How does sustainability research get implemented by practitioners? New initiatives trace the journey.
Researchers want their findings to have an effect. This article describes the impact of two award-winning research projects and provides expert assessments of lessons learned.
Research Helps Educators Move beyond ‘Anec-data’
Jennifer MacKellar remembers when she first saw the article in Administrative Science Quarterly.
“It was so relevant to our work,” she recalls. MacKellar manages educational programs at the Green Chemistry Institute of the American Chemical Society (ACS), a professional society for chemists. The Institute works to catalyze adoption of green chemistry, which tries to reduce the health, safety, and environmental impacts of chemical products and processes.
The article she read, written by a research team including Jennifer Howard-Grenville and Julie Haack, examined the emergence of green chemistry over several decades. It identified different motivations for chemists to adopt green chemistry, from morality to practicality. The research also charted possible tensions between people with different motivations.
“The insight that came from this paper is something my colleagues and I had observed serving our community,” MacKellar explained. “But it was never articulated in a way that was meaningful. We have a lot of ‘anec-data’ out there, stories people had shared with us, but we never had data to back it up.”
She and her colleagues at the Green Chemistry Institute used the research findings to craft messages for audiences with different motivations. Greater knowledge of the tensions between different views also helped MacKellar in her convening work. “One of my main roles is figuring out how to get people in the room and make that time together productive,” MacKellar explained. “If people have very different motivations for being in the room, sometimes they’re talking past each other. So having the research identify tensions and drivers is helpful.”
MacKellar’s colleague Christiana Briddell wrote a blog about the article. “The research article is lengthy and dense, but she distilled it down to a couple-page blog post, and added a table at the end with a summary of the information, which is hugely helpful,” said MacKellar. Shared in ACS’s green chemistry newsletter, the blog reached 18,000 people.
The involvement of researcher Julie Haack is part of what led to the impact of this paper, said MacKellar. Haack, a professor at the University of Oregon, had long been involved with green chemistry efforts. “She’s unique: just curious and kind and open,” said MacKellar. The research blended perspectives from management and chemistry. “Knowing Julie and watching how she’s worked as a community builder within the green chemistry community, it was exciting to see her bridge to a new community outside of chemistry. That bridging to other disciplines is critical to being able to address grand sustainability challenges.”
The article didn’t answer all of MacKellar’s questions. “It brought up that tensions exist, but not how to navigate them,” noted MacKellar. “The problems are identified, but not necessarily the solutions. So it’s like looking in the mirror: here are things we’ve seen, and it’s good that’s accurate. But what we do about it is for all of us still to figure out.”
Explicit recommendations in the article might have been helpful, said MacKellar, but her relationship with Haack has helped her fill in gaps. “It is invaluable to me to be able to talk to her about it, and she’s so open that she will answer all my questions.”
The research has received both a Responsible Research in Business and Management Award and a Research Impact on Practice Award.
Findings Increase Worker Retention
Munif Mohammed, Chief Financial Officer at Lagardere Travel, saw a challenge. Lagardere was beginning retail operations in the Middle East, with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) one of the first locations. Over 80 per cent of their new staff were first-time female workers. “The issue of job readiness within the female workers in KSA is both an important business issue and also critical to social inclusion of this very underrepresented group,” he explained.
But keeping the workers was challenging. Initially, Lagardere retained only 50 per cent of the employees after six months and more than 25 per cent left the business within one month. High turnover is common for first-time workers from groups traditionally absent from the labor force.
Luckily, Mohammed was asked to serve as an executive reviewer for the annual Responsible Research in Management Award, which recognizes “methodologically rigorous and societally beneficial studies.” The article he reviewed studied precisely how companies can retain first-time workers from historically underrepresented groups. Researcher Aruna Ranganthan found that training can reduce turnover when it includes basic work-readiness skills (e.g. self-presentation, interpersonal communication, work-life separation).
Mohammed shared the paper with his CEO and human resources manager. Inspired by the research, Lagardere implemented an employee orientation program in KSA. “This program is specifically designed to provide the basics of workplace expectations, which in most countries are taken for granted,” Mohammed explained. “The specific elements of the program are taken directly from this research.”
One year after the implementation of the new employee orientation program, employee retention after six months increased from 50 per cent to 75 per cent. (Interestingly, retention for both male and female employees improved and are now at the same rate.)
Lagardere views the program in KSA as an initial investment. “Once they get the correct balance between job readiness and specific employment training, Lagardere intends to implement such a program in our expansion into other developing countries in Africa,” said Mohammed.
Connecting with the research through the award process was lucky but unusual, said Mohammed. “In business, we frequently look for new ideas, methods, and processes from our competitors, and maybe other related industries,” he said. “Sadly, we hardly look to academic research for innovation and change. The big challenge is connecting the business community with the academic community. Good research like this one is not brought to the attention of business leaders.”
Lessons for Researchers
Many individuals and organizations are working to link research with practitioners. Different models exist for how such connection occurs. NBS asked several leaders in this area to reflect on the stories told by Jennifer MacKellar and Munif Mohammed. What lessons do they provide for researchers trying to achieve impact?
Anne Tsui is a co-founder of Responsible Research in Business and Management (RRBM), which works to advance credible and useful research in the business and management disciplines. She is a former president of the Academy of Management.
I was surprised by the confidence that the two readers have in the results of the research. In both cases, the reader identified with the issue and saw the value of the idea or solution implied by the research findings.
When I heard from Munif that he had asked his HR manager to consider using the training suggested in the paper to reduce the premature departure of the first-time women workers in his company, I was worried. What if the research could not be replicated? Then, I realized that this research has a large body of literature behind it. In the 1960s and 1970s, there were many studies on the idea of “realistic job preview” (see Premack & Wanous (1985) for a meta analysis). The evidence is quite robust that a realistic understanding of the nature of the job improves retention of new employees. Once I realized that this new study builds on a solid body of knowledge, I relaxed.
Both studies illustrate perfectly that research on important problems with actionable solutions is valuable to our colleagues in the practice communities. Producing solutions to solving problems in the social world is a responsibility of social scientists, especially those in the professional schools, like engineering, medicine, law, education, and business. This is not only our responsibility and obligation, but it is also an opportunity for us to contribute to better business and management practices for a better world.
I always tell my students that we have to make sure that our research is solid. Once it is published in the public domain, it is available to two types of readers. One is our academic colleagues. Our research may influence how they think about the problem and may stimulate further research on the topic. The other is our colleagues in practice. They may apply our ideas to change their practices or formulate new policies.
Knowing the possibility of potential impact in both the academic and the practice worlds, we have to be serious about our research in choosing topics that matter and to conduct the studies with the highest level of rigor and integrity. This type of research with attention to both credibility and usefulness with integrity is what we call “responsible research.”
Emilio Marti is an initiator of the Outreach Award given by two divisions of the Academy of Management, Organizations and the Natural Environment (ONE) and Social Issues in Management (SIM). The award recognizes best outreach activities based on a published paper. Emilio is an assistant professor at the Rotterdam School of Management.
These are intriguing cases of impact. Yet, they may be quite exceptional. What surprised me is that in both cases, practitioners reached out to researchers to learn from them. Special circumstances made this possible: Jennifer MacKellar knew one of the authors of the green chemistry paper and Munif Mohammed read the worker retention paper as an executive reviewer for an academic award. Without these special circumstances, practitioners are unlikely to write blog posts about research they perceive as “lengthy and dense.”
These two cases testify to the power of boundary organizations such as the Green Chemistry Institute or Responsible Research in Business and Management. These boundary organizations created the connections between researchers and practitioners.
But in most cases, researchers need to reach out to practitioners themselves. And this is where the problem starts: once we finally get a paper published, we are often far behind on other papers. We thus switch from one paper to the next without taking a break between papers to think about who would be interested in our insights and how we could reach out to them. The ONE and SIM divisions have thus created the “ONE-SIM award for best outreach activities based on a published paper.” This new award should encourage researchers to take a break between papers to engage in outreach activities and help spread best practices on how to do this.
Translation of research insights into a language accessible to practitioners is an important approach to research impact (Shapiro, Kirkman, & Courtney, 2017). Translation is often seen as linear, end-of-pipe, post hoc activity which occurs once the research is complete. Prior research shows that translation is much more complex, such as when managers make the research insights their own by interpreting and applying them in their organizational context (Astley & Zammuto, 1992). Counter-intuitively, this process requires that the insights remain abstract, not translated into concrete guidance.
The two stories in this article remind us that successful translation for impact requires many ingredients beyond accessibility of language. First, both MacKellar (educator) and Mohammed (experienced businessman) are change agents who have the skills to make rigorous research relevant in their own context. The fact that Howard-Grenville’s study did not provide prescriptive guidance was potentially useful, not harmful, to implementation because MacKellar and colleagues could make the insights their own.
Second, these stories remind us that translation likely happens throughout the research project when a researcher works hand-in-hand with practitioners. Rynes, McNatt, and Bretz (1999) found that the more time a research spends at the research site, the greater is the possibility of implementation of research insights. MacKellar (practitioner) and Haack (researcher) forged such collaboration. It is possible that translation of Haack’s research into a blog or messages is only one of the many ways translation happened between the two parties through the research project.
Both these insights suggest that there are many ways in which researchers and practitioners can show up to make rigorous research relevant.
Read the Articles
Howard-Grenville, J., Nelson, A.J., Earle, A.G., Haack, J.A., & Young, D.M. (2017). “If chemists don’t do it, who is going to?” Peer-driven occupational change and the emergence of green chemistry. Administrative Science Quarterly, 62(3), 524–560.
Ranganathan, A. (2018). Train them to retain them: Work readiness and the retention of first-time women workers in India. Administrative Science Quarterly, 63(4), 879–909.
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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.
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