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The No-Man’s Land of Applied Research: A Candid Q&A

Applied research is an uneasy topic in academia. Cornell’s Erik Simanis provides advice for academics and centres considering pursing it.

Applied research is an uneasy topic in academia, as it’s perceived to fall into no man’s land — somewhere between rigorous, objective research and ad hoc consulting. Despite the tremendous potential of applied research to create real-world impact, it remains poorly incentivized at most business schools. Dr. Erik Simanis, Managing Director of the Market Creation Strategies Initiative at Cornell’s Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise, shares his views on applied research, including advice for academics and centres considering pursuing it.

Read more about the applied research happening at Cornell’s Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise.

A candid Q&A with Dr. Erik Simanis

Q: How is applied research different than consulting?

A: There are two major differences between applied research and consulting:

i) Problem definition: Both applied researchers and consultants seek to solve a corporate problem, but applied researchers start by framing problems in rigorous academic theory. Researchers then work directly with managers to define and test theoretically grounded solutions, while continually re-thinking the theory itself. Consultants, on the other hand, overlay pre-defined frameworks and solutions onto a company’s challenge. By starting with the solution, the problem and its underlying theory are also pre-defined. This works when problems are routine, but can result in misdiagnosis when the challenge has a unique root cause.
ii) Ability to say, “I don’t know”: Consultants are paid to provide the right answer and it’s rarely acceptable to say, “I don’t know.” Applied researchers offer a very different value proposition: Rather than offering guaranteed solutions, they help companies clearly define the problem, co-create solutions and test the outcomes.

Q: How is applied research different than traditional research?

A: Applied and traditional research differ in two key ways:

i) Methods: Applied researchers want to do more than understand. They want to find solutions that work in practice. Accordingly, they have to be attuned to the “noise” within a company — the internal politics, stories, histories and micro-practices — rather than abstracting the issue from its context. For this reason, applied researchers work very closely with front-line managers to understand the complex context of business challenges. This inherently leads to small sample sizes, which is quite different from traditional research.

ii) Research questions: Traditional research tests for the presence of general patterns in practice. To do so, companies are aggregated to achieve statistically valid sample sizes. This means the phenomena considered must be “standardized” across cases, leading to general findings. These findings are often a level of abstraction up from practice. Applied research, however, asks firm-specific, highly contextualized questions. Below are examples of traditional and applied research questions for comparison:

  • Traditional research question: Which strategies are effective for selling product to dispersed rural consumers?

  • Applied research question: Which strategies are effective for a Nigerian subsidiary of a multinational consumer product company selling dish cleaning products to rural farming families?

With the latter question, you can gain insights you never initially considered. For example, my 2012 HBR paper uncovered a fatal flaw in the conventional ‘high-volume, low-margin’ wisdom for reaching bottom-of-the-pyramid markets. This discovery came while developing the profit-and-loss statement for a project with DuPont’s Solae subsidiary, a manufacturer of soy protein.

Q: How can academics incorporate applied research into a successful career?

A: There’s no getting around it. Academics aren’t incentivized to do applied research. They are incentivized to publish in top-tier, peer-reviewed journals that are weighted heavily towards traditional research. If you want to advance your career by doing applied research, be entrepreneurial. You must bring in the money to support your own work, publicly celebrate the impact you make on practice and continually show people the value of your work. Aim for publication in top practitioner journals, like Harvard Business Review and Sloan Management Review.

Q: Why should sustainability centres support applied research?

A: Business schools already provide strong incentives for traditional research. Arguably, centres add only marginal value by doing more of the same. There is real, untapped opportunity, however, to change practice through applied research. In addition to creating real-world impact, applied research also helps centres become thought leaders, attract corporate funding and respond to the growing pressure to be financially self-sufficient.

Do you agree with Simanis? What additional insights would you offer for those interested in applied research? Please share.

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  • Chelsea Hicks-Webster
    Writer and Editor
    Network for Business Sustainability
    MSc in Biology with Environment and Sustainability, Western University

    Hi, I’m Chelsea. I have a Masters degree in Sustainability, where I studied ecosystem health. I'm also a Certified Life Coach. I used to be the Operations Manager for NBS, but now I just focus on my favourite part of that job – the writing! I also run a social enterprise, called Creating Me, dedicated to strengthening maternal and family well-being. I know first-hand how difficult it can be to balance career goals, impact, and one’s own well-being. When I’m not working on my own impact goals, I offer executive coaching and writing support to help researchers and change-makers grow their impact and well-being. (creatingme.ca/sustainability).

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