By Dr Michael Fischer Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Workplace Leadership, University of Melbourne
Governments around the world are striving to boost societal and economic impact from research investment by focusing on commercialising and scaling up research and innovation.
The Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull, has signalled that future research funding will focus more on external impact than on publication metrics.
In the UK, too, research investment is seen as a way to boost science-led economic growth.
However, translating research-based knowledge is difficult. Knowledge is ‘sticky’ and does not easily flow between people, places and industries – as we so often find across many of our organisational silos. This problem in ‘mobilising’ knowledge across university-industry boundaries means we fail to tap into a rich resource for solving the most challenging problems facing society today.
So how can we more effectively ‘unstick’ and mobilise research to make it more useful to society?
Our research with colleagues at University of Oxford Saïd Business School, King’s College London, and Warwick Business School investigated this question by studying how the most effective leaders use academic research to drive organisational innovation and change.
We investigated 137 senior managers in six of the leading organisations in the UK health industry over 30 months to explore which people and teams used research most effectively in these organisations. These included a global management consulting firm, policy think tank, university partnerships, and major teaching hospitals.
We then studied in depth how they used the research to drive significant organisational change.
A new paper published in the journal Human Relations describes how the most effective leaders use academic research to actually drive organisational change. They do this by ‘being’ the knowledge and bringing the research to life.
I really want to get a transformative way of working. In a sense you’re making problems for people … you just have to wait for them to calm down.
The most effective knowledge leaders skilfully activate research to create the momentum for organisational change. We found three different types of knowledge leadership to be effective.
Through transposing research, leaders act as carriers – they personally bring established research inside their organisation and enact it to create organisational change. For example, one senior doctor brought in research to redesign patient pathways through his hospital.
In appropriating research, leaders select and combine various research findings to reassemble findings inside their organisations. For example, one management consultant combined diverse research ideas and techniques to build a customised and persuasive model for creating organisational change.
By contending research, leaders select and challenge established research-based models as a way to drive innovation and alternative solutions. For example, a clinical director developed a community-led initiative, challenging a popular healthcare management model in his organisation, as a way to create innovative solutions to local problems.
Mobilising research is not easy. It can be like creating a mild inflammatory response to a flu jab, causing discomfort and side effects, even though it creates useful change.
But why do some individuals decide to mobilise knowledge in ways that create emotional reactions and can sometimes risk professional reputations and careers?
First, many of these knowledge leaders trace their motivation to formative experiences when they first became deeply engaged in research. A chief executive recalled his interest in research beginning as a child, influenced by his parents’ business. “I’d literally sit on the kitchen table and my father would explain it to me,” he says.
Second, knowledge leaders’ interest is shaped through postgraduate study (especially at Masters or PhD levels), often working with respected colleagues. This helps to build a meaningful connection to research-based ways of thinking. A policy expert reflected on the inspiring effect his PhD supervisor had in shaping his career. “A huge influence – he is still in my head, making me think about the independence of what I do and the rigour.”
Third, knowledge leaders typically have ‘hybrid’ identities – combining professional expertise and management roles. They are highly skilled at straddling disciplinary and organisational silos, and can cross pollinate from one field to another. A senior management consultant explained that he “steals” from everyone he works with. As he puts it, he “nicks good ideas”.
Our research finds that knowledge leadership is hugely important in accelerating the flow of research across university and industry boundaries.
So what are the implications for companies and policymakers in developing more effective knowledge leaders?
1. Create opportunities for much closer collaboration between universities and industry
Partnerships such as academic health science centres or industry growth centres are critical in stimulating the flow of people and research across boundaries.
2. Provide management cover by creating ‘safe spaces’ for experimenting and innovation
Knowledge leadership works through mobilising individuals and teams to engage with research, and innovate and shift practices. But this work is often immensely challenging and needs support by senior management if it is to succeed.
3. Identify and develop individuals skilled at straddling boundaries between RESEARCH and ORGANISATIONAL PRACTICE
Unsticking research-based knowledge needs pathfinders and activists committed to mobilising and ‘becoming’ the knowledge to produce organisational change.
4. Increase postgraduate engagement and sponsorship in industry-focused research problems
Sparking cross fertilisation of knowledge needs in-depth engagement and flow between academic research and industry contexts.
To really drive academic research that benefits society, our research shows that university-industry collaboration is not enough. We need highly impactful knowledge leadership embedded within industry itself – actively ‘being the knowledge’.
Lead author Dr Michael D Fischer is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne and Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. He is a specialist in the leadership of major organisational change in the healthcare industry. The study is a UK-government research partnership led by Professor Sue Dopson at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.