Management Research: Delivering Business Results Professor David Denyer

Management Research: Delivering Business Results
Professor David Denyer
Steve Macaulay
How do we successfully address business and organisational issues through
research? Now Cranfield has given considerable thought to this area and
we have had a lot of success. Now, to explore this issue is Professor David
Denyer; now David, it sounds an obvious question, but how do we match up
the worlds of research and business and organisations?
David Denyer
Yes; Steve, I think the first thing that we need to do is to understand the
reasons why management research doesn’t have the impact that we
perhaps think it should have on organisations and society more broadly. I
think the first thing, the first challenge, that we need to overcome is that a
lot of business and management research doesn’t address business and
management issues as seen by practitioners themselves. A lot of business
and management research addresses knowledge problems that are kind of
theoretical issues that are derived from previous research and then it can
become an issue of academics talking to themselves.
There are also issues around the publications process that academics are
measured on and the way in which they are rewarded within their own
institutions around publications in top journals which aren’t largely read by
practitioners and the time delay that it actually takes for an academic to
publish a piece of research in one of those top journals – it could be 18
months, two years from doing the piece of research to actually seeing it in
print – means that actually the world of business may well have moved on.
So for me, it is not so much an issue of taking management research, but
actually thinking is there a different way of doing business and management
research where it is not a process of doing a piece of research and then
transforming it for a different audience and then a process of dissemination,
so that kind of production, transformation, dissemination model, to one
where we actually engage with practitioners throughout the process.
So in the process of deriving the research question in the first place, it
should be linked to a real world business question; I think is what we do
particularly well at Cranfield. Not only is it in the process of deriving that
research question, but a process of engagement with practice throughout
the whole research process; so it is much more collaborative, it is much
more knowledge co-production, it is much more an iterative process and
that interplay between the theory side, the academic side and the practice
side throughout. So at all times there is a concern for both rigour and
relevance. We often see these two things as being completely
incommensurate, you can’t have something that is both rigorous and
relevant, but for me, actually these two things go hand in hand. If we start
with a real world business issue, we address it in a very rigorous way that
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should have relevance for the academic community and for the business
Steve Macaulay
So give me some examples then; you have worked this through in practice
so tell me one of them.
David Denyer
OK, well, I will give you the example of my work which is obviously the one
that I know the best. So my work starts with a real world business issue, the
work that I have been working on which has been funded by the Economic
and Social Research Council and the Advanced Institute for Management has
been on how do organisations better respond to extreme events. So if you
take an iconic example you have got something like the Victoria Climbié
death in the year 2000 and then Lord Laming is asked to do an investigation
and a set of recommendations come out from that report several years
later, all organisations are supposed to respond better to that event, to
learn from that event, yet we see that that is not always the case. And if
you then look at the follow on from that with the Baby P incident, exactly
the same London Borough of Haringey, same social services department,
that the organisation hasn’t learnt from that event and if you go back and
look at other events we have got NASA another iconic example with
Challenger and then Colombia. More recently BP with Texas City and then
followed with Deep Water Horizon and actually there are a lot of lessons
that could be learnt from the initial event which aren’t actually implemented
in practice. So this is a real challenging question, it is relevant for practice
because it is a real practical issue. Harm is being done to people, property
and the environment; lives are being lost because of the inability of an
organisation to learn, but it is also an issue that is challenging within the
academic community because if you look at the literature on change
management, previous research, it suggests there are steps to change – we
start with an impetus for change, kind of a burning platform for change, and
existing change management models don’t actually explain why change is
not occurring in this context. So here we have got a problem that has
practical relevance, but also has an interest for the academic community,
can make an academic contribution. So therefore, for me, it makes a very
interesting topic for further research.
The next step from going from that research question, researchable
question, is to engage organisations in the research. So I have been
working with the nuclear industry up at Sellafield, with Fire and Rescue
crews of Bedfordshire and Luton Combined Fire Service, six hospital trusts,
with oil and gas industry, with Centrica storage and in high security mental
health with the top team at Broadmoor Hospital and engaging with them
throughout the process. So I have been looking at events that have
occurred in organisations, been working with them to better understand the
causes of those events, better understand how the organisation can derive a
change agenda from that and then the process of change implementation
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throughout the process and engaging them not only in this sort of passive
recipient of a piece of research, but actually most of the really good ideas
that come out of the research are from the practitioners themselves
because they understand the context, they are intellectual people, they
have been dealing with these issues and actually that interplay between, I
think with an academic having more of a stood back view, maybe being able
to derive some concepts from literature to help explain what is going on, but
for the practitioner has the local knowledge and the expertise and as I say,
they have been tackling these issues for a long time, they have derived a lot
of experience and expertise about those issues. If you can marry those two
things together, you have got something really quite powerful.
Steve Macaulay
So your aim then really is to marry your understanding and perceptions and
ability to communicate those, with the ability to listen and hear what that
experience is and by putting the two together you can come up with
something that will work well in an environment where there is a known
problem, but not a recognisable solution.
David Denyer
Yes; it is a two way dialogue where myself as the academic, and the
practitioner who is dealing with the issue are jointly trying to solve that
problem because there isn’t a known solution; the academic literature from
the last 20 years has failed to come up with a solution to it. Organisations
are continually having this problem, therefore it has failed to adequately
address it so why don’t we both come together in a two way dialogue to try
and actually understand what the real problem is and then to find some
solutions for addressing it. But I did say a two way dialogue, of course, the
added benefit of working on a topic that is cross sector is that actually some
parts of that problem have been resolved say in the Health Service or in the
nuclear industry, but the other sector is a long way behind so actually taking
the learning from one sector using the academic as the conduit for that
knowledge of transferring promising practice from one context to another is
actually a very easy way of helping an organisation because of that cross
sector learning.
Steve Macaulay
So I am just trying to tease out what actually are the skills that you are using
that might be different from if you like an old style, not very effective
David Denyer
I think the first one is a mindset of I think this is important. You know, as an
academic I think it is important to have impact, I work in a business school,
the strapline is Knowledge into Action and there is a support for doing that.
So I think the first thing is the mindset that you go into the piece of research,
it is not only to get work published in a top journal – although that is one of
my goals – but it is also to have impact. I think that is the starting point.
I think then it is a process of building trust with the people that you are
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working with, so it is not just seen as an academic coming in and telling us
what to do; it is that listening piece, that it is actually a two way dialogue
that we are actually jointly problem solving and that takes a lot of time, it
takes a lot of effort to do and I spend a lot of time in those organisations
getting to know the individuals, getting to know the context. You can’t in
my view do this kind of engaged, impactful research by taking the old school
detached researcher observing what is going on. Actually you need to be
part of the organisation, part of that to be on the inside in a sense. So I
think there is that issue, communication skills.
I then think there is also an issue of thinking through ways, sort of novel,
innovative ways of actually getting the message across. So some of the
things that I have been doing are using some new technologies, social media
to get ideas across into organisations and short reports or leaflets or putting
things up on intranet sites – ways of disseminating in a digestible form some
of the research. And of course, it comes back to this partnering approach as
well, but I am probably not the best person to do that, it’s actually then let’s
take this concept and work with someone that I have been working with and
say well, could you write this up in a language that would fit your context for
the people that you are working with? Because we have worked together,
you understand the issue, you understand where I am coming from, but you
are probably, as the practitioner, the best person to maybe help write that.
So I do a lot of co-authoring with practitioners.
One really interesting novel way that we have worked on recently was that
we have kind of gone at this the other way round, actually funded by the
National Institute for Health Service Research and I think they should be
applauded for their approach because not only have they funded a research
project, but they also enabled us to fund one of the operations managers
from Addenbrookes Hospital to be seconded to us for six months, so it was
the practitioner coming into an academic world – so it is kind of flipping it
round in a sense – and for them to come and understand a bit more about
the research skills, research design, how we are collecting data, how we are
going to analyse the data, to understand the process of research and for us
to spend time in the organisation. This one individual was absolutely
amazing at actually disseminating some of the research findings, to
instigating small change programmes back in the organisation based on the
research because she managed to understand where we were coming from,
understand the research evidence, the research findings, but had the
contacts, had some of the, I guess, the influencing skills that were required
to actually make the change happen back in the organisation. So I think
that is a very novel way of going about this research engagement and
So if somebody said to you it is not easy, it is a complicated process, but
could you sum up if somebody wants to replicate the kind of approach that
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Steve Macaulay
you are suggesting? What would be the key messages that you would say
both to academics and to practitioners, to the organisations?
David Denyer
The first message that research impact doesn’t happen after you have done
the research project, which is the typical way of thinking – do a piece of
research, write it up in a form that can be read by practitioners and then
disseminate it. It is actually that you have got to have that engagement
from day one – even before I put in my research grant application I was
talking to the organisations that I wanted to have involved in that research
project to get them engaged very early. I think it is about having clear roles
that you want people to play; so, for me it is about that I want them to give
me ideas, I want them to give me some intellectual content, I want them to
tell me about what they think and how they explain what is going on
because I value that knowledge that is coming out of practice. I want them
to help me have access into the organisation and other organisations to do
the research. I want them to give me some help on dissemination and how
I might actually have some impact. So to be clear about the roles. I think it
is about being clear about the value that you are going to have into the
organisation and to discuss that and to agree that up front – this is what I
am going to do, so if it is developing some diagnostics, helping them develop
some new products or to run some workshops for management
development, to write some short documents that can disseminated around
to actually agree that that is the approach and to get some buy in to that,
otherwise they are just not going to be accepted into the organisation. So I
think it is all about the planning to do the research, it is all the things you do
before the research and then continuously having that dialogue between
well this is what we are seeing on the academic side, what does this mean to
you in practice? And Keira, who was the operations manager from
Addenbrookes who was seconded was absolutely fabulous in our meetings
because the academics talking to each other saying this is what we found,
and she would say, well that is completely meaningless to someone in
practice, that is not what I see, that wouldn’t work because of this. And
actually listening to that and having that almost confirmation or a critique or
just saying well, that wouldn’t work in practice and it is constantly having
that voice I think is important for academics because we can easily tend to
have a kind of theoretical debate and think we know what is actually going
on in practice, but unless we have got someone that is dealing with those
issues – it certainly helped us.
Steve Macaulay
So in summary then, it feels like a highly effective, but high involvement
carefully planned process that both parties need to be really involved in?
Yes; there has got to be an absolute commitment to it and people have got
to be willing to put the time and effort to make it work, but if they do put
that time and effort in it can be incredibly powerful and going back to the
issue of it can create research that is both practically relevant and rigorous
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David Denyer
and therefore can be published in the top journals as well.
Steve Macaulay
That’s good to hear; thank you very much David.
David Denyer
Thank you.
© Cranfield University 2012