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Many Shades of Cocreation: Research Designs for Collaboration (Part 1)

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When academics and practitioners work together on research, there’s no standard template to follow. Two innovative projects provide models.

Researchers are seldom trained in designing research that is cocreative: where “academic researchers and the practitioners set out to research a problem where their interests intersect.”[1] But many funding opportunities require researchers to closely involve stakeholders in their projects. With a few exceptions, such as the engaged scholarship model, there is no standard research design to follow. Researchers ultimately design their studies to meet project needs. As a result, a variety of designs fall into the broad category of cocreation.

We celebrate this diversity by showcasing four cocreative research designs. In a two-part series, we describe projects’ goals, teams, processes and impacts. This article features two research projects. “Innovation for Sustainability” was led by Amanda Williams (ETH Zurich), Gail Whiteman(Lancaster University), Steve Kennedy (Rotterdam School of Management), and industry partner Rodney Irwin (World Business Council for Sustainable Development). “New Global” was led by Minna Halme and Sara Lindeman(Aalto University).

We hope these projects provide inspiration in crafting your own research design. We encourage you to reach out to these researchers for more insights, and to Garima Sharma at NBS if you would like us to feature your cocreation project.

Thank you to Amanda Williams and Sara Lindeman for providing these project descriptions.

Project: Innovation for Sustainability

Funder: Marie Curie Initial Training network, Innovation for Sustainability program

Goals: This project was a collaboration with World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). Our main goal was to deliver outcomes for both academia and practice while advancing knowledge on sustainable innovation. As well, we trained and developed an early career researcher.

Team: The Innovation for Sustainability training network is a Marie Curie (European Union)-funded network that brought together eight universities each with their own PhD candidate, supervisors and industry partner. Our industry partner was the WBCSD. Our smaller project team included a PhD student, Amanda Williams (ETH Zurich), academic supervisors Gail Whiteman (Lancaster University) and Steve Kennedy (Rotterdam School of Management), and an industry supervisor, Rodney Irwin (WBCSD).

Process: Our collaboration process with WBCSD was improvised and emergent. We learned a lot during the process. WBCSD often works with secondees from the member companies, but less often from academia. So we were entering into a process that hadn’t been done, and it took time to work out all the practicalities.

After we passed the hurdle of administrative formalities, Amanda went to live in Geneva, Switzerland to work at the WBCSD main office and collect data. For participant observation data collection, she worked in the main office for 109 days, engaging in daily office work, all staff and team meetings, workshops with companies, conferences, social events and after work gatherings. In addition to being in Geneva, she traveled for 47 days to annual meetings, partner organizations, and member company visits.

The initial project focus was Action2020, WBCSD’s science-based strategic platform. But the project expanded over time to examine WBCSD’s broader evolution from 2008-2018, with a focus on meetings related to the SDGs. Amanda joined the Redefining Value team led by Rodney and primarily attended meetings of that work stream.

Amanda wrote detailed field notes at the end of each day, which is very challenging after long days of observing while working. From the field notes, she wrote a lengthy ethnographic narrative of her experience at WBCSD. And we also collected documents, which helped us to develop a detailed timeline of events at WBCSD from 2008-2018.

She conducted over 100 formal interviews with WBCSD staff, member company representatives and partner organizations. Then she coded all the interviews line-by-line. After the line-by-line coding was finished, as a team we engaged in long analytical discussions to develop conceptual themes to explain the data but at the same time going back to the data to inform our discussions. We sent each other a series of analytical memos to clarify our thoughts. With the ‘final’ conceptual model, we went back to the data to compare and contract the outcome.

Lessons learned: We are very happy with the results of our collaboration, but our team faced a number of challenges in delivering results for academic and practice.

  • Amanda spent a significant time embedded in the field at WBCSD. On the positive side, this placement meant she was well positioned to deliver outcomes for practice. However, it also meant spending time away from her desk in Rotterdam, where she could analyze the enormous amount of rich qualitative data.

  • Industry moves quickly. The project timelines are much shorter than in academia, so we had to embed Amanda quickly in a project, which was challenging.

  • Our supervisory team had experience both in practice and in academia, making it easier to speak the same language, understand different deliverables, and be sympathetic to the norms and values of each sector. For example, Rodney made the completion of Amanda’s PhD the top priority and allowed us the space to focus on the academic outputs. This really helped us to bridge between the two worlds.

Deliverables: Our project included a number of planned and unplanned deliverables. The planned deliverables for the project to provide to European Union Commissioners included a case study book (including one case from each of the academic partners) and a policy brief. Each university also produced their own academic outputs. So far, we have published two academic articles related to the project: a literature review and conceptual piece, both from Amanda’s 2nd year PhD research proposal. Several more empirical pieces are still in the pipeline.

A number of unplanned, not mandatory, deliverables also came out of our project. We knew from the beginning that Amanda would work on a WBCSD project as part of her field research. But we didn’t know which project. She was able to contribute to the SDG Compass, a guide for business action on the SDGs. We also achieved other unanticipated outcomes on the sidelines such as bringing together academia and practice in a 2-day workshop. All of our team members contributed to the organization of this event, content and facilitation during the event. What is interesting is that the unplanned practitioner-oriented contributions have come back to influence the academic outputs. For example, it wasn’t planned for Amanda to work on the SDG Compass, but these insights have substantially influenced her academic papers.

We also thought of ways to reach different audiences. For example, we wrote a practitioner oriented blog piece and contributed to an online learning module about the SDGs. Together with Rodney, we wrote a piece about the academic/practitioner gap and we are still thinking of new ways to reach practitioners with our academic output.

Project: New Global: Co-creating Frugal and Reverse Innovations in Complex Global Systems

Funder: National Innovation Fund, Finland

Goals: Our aim was to position Finland as a future strong player in business that solves global sustainability challenges. This project explored new innovation pathways for our country, looking at the long-term: 15-20 years. We explored how Finnish companies could co-innovate in different ways: for example, by partnering with pioneering start-ups in emerging markets, or by collaborating with universities or intermediary organisations. We explored gaps related to different paths, such as lack of funding or capabilities.

Team: We had an interdisciplinary team building on Aalto’s best knowledge on sustainability, and drawing from established research groups: Sustainability in Business, Water and Development, Nodus Sustainable Design, and Energy (new energy technologies, dept. of physics). Leaders were Prof. Minna Halme and Dr. Sara Lindeman.

Process: The work included a lot of facilitation, but in rather new forms. We conducted experiments, where we encouraged new types of collaborations and partnership and then studied these projects. For example, we engaged several problem-based learning courses to have students look at how a large Finnish water company’s technology could serve low-income populations in East Africa. This exploration resulted in a start-up venture. We also encouraged and facilitated development programs in East Africa in engaging with companies, resulting in new collaborations. We then studied these processes.

We developed a working praxis for interdisciplinary research. We had the challenge of our researchers having separate cases, rather than having one shared case. To create interdisciplinary insights, we had bi-weekly research seminars, weekly co-learning meetings, and weekly work update meetings. The weekly co-learning meetings were especially important to create a joint language and understanding of our work. Creating this culture took a long time and was underpinned by a philosophy of transparency.

Our work also included many stakeholders, with whom we connected through personal networks. To connect the dots between diverse networks, our weekly meetings were critical.

Lessons learned:

  • When working with non-academic partners, find a way to demonstrate concretely that you are valuable for them. That value might be something that from your perspective is marginal, for example some tool or list with information. Finding this “sweet spot” for collaborating is essential.

  • Interdisciplinary research requires that you budget enough time to develop a common understanding of what you want to do. Nurture a culture where people recognize the value in listening to everyone’s perspective and comments.

  • At the outset of our project, the funders’ expectations regarding the deliverables were unrealistic. They first expected commercial innovations after two years. This mismatch between the nature of the project and the funder expectations was very challenging. Forutunately, this misconception was corrected and the expectations came in line with the long-term nature of the project.

  • It is important to capture more fuzzy outcomes, such as new collaborations or new stakeholder actions.

Deliverables: We have a framework for capturing and communicating our direct and indirect impacts across several spheres, including research, education, business, civil society, government. Our deliverables range from research outputs such as publications, PhDs and Master thesis to innovation deliverables such as a start-up and in-house ventures that have spun off from the project. Our project is described here; in May, this webpage will become a creative online platform.

1 Mohrman, S. A., Pasmore, W. A., Shani, A. B., Stymne, B., & Adler, N. 2008. Toward building a collaborative research community. Handbook of Collaborative Research Community: 615–634. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

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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  • Garima Sharma

    Garima Sharma is an Assistant Professor at Kogod School of Business, American University. Her research focuses on sustainability, social entrepreneurship and related tensions of purpose and profits. She is also interested in understanding how research impacts practice, and has created many resources on co-creation for NBS, available here: https://nbs.net/cocreation/. Garima has published in many journals and is on the editorial review boards of Academy of Management Journal, and Organization & Environment. Garima received her PhD from Case Western Reserve University, after which she was a postdoctoral fellow at NBS and Ivey Business School, Western University.

  • Amanda Williams
  • Sara Lindeman
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