Lots of people are talking about impact in terms of how we influence our stakeholders. Top schools have worked out how to produce academic output and even measure it. But we all recognize that even the most-cited, top-quality articles are probably only read by a handful of other academics. Shouldn’t we hope for a bit more? This month, Mark Smith starts a series of reflections on this fashionable but somewhat ambiguous topic and what it means for doctoral research.
Impact ─ what is it?
Finding a definition of the term impact is not so easy. And this, even though it has become a common topic of discussion for business school leaders around the world. The EFMD’s Business School Impact Survey for example seeks to identify the tangible and intangible benefits business schools have on their local environment, with 24 different categories. This translates into not only economic activities, employment and projects but also the influence of a school’s intellectual output on the social, political and cultural environment. The AASCB encourages schools to define their expectations of impact in relation to their school mission. A perspective that may help create coherence between research and a school’s mission, but not necessarily aid us in coming up with a single definition. The 2014 Research Excellence Framework in the UK used a rather brief definition of impact based on reach and significance with panels judging schools according to five levels of impact. Overall, there seems to be no clear definition and the term does not lend itself to easy measurement. Ultimately, it is about using research for something other than building a CV, scoring points in a ranking or simply gaining a doctoral degree. At least these are elements we can agree upon even if a single, complete definition is harder to settle on.
Can we measure impact?
We know that top business schools have become good at creating impact in terms of academic output and measuring that impact through a variety of metrics based on quality, quantity and citation levels. Having recently attended a series of EFMD sessions on research strategy for business schools, I found that a preoccupation was to find ways of going beyond current standard measures of academic impact. While measures based on citations and number of publications are still important, it was clear that all of the speakers and participants were hoping for something more than counting journals. What was less clear was what the alternatives could be. The lack of a clear alternative to measure impact is a reflection of the complexities of life beyond the world of journal rankings, citations and downloads. Out in the real world, it is not so easy to judge if a piece of research has changed anything. The Erasmus Research Institute of Management has led the way in developing metrics for performance, but even their former executive director Wilfred Mijnhardt recognized that measuring non-academic impact was not so straightforward. The recent Research Excellence Framework in the UK required business schools to present impact case studies to show that someone was actually using their research. This could be regarded as a positive development even if the requirements were not so clear. Case studies on impact illustrate the variety of ways in which business research can impact society. Yet this variety also highlights the complexity of trying to judge the influence of research. Change in the wider world is subject to many influences and drawing a neat line of causality to a single piece of research is not so easy. Interestingly, it is perhaps easier to establish a direct link between researchers working with policy makers rather than those working with business leaders – for example, work we have been involved in at Grenoble for the International Labor Office was used by our UK colleagues as a case study.
Uniqueness of impact
If impact is complicated to conceptualize and measure at the school level, what can individual doctoral researchers do? This lack of clarity may in fact be an advantage at the individual level since we can each shape our impact according to the specificities of our research interests and the stakeholders most likely to benefit from our research findings. From this perspective, research impact is as unique as is each piece of research. For doctoral students working closely with organizations and stakeholders, the opportunities for impact are already present. Once their research is done, it’s simply a matter of deciding how and with whom to share results. In this case, each communication channel is also unique since it depends on the research context and who is most likely to benefit.
Having an impact
The fact that impact is inherently difficult to measure and is as unique as research itself is not such a problem for the individual doctoral researcher. It may even be an advantage. If there are no easy key performance indicators then this is mostly a problem for research directors, Deans and those worried about measuring impact. At Grenoble Ecole de Management, we have recently changed the tagline on our publicity documents to Changing lives through research. Although it’s an ambitious statement, the idea is simply to keep us and our doctoral community focused on thinking about the impact of our work on individuals, organizations and society. Otherwise we would be asking ourselves ‘What’s the point?’