RESEARCH:  Innovation and change:
Professor Sue Dopson

Becoming the knowledge

The most effective leaders are using a more personal approach to turn academic research into organisational impact.

Words: Christian Doherty

The divide between academic research and its implementation can sometimes be cavernous. While the thousands of hours of study behind research often produce brilliantly argued, empirically based work, turning that into actionable intelligence in the real world can often stall when theory meets practice.

But that is beginning to change. The Government's introduction of its "Impact Agenda", which encourages the practical use – and careful measurement of the impact – of academic research, has given the effort new impetus.

As part of that, Sue Dopson, Academic Director of the Oxford Diploma in Organisational Leadership, and Associate Dean of Faculty at Saïd Business School, recently spearheaded a landmark project focusing on how research can be taken off the page and into the boardroom.

Time to change

While the research focused particularly on the health sector, Professor Dopson says its findings can be applied to any organisation in need of change. Having led the research effort, she says that she had three principle aims in mind. 'We wanted to explore healthcare managers' own responses to the research question: "Under what circumstances and how do managers access and use management research-based knowledge in their decision-making?"'

The second aim was to explore the utilisation of management knowledge in context. The final objective centred on determining the value of the action learning set as a method of sharing research-based learning and of encouraging and facilitating the uptake and utilisation of research-based evidence. The critical factors in the successful implementation of research are varied, but one stands above the rest: the presence of strong, credible knowledge leaders.

‘Being impressive as a knowledge leader meant being able to tell stories convincingly, failures as well as successes, in a way that rang true for the audience’

As Professor Dopson points out, 'Knowledge leaders not only have an interest in accessing and transposing management knowledge, but also have the power to influence others to utilise that knowledge in pursuit of organisational goals.'

Those leaders will typically possess the usual traits we associate with good managers: the ability to communicate, to delegate, to inspire. But the research also picked up on the importance of storytelling as a tool: 'Being impressive as a knowledge leader meant being able to tell stories convincingly, failures as well as successes, in a way that rang true for the audience, and that fitted with their own experiences and sense-making,' explains Professor Dopson.

Spot and support

But where to find these champions of learning and change? 'Leaders often emerge and the critical thing is to spot and support them,' Professor Dopson says. 'And certainly they are often found somewhere other than the CEO's office – they usually occupy a variety of roles. You can try and designate them, but largely they have to have legitimacy in the system. So very often, we found that they were people who wanted to make a difference, and if they were supported then that worked, but if they weren't, it was difficult to effect real change.'

As with every piece of research, Professor Dopson's examination of research and its implementation started by looking at what currently occurs, and what factors hinder more successful knowledge transfer. She notes that people tend to have different views of the different types of evidence. 'If you're a doctor, you tend to favour certain types of randomised trial-based evidence, whereas if you're an academic, qualitative research is fine. So what is the evidence base that you're drawing on? And how do you view it?'

The second issue is the context: 'Does it make sense to use this evidence? Will it help you deliver in your role? Because we know that if the evidence doesn't fit the context, then often people will discard it.'

In addition, Professor Dopson points out that existing power structures can also hinder fresh thinking. 'It's human nature that if your boss says "this is important", then the chances are that you will view it the same way and act on it,' she says.

Starting anew

Breaking out of these patterns isn't easy. However, in the course of the work, Professor Dopson and her colleagues found that the most successful incidents of research having a genuine, quantifiable impact usually involved knowledge leaders investing so much in the work that they almost come to "embody" change itself.

'That embodiment is about getting an idea that will make a difference. And there are two things in your own actions as a leader: making sure you're using the knowledge in your own behaviour and practice, but also creating a context and environment when the research can be used by others as well. So there's personal embodiment but also it's about creating a system.'

Despite its roots in health, where of course research underpins virtually every step of progress, Professor Dopson says the lessons of the work can be applied to other areas. 'There are some ideas about not being slavish to the research, but to mould and shape it to fit the practical contexts in which it's being used,' she says.

‘Schools like Oxford Saïd can play a vital role in helping practitioners adopt research and turn it into real, lasting change’

There are lessons for business schools too, she believes. 'Two key points came out of the work for me. As academics, when we're pumping out our research papers, we tend to focus on articles rather than helping practitioners transpose and use them; that's partly a result of how academics are measured: by how many publications you have under your belt. That is a flawed system. So this sits alongside the Impact Agenda and will be important in changing this,' she says.

The second point is to grasp the opportunity, says Professor Dopson. 'Business schools haven't been quite as successful as they might have been in taking the research that their academics produce and fashioning it into a more usable form so it can be translated and used in business. So schools like Oxford Saïd can play a vital role in helping practitioners adopt research and turn it into real, lasting change.'