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How to develop research with impact

Options:     Print Version - How to develop research with impact, part 3 Print view

Article Sections

  1. Introduction
  2. Impact in the academe
  3. Impact outside academe
  4. References

Impact outside academe

Describing itself as "a leading publisher of global research with impact in business, society, public policy and education", Emerald prides itself on publishing articles which have an impact both inside and outside the world of academe.

In other words, impact is defined in terms of what one Guardian columnist described as, "making a demonstrable difference in a non-academic context" (Wolff, 2010).

There is hardly an Emerald editor who does not look, alongside rigorous research, for implications for practice. Some articles have a particular section for practical implications; others summarize the research so that working managers can read quickly what they need to know.

Two of Emerald's are for non-academic impact:

  1. Social impact – "research that makes a tangible difference for the good of society" – awarded for the first time in 2010.
  2. Best practical implications

Emerald is far from being a lone voice crying in the wind. Academics and academic and professional bodies also lament the way that in management, research is often divorced from real impact.

In their paper urging a new look at academic assessment systems (Adler and Harzing, 2009: p. 2), the authors quote the Financial Times as claiming that business views business-school research as irrelevant. They call for academics to be judged not by their star papers, but by research that has made a difference.

" ... in management, as in other professional disciplines, impact needs to be assessed not only among scholars, but rather within both the academic and professional communities of discourse" (Adler and Harzing, 2009: p. 26).

Criticism of the irrelevance of management research became particularly acute around the time of the global financial crisis that began in 2008. Questions such as "Were business schools to blame for not teaching ethics?", and "What about the role of research?" were raised.

At the beginning of 2010, Emerald developed a new framework for evaluating research impact, which looked at the following areas:

  • Knowledge (further research). Research will contribute to the body of knowledge. This can be assessed through citation and usage impact factors, as well as the implications for research identified in the research conclusions.
  • Practice. Industry and business leaders, practitioners and consultants in both public and private sector organizations are all affected by the outcomes of research. This can be assessed through the implications for practice that are identified in the research conclusions. Evidence that research has been applied successfully in industry and business practice can be gathered to demonstrate usefulness.
  • Teaching. Students and faculty in a classroom setting are direct consumers of research. The impact of research in teaching can be assessed through the clarity of the conclusions to aid learning, and the provision of case studies and examples.
  • Public policy. Civil servants, politicians, decision makers in public bodies, institutions, and charities draw on research to shape their policies and practice. Implications for policymaking and society can be identified in the research conclusions. Evidence that research has influenced public policy successfully can be gathered to demonstrate usefulness.
  • Society. Cultural norms and accepted ways of thinking can and should be challenged by the outputs of research. This will include the impact on the environment (at micro and macro levels), ability to influence social responsibility in industry, business, and public policy, and the incorporation of social values as well as financial values in research outputs. These can also be assessed through implications for society in the research conclusions.

The framework was published as a note from the publisher, "Measuring the impact of research", in the first 2010 issue of many Emerald journals, and concluded with an observation, echoing the "groundswell of opinion", that "research impact needs to be measured in a variety of ways in addition to citation" (Marsh, 2010).

The groundswell of opinion to which Marsh alludes affected government funding bodies, such as the Australian Research Council, and the UK's Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCE), both of which acknowledged non-academic impact as a criteria.

What is harder to determine is how such impact can be measured. The problem is that there are no easy quantifiable measures such as citation or article count that can be used to measure impact in the world of business and practice.

Perhaps the best example of a system designed to capture non-academic impact was the Australian Research Quality Framework (RQF). Initially proposed in 2004, the RQF defined impact as:

"the economic, social, environmental and cultural benefits of research in the wider community".

The RQF recognized, however, that this type of impact was not amenable to precise measurement. It therefore came up with a list of potential indicators (see Figure 2) and required researchers to compile case studies supporting their claim, using the indicators.

Image: Figure 2. Slide showing potential indicators for the RQF (Grant et al., 2009), copyright RAND Europe.

Figure 2. Slide showing potential indicators for the RQF (Grant et al., 2009), copyright RAND Europe

Unfortunately, despite having been piloted in three universities (Griffith, Flinders and James Cook), the RQF was abandoned in 2007 by the incoming Australian Labor administration. The robust section on impact has, in the new ERA framework, been replaced by the rather more tame "application":

"Research application is considered on the basis of research commercialization income and other applied measures" (Australian Government and Australian Research Council, 2010).

The RQF model heavily influenced the British REF, where the proposal was to give a 25 per cent weighting to impact. However, this caused a storm of protest, with 13,500 people signing a petition against its inclusion (Corbyn, 2009), and complaints that it would be hard to assess impact in fields such as mathematics and the arts and humanities. A counter proposal was made for 15 per cent and it was decided to delay the setup of the REF to allow more time to find ways of measuring impact.

What qualifies as impact?

Consider the following articles which have won awards with Emerald:

Example 1

(Madichie, 2009) describes how Egg sacked 10 per cent of its customers who were either credit risks or otherwise "unprofitable". Not only does the article offer a readable and rigorous piece of research, and a useful case study, but it also proposes a new theme in the study of marketing (deviant customer and marketing behaviour) as well as a new conceptual base. In other words, the research not only has an effect on practice, but also challenges other research to develop a framework for studying deviant behaviour, as this extract describes:

"In the final analysis, this paper has some notable implications for the future of marketing as a discipline in its own right. Two key themes are advanced – first, from the purview of Egg Card's firing of 'unprofitable' customers – either real or perceived – this could set precedence for Jaycustomer behavior. In such situations, deviance may be preempted as customers may begin to feel no longer obliged to meeting their financial commitments as stipulated in their contractual agreements. This is likely to breed a dangerous precedent. Second, the event could also provide the conceptual base for reinterpreting deviant behavior in a new form – the marketers. This is where the term 'Jaymarketer' stems from and could enable researchers to develop a framework for evaluating deviant behavior of firms from corporate scandals to socially irresponsible behavior" (pp. 938-939).

Example 2

(Grace, 2009) is likewise well written, and is a multiple case history containing four studies of very different organizations that adopted wikis. Brief descriptions are followed by the outline of a framework which analyses what leads organizations to adopt wikis and what are the challenges. The framework is illustrated with the following very clear diagram:

Image: Figure 3. Wiki selection and implementation framework.

Figure 3. Wiki selection and implementation framework

Example 3

(Heracleous and Johnston, 2009) also uses case studies – this time longitudinal – to challenge the conventional wisdom that the public sector should learn from its private counterpart. It maintains that the learning process can go both ways, and the article looks at the National Library Board of Singapore, and Singapore Airlines. It is laid out similarly to the previous example, with brief description and then an analysis of the lessons learnt.

Example 4

(Pedersen and Neergaard, 2009) analyses how managers in a multinational corporation experience corporate social responsibility (CSR). Using a single case study, the Danish authors conclude that managers' views of CSR are very heterogeneous – and that this is not a pre-condition of high performance in CSR.


All the above articles are very well written and clearly structured; they also use sound research methodology and are situated in the literature. They all offer a good balance between description and analysis, with just enough of the former to provide context and a concentration on analysis and implications.

All cover themes that are topical and relevant. While the implications do have sound relevance to practice, they also offer a genuinely fresh approach – a new framework, or a challenge to orthodox wisdom. In other words, their findings impact both on research and on practice – there is a genuinely symbiotic relationship between the two.

Strangely enough, all the above articles are written by academics, although one sure way of having real-world impact is to collaborate with a practitioner. Research by Hubbard and Norman (2007) has indicated that work produced by such collaboration is, in the area of marketing at least, as highly cited as that produced by academics on their own.

In the area of business and management, the link between research and practice is like standing in a room with mirrors on both sides. Each side reflects the other, and in turn reflects the other reflecting. Frameworks are important to both practice and research. They help practitioners understand what they are doing, and they should also help researchers understand the world in a way that is helpful to those whose behaviour is being observed.

The academics developing such well-balanced research should have no trouble having impact in either the academic or the professional and social spheres.

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