Trailblazers Share Their Journeys: Impact Scholar Community Event #1

Categories: Focus Series, Impact, Other, Research, Research Roles, Research Skills


In June and July MethodSpace will focus on research-oriented careers including career purpose and goals, skills, as well as expected and unexpected transitions.

This post originally appeared on Network for Business Sustainability. I asked to republish it for four reasons. First, sustainability is an issue that transcends disciplines. Second, as researchers are increasingly concerned with impact, the topic fits with MethodSpace. Third, the Impact Scholar Community might benefit from insights that you might offer, so I hope MethodSpace readers will participate. Finally, as we consider career-related issues this month, we want to give attention to ways we can really make a difference! I hope you find the post and related YouTube video of interest. Please use the comment area to share your thoughts.

Two trailblazers in research impact joined 140 early career management scholars to discuss how academic research can help society.

Kuhn said, changes are often [made] by young scholars…good for you!!!”

–Anne Tsui, Impact Scholar Community Event #1

The inaugural event of the Impact Scholar Community on April 23, 2020, tackled core issues around how early-career scholars can increase their research impact. Tima Bansal and Andy Hoffman, trailblazers in scholarly impact, shared their experiences in a lively virtual dialogue with 140 researchers from around the globe.

Tima, Andy and others in the community put forth many provocations. We describe a few below.

Many — winding — pathways to impact

There’s no one journey to research impact on practice, as the stories shared illustrate.

Tima described multiple strategies for impact. She focused her research on topics with applied relevance: paths to sustainability for organizations and larger systems. She built an impact-focused institution, the Network for Business Sustainability (NBS), which co-creates and translates knowledge. As Editor and Deputy Editor at the Academy of Management Journal, she has encouraged qualitative research asking phenomenon-driven, practice-relevant questions.  She also fostered new processes for shared learning between managers and researchers, as in Ivey Business School’s Innovation Learning Lab

Despite these achievements, Tima said that academic research is valuable for practice but that creating research impact is “harder than I ever thought it would be.” Since she founded NBS 15 years ago and embarked seriously on the impact journey, Tima remains unsure whether she can say, “I have had impact.”

In response to Tima’s reflexive comments about her impact, one Impact Scholar Community member said: “Impact is a process as we continue to strive to address complex problems. There always will be some distance between academia and practice. I think that’s okay that we are struggling with tensions and are still figuring things out. Personally, I recoil a bit from impact work that takes a tone of sustainability challenges and their solutions being simple and straightforward.” 

Andy emphasized another approach to impact: engaging as researchers in public and political discourse.

There is a war on science and truth, Andy said. In the public sphere, “we are debating facts,” as a recent Rand Corporation report concluded. Academics have a responsibility to address this challenge, said Andy. “The gauntlet [is] right at the door of academia, because if we don’t step forward and provide trusted information to public or political discourse, who will?”

This kind of engagement is not easy. The academic incentive system discourages public engagement, focusing excessively on A-level academic publications. And academics who do engage find that the work “is messy, it is hostile.” Andy keeps a “hate mail folder” of messages received in response to his engagement on climate change. 

Andy asked us to reflect: “Why did we choose to be an academic?” If we sought impact on the world, we shouldn’t abandon that goal because of the challenges involved.

Responding to Andy’s call to action, many community members discussed how best to engage in public discourse. One person suggested, “Let’s use fewer ‘big words.’…I cannot get people to understand a ‘construct,’ but if I talk about health damages from toxic chemicals and bad food from [contaminated] plants,  people get excited and say: ‘You mean like Flint, Michigan! Can you stop those things?’”

Ongoing tension with the academic system

Impact Scholar Community members realize that the academic system needs to shift to enable and support greater impact. They asked questions such as:

  • How can we change academic job criteria to include societal impact as a key part of our work
  • How do we change the promotion and tenure system to include impact?

In an earlier survey, community members described the tension of a reward system which discourages impact. As one person said on the call: “How does an early career scholar reconcile the stringent academic tenure requirements (publishing in so called “top” journals) and the desire to make a broader impact.”

Andy and Tima emphasized that tenure system enables impact in some ways, although it may not seem so in the short term. Tenure brings freedom and legitimacy that helps individuals move toward impact.

Tima encouraged early career scholars to work with the existing system — for example, using the tenure process to cement their research skills. Junior scholars should choose research questions that answer important questions for both research and practice. And, Tima noted, some methods can create impact along the way, such as engaged scholarship or descriptive quantitative findings. Broader engagement (e.g. through social media) takes time and effort that does not necessarily align with the deep dive one needs to produce rigorous research.

Andy similarly recommended “recognising the academic world’s reward system for what it is and then working within it.” He suggested “metering in” impact as an early career scholar and increasing the focus on impact as you advance. “Move toward impact without sacrificing the rigor of your research,” he said. 

Yet many community members questioned if an approach of waiting until tenure to seek impact would perpetuate an academic promotion and tenure system that seems to be a barrier to achieving impact. 

Anne Tsui, joining the conversation, noted that academic systems have begun to shift. Institutional bodies such as the AACSB have started including impact in their accreditation criteria. A community member offered another example of how reward systems may be shifting. In Europe, she said, researchers have to create “impact cases: qualitative [illustrations] of how certain companies or audiences outside of academia have used your work.”

Guidance for early-career scholars seeking impact

In the dynamic exchange, many participants and the speakers contributed to a rich dialogue. Here are some of their insights: 

  • Research impact requires both talking and listening to those who use your research. Each party has something valuable to say. Don’t lecture, listen. At the same time, you as a researcher bring a unique perspective to the manager’s world. Don’t give that up as you engage with practice.
  • Authors have great power; journals can only publish what they receive. Ask the right questions and answer them rigorously. Through research, we can give voice to the marginalized and can bring to light issues that are ignored. That is impact.
  • Teaching is a fruitful avenue toward impact. We have in our classrooms the future leaders of tomorrow. We can change their mindsets toward responsible business leadership.
  • Measuring research impact is challenging. Some organizations are trying to build quantitative measures, such as Altmetric and Impact Story, but these efforts are embryonic. Additionally, should the messy, complex process of impact be squeezed into quantitative measures? What is lost (e.g., pre-tenure academics now have the additional responsibility of quantification) and what is gained (e.g., consideration of impact in promotion and tenure and a possibly changed system)?

Watch the full recording of the event

View the complete event recording for the full experience.

Other Resources

The speakers and participants offered the following resources relevant to the conversation: 

Collective Action for Impact

The Impact Scholars Community will continue to engage these issues and opportunities. We are looking very much forward to the next event in August 2020. Please contact us with ideas: Sylvia, Nicholas, or Garima

Relevant MethodSpace Posts

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