Corporate research: The ‘living laboratories’ of business

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A global survey conducted by the IBM Institute for Business Value has demonstrated that CEOs find “innovation” to be the top requirement for their companies to compete in fast-changing global markets.

However, competitive advantage cannot merely be achieved through innovative products and services.

As transformations in the business environment move more rapidly, corporate universities face the challenge of equipping employees with skills to support cultural changes as well as organisational transformations, by adapting development programmes offered to their employees.

Inevitably, the question arises as to the role that academia, with its research capabilities, should play in this development.

While in the fields of technology and engineering there are often long-standing research partnerships between universities and corporations, this is not necessarily the case for business and management disciplines.

On the one hand managers tend to be sceptical about the impact and validity of academic research for management, on the other hand there seems to be a broad consensus that a good deal of innovation is required in today’s management practices. But where could this innovation come from?

Anecdotal evidence suggests that there is little-to-no involvement of corporate universities in proper research in the field of management education.

Corporate universities tend to learn from their own in-house experiences “on the fly”. They focus on specific problem-solving related to internal issues and then make the learning drawn from their experiences available to a larger audience.

But ultimately there is a lack of sound methods and rigour in distilling broadly applicable knowledge from new emerging concepts and practices.

In this sense, companies are “living laboratories” for innovation and research in management practice.

They are highly sophisticated in developing advanced learning processes and deploying innovative pedagogical models, but lack the appropriate processes that make the research more valid and widely applicable. This is where the advantage of collaborations between business schools and corporate universities best result in added value.

Company executives are not only interested in understanding and leveraging emerging practices based on today’s experiences – they are keen on anticipating new global trends and positioning their companies for the future.

Some business schools have embraced this important area of “trend-spotting”, including the analysis and impact-assessment of future scenarios for management. However, this domain is currently mainly occupied by specialised organisations – in particular those attached to large consulting firms. These consultancies use the opportunities offered by their global nature and unparalleled access to clients round the world to drive research projects.

Such projects are normally positioned in an overall strategic framework established by companies for a number of years, which guarantees consistency and coherence of the research efforts over time.

All this leads to the question of better synergies between business and academia in the field of management studies.

However, as the experience of the past 10 years has shown, the effective broad-based implementation of such linkages is a bigger challenge than anticipated.

This is particularly true when it comes to a discipline like management studies in comparison to other fields such as engineering or medicine, where the impact and usefulness in practice can be clearly measured and demonstrated.

There have been recent initiatives to improve the understanding of the link between research, education and innovation and to produce sound information on how to act on it.

The Global Innovation Index (GII) Report, released by Insead in January 2007, is one example. The GII aims at showing how different countries and regions respond to the challenge of innovation by analysing a country’s ability to adopt and benefit from new technologies, increased human capacities, and organisational developments.

The European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD) has also developed quality improvement schemes for business schools and corporations that put significant emphasis on possible synergies. The Equis accreditation standards used for analysing a business school’s success include the quality and relevance of the research produced by its faculty.

At the same time, the Clip accreditation scheme for corporate universities and equivalent corporate learning organisations emphasises the innovation focus and capacity of corporate universities and points specifically to the need for ongoing research in the field of business enterprise and management.

The message to business schools and corporate universities is clear: research in the field of management education needs to be relevant to corporate needs.

Several innovative business schools and companies have embarked on initiatives to link business school research to the requirements of the corporate world.

One recent example, implemented in partnership by academics and corporations, is the research conducted by the Duke Centre for International Business Education and Research jointly with BoozAllen Hamilton. This project researched the issue of the globalisation of white-collar work, especially off-shoring and outsourcing.

Another example is found at London Business School (LBS). The LBS Management Innovation Lab works on selected projects in tandem with its corporate partners. The typical partnership lasts between two months and two years and the underlying model operates in four phases: tackling new challenges, deconstructing management orthodoxies, searching for new principles and experimenting, learning and adapting, all the while working towards a disciplined methodology and toolkit.

The IMD Learning Network is another formula of close co-operation between the academic and corporate world. An array of mechanisms are deployed by IMD to exchange best practice, while development of real world material is achieved by focusing research on practical challenges facing real companies.

Corporate partners of Cranfield School of Management have helped to generate a relevant research agenda throughout the years through their “Research Clubs”. Cranfield School of Management has valued corporate input and decided, with the help of corporate partners, to identify the most relevant research projects in the area of executive learning for the future.

By taking advantage of their different approaches to research, business education institutions and companies may draw considerable mutual benefits from collaboration.

Joint research would provide business schools with insights into emerging trends in the corporate world and allow them to align their own research projects to the needs of companies.

Furthermore, educational institutions would gain an insight into the multi-disciplinary approach that corporate research is increasingly adopting.

Companies would also benefit from such collaborations as researchers would ensure that the deeper academic context and the best balance between academic rigour and applied research is found.

Richard Straub is director of development at EFMD and Clip. He is also director of eLearning solutions for IBM Europe, Middle-East and Africa

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