Organizations could be mining rich seams of high quality management research produced by academia to help them address real world problems. Unfortunately this isn’t happening because business leaders do not have time to leaf through academic journals, and because even if they did, academic research papers, presented with in-depth explanations of the statistical models and analyses that validate the research, do not lend themselves to real-world application and implementation.
According to a recent study by a team from Oxford’s Saïd Business School, Warwick Business School and Kings College London, the key is for organizations to mobilize knowledge leaders — people within the organization who have the desire to learn from research and the skills to apply that research to support innovation and create real-world performance advantages.
The study which drew on information from 137 senior managers in six UK research-driven health care companies, describes how knowledge leaders can leverage academic research into solutions for their organizations in three different ways:
Direct transfer (or transposition): Knowledge leaders transfer the research into the company. In this case, they are heavily and personally invested the research — for them, research is vital to the success of the company. Such initiatives, however, were strongly resisted by managers who believed the knowledge leader was infringing on their territory.
Selective adaptation (or appropriation): Knowledge leaders selectively borrow pieces of research and adapt them to the company,implementing ideas that fit with the strategy and structure of the company.
Challenging research conclusions (or contention): In this case, knowledge leaders challenge established research, building on that challenge to develop innovative solutions and initiatives for the organization
The researchers found certain characteristics common to knowledge leaders and their work no matter which process was used. One was a deep personal engagement with the research material. Another characteristic was the ability to craft 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.
The health care organizations studied were research-orientated with managers inclined to be open to academic research (i.e. managers with doctoral and post-graduate degrees). However, the researchers discovered to their surprise that even among these selected participants, most did not use academic research in their work. The methodologies and examples above are drawn from ‘outliers’ who exemplify the potential for the application of academic research, but whose efforts are often strongly resisted in their organizations.
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:
Create opportunities for closer collaboration with universities. The goal is to stimulate the flow of people and research across organizational and academic boundaries.
Create ‘safe spaces’ whether knowledge leaders can not only engage with research, but then have the opportunity to develop innovative initiatives and explore new practices.
Seek out potential knowledge leaders. Look for ‘hybrid’ managers who have research backgrounds or who have demonstrated skills in crossing between research and organizations.
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.
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Read the full research study:
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).
About the research team:
Michael D. Fischer’s profile at University of Oxford, Saïd Business School
Sue Dopson’s profile at University of Oxford, Saïd Business School
Louise Fitzgerald’s profile at University of Oxford, Saïd Business School
Ewan Ferlie’s profile at King’s College
Jean Ledger’s profile at King’s College
Gerry McGivern’s profile at Warwick Business School