Ideas Matter

21/11/2012 10:26 | Updated 20 January 2013

Impact? Increasingly, there is an expectation that academic research makes an impact; but what does this actually mean?

Even at a superficial level it is not easy to define because impact can refer to one object hitting another with force, and it can also refer to the effect that force has on the object.

As such, it denotes a violent action of immediate cause and effect. So when scholarly research is said to make an impact it means that as researchers and teachers our work has made a strong effect on something or someone.

Such beliefs about impact have traditionally been dominated by the idea of scientific impact, such as the impact a new drug has on illness, or material sciences having an impact on the design of civil, commercial and military aircraft and so on.

In my area, organisation and management theory, impact is rarely that straight forward, and seldom is it immediate: in fact it can take decades to evolve. My colleague, Professor Chris Carter has a favourite quote from the British economist J.M.Keynes, which fits well here:
"The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist."

In other words, ideas matter. Social science research is about knowledge, or what I prefer to call the materialisation and seeding of ideas.

Lots of ideas flourish, both good ideas and bad ideas, and in social science we have plenty of good and bad ideas which are sustained.

Fortunately, one thing I have learned is that good ideas generally outlive bad ones. There are several articles by esteemed academics publishing in journals such as Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Learning and Education, about the proliferation of bad ideas, and about management fads and the negative implications of bad ideas.

An issue for researchers, particularly in business schools, is that the impact we make is rarely quick, and because what we deal with is knowledge, it often is difficult to demonstrate in practice.

As governments move increasingly more towards 'impact' as a measure of quality, business schools will face increasing pressure to demonstrate that their research matters.

Impact however does not necessarily mean the research was any good, or well designed, it just means it was 'taken-up'. The danger is that this leads to a clamour for easily implementable 'quick fixes' that do little to help the deep seated problems of organizations, and societies, or to advance scholarly knowledge.

Instead, it leads to the emergence of sharp suited, 'fast intellectuals', whose stock in trade is to retail solutions for virtually every conceivable problem. So now, organizations expect 'fast' value rather than 'real' value: normalising fast value as the expectation, and normalising poor research practice and dissemination.

My argument is that impact is a social process that forms and transforms with time.

As such for research to have impact it requires uptake and so the research must make sense to the community (or stakeholders), within which the research matters. In this sense research should make a difference, should matter, and should make sense in a way that it provides insights and knowledge that are usable or translatable into practice.

However, there should be just as much onus on business and organizations to be curious, inquisitive and committed to well designed and conducted research as there is on academics who are expected to be 'engaged' with business.

In this way, there is a greater challenge to ensure integrity in the research - that the research is warts and all without fear or favour.

Research that tells people what they want to hear is seldom well designed research, and more importantly it's useless - even though it can make an impact: but impact is not necessarily a good thing. We need to celebrate good collaborative research, learn from it, develop skills and capabilities in doing it, and most of all really make sense of the term impact that is user centred.