Relevant & Impactful Research: From words to action - From outcome to process

My contribution to the CABS annual conference in November 2020

In November 2020 I participated in a panel on relevant and impactful research at the Chartered Association of Business School's Annual conference. I recorded my opening remarks as I was sure I wouldn’t be able to stick to the 5 minutes we had been given if I did it "life". The benefit was that I ended up with a nice video for my YouTube channel. You can watch it in full here.

In my opening remarks I took a slightly different perspective on creating relevant and impactful research, first drawing out the long-standing nature of this quest as well as the progress that some universities have already made. This is summarized in the mantra from words to action. Second focusing our attention on the researchers themselves, in particular our junior colleagues and researchers from traditionally disadvantaged groups. This is summarized in the mantra from outcome to process.

Age-old discussion

Within the mantra from words to action, my first point was that - as you can see below - the call for relevant and impactful research is age-old. It has definitely intensified in the past decade though, with four recent Academy of Management presidents taking this as the topic of their presidential address and numerous books and articles on the topic.

In the preparation process for the CABS conference, I even rediscovered my own slides from an event organized by RRBM (Responsible Research for Business & Management) at the European Academy of Management. My presentation - The Future of Research careers in Business Schools: Should we be more “relevant”? - presented the case for and against relevance.

Many universities always focused on relevance & impact

My second point in the "from words to action" mantra was that in many universities research focus has always been on relevance and impact. Middlesex University is just one example as you can see from the two word clouds below, the first of our current REF publication output pool and the second of our current research related to COVID-19.

Following up on this, above are my Middlesex University Business School’s current research clusters. Incidentally, these were all established through a bottom-up initiative and initiated and led by mid-career researchers, most of them Senior Lecturers. I dare you to find one cluster that doesn’t deal with relevant and impactful topics!

From outcome to process: ECRs and diversity & inclusion

My second mantra was from outcome to process, where first I argued we need to put our junior academics centre stage. Most of them really don’t need to be told to focus on research with relevance and impact, they are already incredibly passionate about this. But they need us – senior academics – to shield them from an increasingly competitive and precarious academic work climate and support them in realising their dreams.

Second, I argued we need to build an inclusive research community. British Business Schools are increasingly diverse, and international staff are the new normal. At Middlesex University for instance less than 20% of our staff are from a white Anglo background. Let us also acknowledge that Brexit and COVID-19 have made the lives of our female and international colleagues in particular much more difficult. They need our support more than ever.

From words to action: Middlesex University

So, what have we actually done at Middlesex to support junior colleagues and create an inclusive and supportive research culture? First of all, this included establishing a new role dedicated to research mentoring and staff development. Over the years, this resulted in a wide range of activities, including resource emails, research lunches, staff development groups, writing bootcamps, research jam sessions, and many department and research cluster seminars.

Middlesex University also supported me to develop the CYGNA women's network, as well as a dedicated blog and YouTube channel with academic resources. Altogether, we have supported over 60 junior academics at Middlesex University. In addition to this, however, most of these resources are also available outside Middlesex and in fact are widely used world-wide. In 2020 my blog had over 110,000 page views.

From words to action: CYGNA and online resources

The CYGNA women’s network had organized 30 half-day physical meetings at various London-based universities when COVID-19 hit. Since then, we have had monthly meetings online – organized by different members from all over the world and usually attended by 30-50 academics. We alternate topics on gender in academia with topics on academic or personal skill development and understanding the academic sector more broadly.

My recently established YouTube channel - Harzing Academic Resources - includes a growing list of videos dealing with all things academia. My blog is celebrating its 5th anniversary soon and now includes over 250 postings summarised by topic here: Working in academia. The blog also includes guest contributions by Middlesex academics and CYGNA members who can use the platform to profile their own research and activities.

From words to action - from outcome to process

Action is needed from the entire academic community. Many senior academics are more than happy to publish their discontent about "the state of academia" in highly ranked journals, but very few take real responsibility for changing the system. I argue that our responsibility is not just to create societally significant research outcomes, but also to create inclusive research processes for our junior and traditionally disadvantaged colleagues by supporting them and working with them rather than only with other senior colleagues.

In doing so I drew heavily on the excellent article co-authored by my wonderful CYGNA colleague  Martyna Śliwa (Butler, N., Delaney, H., & Śliwa, M. (2017). The labour of academia. ephemera, 17(3), 467-480). Martyna was also a great support in helping me refine the message for this presentation. For more instances of her own "words to action" activities, see the "Related Blogposts" section at the end of this post.

From words to action - three simple suggestions

In closing, I provided three very simple and concrete suggestions that could help us initiate change across the sector. First, on the individual level: let's reframe our biographies to reflect our current research passions rather than our past academic achievements. Second, at the organisational level, let's change our performance evaluation systems to evaluate careers not just on individual performance outcomes, but also on how academics support others.

Third at the sectoral level, let's free up time to support ECRs by reducing red-tape and increasing collaboration across the sector. After struggling through the REF, TEF and KEF, I am already anticipating that the AEF - an administrative excellence framework - might be the star of our sector's very own "Yes Minister" episode soon.

On a more positive note, increased cooperation in the sector could mean that many of these support activities are offered across universities, especially in our new virtual settings. Many of our current seminars at MDX have as many participants from outside the university as from inside. Let's turn at least one aspect of our new pandemic reality into a positive!

Related blogposts