Scholars at Cornell University share a process for applied sustainability research that produces tangible results for industry and academia alike.
Creating real-world change through applied research is core to the mandate of the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise. Dr. Erik Simanis, Managing Director of Market Creation Strategies, describes a process for applied research that produces tangible results for industry and academia alike.
How can research have impacts outside university walls?
The Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, Cornell University, tackles this challenge through applied research.
The Market Creation Strategies Initiative is the centre’s most recent applied project. The Initiative mobilizes research to help Latin American companies profitably serve low-income markets — otherwise known as Base (or Bottom) of the Pyramid (BOP). The initiative seeks to re-position BOP strategies as part of core (profit and loss) operations. The project is led by Dr. Erik Simanis at Cornell and his colleague Dr. Miguel Gardetti of the Center for the Study of Corporate Sustainability (Argentina).
“Over the past 10 years, there has been so much discussion of BOP as a development tool that companies either wrote it off as a business opportunity or simply slotted it into their corporate social responsibility activities,” says Simanis. “By blending academic theory with a deep understanding of the daily pressures faced by managers, we aim to help companies develop rigorous, implementable solutions that generate investment-worthy returns in these new and challenging markets.”
Process: Close Collaboration to Create Change
Simanis and Gardetti work directly with companies. After discussing a firm’s BOP ventures and challenges, the researchers provide background research to address managers’ challenges. They then meet with managers to discuss implications of the research and create action plans.
“Businesses need mentorship and personal support, as the challenges they encounter are often idiosyncratic to their organizations, product markets and geographies,” says Simanis. “Large venues, like practitioner conferences, allow managers to share positive, feel-good stories and generic learnings that rally enthusiasm, but rarely provide the granular learnings that make-or-break BOP ventures.”
In addition to providing individual support, Simanis and Gardetti also convene small focus groups of companies involved in the research. Focus group topics are tightly scoped and participants are invited based on their willingness to share learnings openly. This approach enables deep, relevant conversation.
Benefits of Applied Research for Centres
Simanis describes the benefits centres can reap by doing applied research:
Corporate funding: Companies will pay to support research that addresses their challenges. To ensure research has relevance and applicability, centres should involve companies in defining research questions. This model helps centres attract applied research projects and respond to the growing pressure to be self-funded.
Thought leadership: Working in the field gives researchers detailed insights on business challenges. That can lead to insights that traditional research won’t surface. You can raise your centre’s profile by communicating these unique insights widely, through journal articles (academic or practitioner), blogs, newsletters, editorials, roundtables or working groups. For example, Simanis’ previous applied work has been published high-profile outlets, including Harvard Business Review, Sloan Management Review and the Wall Street Journal.
Candid Q&A on Applied Research
Applied research is an uneasy topic in academia, as it’s perceived to fall into a no man’s land —somewhere between rigorous, objective research and ad hoc consulting. Despite the tremendous potential of applied research to create impact, it remains poorly incentivized at most business schools. Dr. Erik Simanis shares his views, including advice for academics and centres considering applied research, during a candid Q&A.
Contact Dr. Erik Simanis or for more information on the Market Creation Strategies Initiative or other applied work at the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise.
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