applying the abstract idea of ‘long present,’ instead of simplifying the language. Since her efforts didn’t seem to work, she decided to take a chance and present the concept with all of its abstraction but in a language that was accessible, without research jargon. To her surprise, many managers in the audience made the idea their own. They offered examples and practices to make the abstract idea of ‘long present’ relevant in their work.

Advice for powerful research translation      

If you are on your own quest for translating research, here are a few suggestions: 

  • Hold true to your contribution. By providing abstract ideas, you provide a valuable input for managers wrestling with organizational problems. Managers can make your rigorous insights relevant by drawing conclusions and actions for their own context. 

  • Getting your work edited by a non-academic is not an easy exercise. It is easy to hold onto your writing and dismiss the attempts toward simplification. However, best translation pieces are those in which the researcher can perform a balancing act between holding strong and relenting. If you are working with a media office, or an organization such as the NBS, choose when it is okay to relent and when simplifying is not fully representative of your work. A few concessions go a long way. 

  • See translation as an opportunity for discovering new insights, for taking your ideas forward. The editors working with you will ask questions, will request simplification. Treat these opportunities to see your ideas in new light, potentially fostering new research. 

About the Authors

Garima Sharma: I am an Assistant Professor at the Georgia State University. My research focuses on how businesses can solve the social and environmental problems we face today. I study how business and its decision makers act, think, and organize to manage the tension in social and profit goals.  

I also see researcher-manager collaboration as an important piece of the sustainability puzzle. In my research, I ask how research and practice communities bridge their differences to generate knowledge related to intractable social and environmental issues. Learn more.  

Maya Fischhoff: As the Knowledge Manager for NBS, Maya develops and oversees NBS’s knowledge products. Maya has been with NBS since 2012. She earned a PhD in business sustainability from the University of Michigan, and she relies on this background and her experience in the public and private sector to help her bridge research and practice.  

NBS’s Co-Creation Initiative 

NBS seeks to help researchers navigate the path of co-creation with practitioners: integrating academic and practitioner knowledge for unique insights. Review our many existing resources and subscribe to our academic newsletter for new co-creation guidance. 

We also hope you’ll contribute your own insights. Please share your interest by emailing Garima Sharma

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