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Academic Research to Drive Performance

Transforming pure knowledge into real-world business practices


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Organizations can leverage academic research to enhance their performance in three different ways: direct transfer, selective adaptation, or challenging research conclusions, according to research from Warwick Business School’s Gerry Given and colleagues. 

Busy executives have little time to leaf through academic journals or article databases looking for research they can apply to their organization. Even if they did, the parameters of academic research, including the in-depth explanations of the statistical models and analyses that underpin and validate the research conclusions, do not lend themselves to real-world application and implementation.

This study was based on six companies that were research-driven, and involving managers that would be inclined to be open to academic research (such as managers with doctoral and post-graduate degrees). The researchers discovered to their surprise that even among these selected participants, most did not use academic research in their work. However, ‘knowledge leaders’, people within the organization who have the desire to learn from research and the skills to apply that research, can use three different processes for applying knowledge.

The first process is transposition, in which knowledge leaders transfer the research into the company. In this case, the knowledge leaders are heavily and personally invested the research. For example, one leader developed initiatives to improve patient flows based on process engineering concepts. Such initiatives, however, were strongly resisted by managers who believed the knowledge leader was infringing on their territory.

The second process is appropriation, in which knowledge leaders selectively borrow bits and pieces of research and adapt them to the company. One CEO, for example, developed a variation of the balanced scorecard for his organization. As CEO, the leader was in a position to implement ideas that fit with the strategy and structure of the company.

The third process is contention. In this case, knowledge leaders challenge established research, building on that challenge to develop innovative solutions and initiatives. For example, one leader rejected the top-down, data-driven paternalistic approach to health care, arguing for more local, community-driven initiatives.

The researchers found certain characteristics common to knowledge leaders and their work no matter which process was used. One of these characteristics was a deep personal engagement with the knowledge material (e.g. research texts and models). Another characteristic was the ability to create an ‘organizing apparatus’ — in other words, crafting the diverse texts and materials into something that engaged non-research-oriented leaders. Perhaps the most striking characteristic was the manner in which knowledge leaders embodied the knowledge. They were not simply carriers or adapters. Their pivotal, disruptive roles made them viewed by others as representations of the knowledge — and as such, the knowledge leaders could be personally resisted as in the first example above.

For organizations to take advantage of academic knowledge, they must make an extra effort to support and enable their knowledge leaders. The researchers recommend four steps:

  1. Organizations should create opportunities for closer collaboration with universities.The goal is to stimulate the flow of people and research across organizational and academic boundaries.
  2. Organizations should create ‘safe spaces’ where knowledge leaders can not only engage with research, but then have the opportunity to develop innovative initiatives and explore new practices.
  3. Organizations need to seek out potential knowledge leaders.Look for ‘hybrid’ managers who have research backgrounds or who have demonstrated skills in crossing between research and organizations.
  4. Finally, organizations should become more directly involved in research, encouraging postgraduate work from their managers or sponsoring industry-focused research problems. The goal is not to simply be the bank, but rather to combine or ‘cross-fertilize’ academic and organizational knowledge.

Access the original research paper: Knowledge Leadership: Mobilizing Management Research by Becoming the Knowledge Object. Michael D. Fischer, Sue Dopson, Louise Fitzgerald, Chris Bennett, Ewan Ferlie, Jean Ledger & Gerry McGivern. Human Relations (December 2015). 

Warwick Business School is a leading thought-developer and innovator, in the top one per cent of global business schools.

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