Saint Jerome in his Study, Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1480 (Courtesy: Chiesa di Ognissanti, Florence)
Ideas for Leaders #586

Knowledge Leaders to Apply Academic Research to Solve Organizations' Real World Problems

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Key Concept

Knowledge leaders leverage academic research into real-world performance advantages for their organizations in three different ways: direct transfer, selective adaptation, or challenging research conclusions. 

Idea Summary

Transforming academic research from pure knowledge into real-world business or organizational practices is challenging for a wide variety of reasons. Time is an issue. Business unit or organizational leaders have little time to leaf through academic journals or article databases looking for research they can apply to their companies. Even if they did, the parameters of academic research, including the in-depth explanations of the statistical models and analyses that underpin and validate the research conclusions, do not lend themselves to real-world application and implementation.

All is not lost, however. A team of researchers, drawing on data and information involving 137 senior managers in six UK research-driven health care companies, describe how organizations can internalize and apply academic research through knowledge leaders — people within the organization who have the desire to learn from research and the skills to apply that research. According to the team, these knowledge leaders can use three different processes for applying knowledge.

The first process is transposition, in which knowledge leaders transfer the research into the company. In this case, the knowledge leaders are heavily and personally invested the research — for them, research is vital to the success of the company. For example, one leader developed initiatives to improve patient flows based on process engineering concepts. Such initiatives, however, were strongly resisted by managers who believed the knowledge leader was infringing on their territory.

The second process is appropriation, in which knowledge leaders selectively borrow bits and pieces of research and adapt them to the company. One CEO, for example, developed a variation of the balanced scorecard for his organization. He also borrowed the ‘rank-and-yank’ approach to HR management to weed out underperformers. As CEO, the leader was in a position to implement ideas that fit with the strategy and structure of the company.

The third process is contention. In this case, knowledge leaders challenge established research, building on that challenge to develop innovative solutions and initiatives. For example, one leader rejected the top-down, data-driven paternalistic approach to health care, arguing for more local, community-driven initiatives. Instead of one-size fits all solutions drawn from data, this leader believed that context-specific solutions emerging from subjective local knowledge would be more effective.

The researchers found certain characteristics common to knowledge leaders and their work no matter which process was used. One of these characteristics was a deep personal engagement with the knowledge material (e.g. research texts and models). Another characteristic was the ability to create an ‘organizing apparatus’ — in other words, crafting the diverse texts and materials into something that engaged non-research-oriented leaders; the community-led initiative was one example of research turned into organizational apparatus. Perhaps the most striking characteristic was the manner in which knowledge leaders embodied the knowledge. They were not simply carriers or adapters. Their pivotal, disruptive roles made them viewed by others as representations of the knowledge — and as such, the knowledge leaders could be personally resisted as in the first example above. (One colleague was still too angry to speak to the leader three years after the initiative.)

Business Application

This study was based on six companies that were research-driven, and involving managers that would be inclined to be open to academic research (such as managers with doctoral and post-graduate degrees). However, the researchers discovered to their surprise that even among these selected participants, most did not use academic research in their work. The methodologies and examples above are drawn from ‘outliers’ who exemplify the potential for the application of academic research, but whose efforts are often strongly resisted in their organizations.

For organizations to take advantage of academic knowledge, they must make an extra effort to support and enable their knowledge leaders. The researchers recommend four steps:

  1. Organizations should create opportunities for closer collaboration with universities. The goal is to stimulate the flow of people and research across organizational and academic boundaries.
  2. Organizations should create ‘safe spaces’ where knowledge leaders can not only engage with research, but then have the opportunity to develop innovative initiatives and explore new practices.
  3. Organizations need to seek out potential knowledge leaders. Look for ‘hybrid’ managers who have research backgrounds or who have demonstrated skills in crossing between research and organizations.
  4. Finally, organizations should become more directly involved in research, encouraging postgraduate work from their managers or sponsoring industry-focused research problems. The goal is not to simply be the bank, but rather to combine or ‘cross-fertilize’ academic and organizational knowledge.
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Idea conceived

  • December 2015

Idea posted

  • February 2016

DOI number



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