As part of the Wharton External Affairs leadership team, I have experienced the value that academic research and faculty insights bring to societal challenges, as well as those I face in my daily work. The format for our last all-alumni survey, for example, benefited from the advice of Eric Bradlow, vice dean of Analytics at Wharton, and Raghu Iyengar, faculty director of Wharton Customer Analytics. Prior to joining Wharton, however, I worked at community-based non-profits, and it never occurred to me that such resources existed.
In conversations with faculty and staff, I’ve learned that translating research to a broader audience is a topic of much discussion in higher education today. The challenges inherent in making academic research accessible and tangible to policymakers, organizational leaders, the media, and the workforce at large are daunting.
Two faculty members from the Wharton management department — Dan Levinthal, Reginald H. Jones Professor of Corporate Strategy, and Lori Rosenkopf, Simon and Midge Palley Professor — invited me to join them in conversations with leaders in the management field to develop strategies to address some of these challenges. Among the themes that emerged, three resonate for me as a non-academic.
Identifying Academic Research
Unlike the analytical work one does before buying a house or writing an article, academic research is highly specific, with stricter standards for peer review and transparency, which increase confidence in the veracity of results. Understanding how academic research is structured, executed, and then analyzed will aid in building a greater appreciation for its merits.
Escaping Echo Chambers
Just as leaders often look within their own industries for innovation, academics can live in echo chambers that are reinforced with their own jargon. In order for the general public to benefit from new ideas that originate in higher education, we need to establish stable and sustainable lines of communication to share and debate those ideas. Academic centers, often supported by alumni and philanthropic interests, play an important role in linking academic research to broader audiences. However, a challenge to these centers is whether they speak to a specific alumni community/geography or broader populations of practitioners. Partnering across institutions will amplify voices to a wider audience.
Generalizing Findings to Broader Contexts
Lori and Dan explained how the strategic management field has grappled with the desire to generalize almost from its inception. To date, management researchers’ efforts to carefully identify “causes” and “effects” tend to lead to studies with sharp boundaries regarding what firms or industries are included in any particular study.
Generalizing, however, is applying the lessons learned from specific research to a variety of situations and environments. For example, how could a study analyzing an emerging tech company’s human resources department apply to HR teams in different industries or a larger, more established firm? Designing the study with the desire to make it applicable in multiple settings will create a virtuous cycle of understanding. As academics increasingly generalize their findings, they will develop a body of knowledge that the public can relate to and utilize more effectively.
Academics need help from those skilled in scholarly translation to make their work more accessible to the masses. Considering how to address the themes noted above is a step in the right direction that will enhance the flow of knowledge.
Katherine Primus is executive director of communications and stewardship for Wharton External Affairs.