Our series shows how academics and practitioners can collaborate on research. Projects on SMEs and oil sands provide models for cocreation.
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.” As a result, a variety of designs fall into the broad category of cocreation.
In a two-part series, we celebrate this diversity by showcasing four cocreative research designs, looking at projects’ goals, teams, processes, impacts, and lessons learned. This article features two research projects: “Sustainable, Strategic and Opportunity-Oriented Management of SMEs” and “Accelerating Sustainability-Focused Innovation in Canada’s Oil Sands.” Thanks to Daniela Ortiz and Sylvia Grewatsch for the project descriptions.
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.
Project: Sustainable, Strategic and Opportunity-Oriented Management of SMEs
Funder: City of Vienna
Goals: The project sought to improve understanding of how Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) integrate sustainability into their strategy and operations. It was a collaborative project, intended to generate knowledge and transfer it to SMEs. The focus was Austrian SMEs, and the City of Vienna funded the project.
The project also sought to develop curricula on this specific topic at the FHWien University of Applied Sciences for Management and Communication, the project host. The University works with SMEs as partners, many of its students are SME employees.
The focus of academic outputs was initially general and emerged during the research. The team looked at different levels of implementation of sustainability in SMEs as well as the antecedents of formal and informal measures of sustainability integration in SMEs.
Team: Daniela Ortiz led the project, working with two junior associates and a student research assistant. Markus Scholz, head of the University’s Competence Center for Corporate Governance and Business Ethics, developed the proposal. Eight SMEs were ultimately part of the project.
Lesson learned: The lead researcher had to develop additional facilitator skills during the project. Running workshops for practitioners required the ability to facilitate peer learning through the right set of questions.
Process: The project ran from February 2016 to January 2019. The research team developed the questions and project design. The project had four phases:
Develop assessment tool, showing level of integration of sustainability. The research team based the tool on literature review and focus groups with practitioners and experts in corporate social responsibility. One focus group included SMEs.
Enlist companies for collaboration and data collection. In selecting companies, the research team balanced scholarly and practical goals. They sought companies that would be both rich sources of data (e.g. already sustainability-oriented) and interested in project participation. Recruitment happened through emails, calls, and visits. Once the companies committed, the researchers began collecting data. Over about three months, they reviewed documents and interviewed general managers, owners, and staff.
Brief individual companies. The researchers gave each company a summary account of how they saw the company integrating sustainability into its processes and strategies. The summary drew on the assessment model and collected data. Briefings were followed by discussion and recommendations. Researchers also used the data collected for academic papers.
Hold workshops for multiple companies. Two workshops brought together general managers from multiple companies. The companies shaped the workshops’ focus. The first workshop examined how to integrate sustainability into all levels of a company. (Often an SME manager or owner was an organization’s sustainability champion, and found it challenging to spread the ideas through the organization.) This workshop emphasized peer-to-peer learning. For the second workshop, companies wanted to look at future topics, and the researchers proposed looking at the relevance of the UN Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs). Managers shared SDG-related activities and identified future plans. (For example, a boutique hotel will design 17 rooms according to SDG themes to support awareness.) Participants valued both workshops. Workshops focused on practitioner goals, not academic research outputs.
The research process is a dialogue, and not a one-way communication process. Researchers can help managers reflect on their actions and experiences by comparing them with existing theoretical and empirical knowledge. The exchange should be a fruitful conversation: the researcher makes sense of theory by discussing practical problems with managers, and the researcher’s expertise (ideally) moves managers forward. Ortiz would tell managers: “You do a lot, and I want to learn from you. From this process, you will also gain insights.” After presenting findings, she would ask managers for feedback. This dynamic made managers willing to share information and even continue the learning relationship after the project finished. Ortiz still meets periodically with managers to discuss their current challenges.
The process of interacting with the companies is itself a phenomenon that deserves investigation. The initial research design did not integrate the workshops into the research process; the workshops were planned for the companies, as a practical output. We learned that the sources of data in collaborative projects can be manifold and researchers should remain flexible regarding what to include in the research.
Don’t underestimate the time required to work with companies. Building fruitful relationships with SMEs means working with the general manager or owner, who is very busy. Researchers need to be flexible and go to the managers, i.e. meet them in their own premises. Plan ahead: workshops had to be scheduled 4-6 months in advance to accommodate managers’ schedules.
Define roles and identify outputs from the beginning, so companies know what to expect. Communicate a realistic time horizon at the beginning of the cooperation.
Support opportunities for peer learning, as in the project’s final workshops. Companies really value in engaging with others facing the same issues.
Deliverables: Each company received a briefing that provided feedback on its current implementation of sustainability and advice on how to develop sustainability-oriented strategies.
The researchers developed separate academic deliverables: two journal articles and several conference papers, as well as course curricula for master’s level sustainability courses. Some company briefings became case studies for class discussion.
The team is now working to develop a knowledge hub around these issues.
Be realistic on deliverables. Preparing practical outputs (e.g. briefings) is time intensive, and these outputs don’t always mesh with academic deliverables. Academic deliverables for this project required separate data analysis.
Take the time to translate research models and concepts in an attractive way for practitioners. Ask them “What do you call this?” Language must be adapted to their reality.
Additional information about the project is here.
Project: Accelerating Sustainability-Focused Innovation in Canada’s Oil Sands
Funder: Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (Canada)
Goals: The question our project partners asked was: how can we accelerate the collaborative innovation process in the Albertan Oil Sands industry? We divided the question into sub-questions to align with the different project phases.
Project sub-questions were:
What does the innovation process in oil sands companies look like? How can the process be improved to yield more competitive and sustainable outcomes?
How can commercial technologies be deployed (or fail) faster and cheaper?
How can industry organization and government partners assist companies’ innovation process?
Lesson learned: The project questions are not often aligned with academic research interests, and the two should not be confused. But, addressing the project questions gave us fantastic access, which gave us insights useful for more academic outputs. We therefore decided to focus on the project deliverables first and shift our focus to academic outputs once the project partners have received their key deliverables.
Team: Three researchers were involved in this project: Tima Bansal, Sylvia Grewatsch, and Joel Gehman. All researchers were equally involved in the project; our research expertise was at the intersection of strategy, sustainability, and innovation. The research team worked with six industry experts, including two representatives from the federal and provincial governments and four industry representatives. We also worked with representatives from individual companies.
Developing partnerships with industry takes time and the partnerships are often volatile because companies have so much turnover. Ensure that the commitment comes from the organization, and is not embedded in just a single individual. Even though the project was only one year long, almost every key contact had left during that time, so it was difficult to extend the project.
Short, regular, intense meetings work better than longer meetings held infrequently (such as one day workshops). Attention spans are short and project partners’ availability is limited. Furthermore, meetings must have continuity or be linked by a central theme, so that people feel engaged and can see that they work towards a common purpose/goal.
Create a safe environment where people are willing to share information, especially when many different partners are involved (in our case, competing companies, project funders, and industry group representatives). Ensure confidentiality among project partners by providing a mix of common feedback sessions with all project partners and 1-1 sessions with each project partner, depending on the insight you want to share. If you cannot create a safe environment, then people will not share information with each other and with the project team. The more information companies provide, the better the project outcome.
Process: Project design was set at the beginning by the research team and project partners. The project lasted from April 2017-March 2018 and was divided into the following stages.
Stage 1 (April–May 2017): Collect documentation of innovation processes and case study-related materials, and complete background work.
Stage 2 (June–July 2017): Complete case studies in order to gain deeper insights into innovation processes and potential areas of strengths and weaknesses.
Stage 3 (August–October 2017): Interview organizational members to: (a) map the innovation process, (b) define an innovation ecosystem of industrial actors, and (c) generate insights into influencing factors for success and failures.
Stage 4 (November–December 2017): Conduct final analysis and develop the main innovation framework.
Stage 5 (January–March 2018): Present to each partner and hold a final group meeting.
We shared our feedback with project partners at all stages. Each deliverable was iterated at least twice with each project partner.
Almost every other month, all three researchers went to Calgary to conduct interviews or to present findings. In total we had six in-person meetings in Calgary, two in-person meeting in Ottawa and three virtual meetings. Additionally, we conducted around 60 interviews, mainly in person.
Lesson learned: Managing such a large project takes more time and manpower than you would think: for writing reports, communicating with project partners, getting approvals, arranging meetings and interviews, working with university administration, etc.
Deliverables: The research team produced several deliverables related to the project questions. We developed these key deliverables for the project partners:
A framework — the Innovation Roadmap — which illustrates the readiness and radicalness of innovations and recommends ways to accelerate innovations
Individualized innovation insights for each partner. Insights identified strength and opportunities of individual companies’ innovation processes and of collaborative innovation-processes across the industry
Three case studies on the development of outstanding environmental technologies, for internal training purposes
Lesson learned: Produce deliverables that engage practitioners and excite them to integrate insights into their existing processes and structures. Otherwise deliverables end up on the shelf.
 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
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We also hope you’ll contribute your own insights. Please share your interest by emailing Garima Sharma.