A few years ago I began teaching a course on organizational climate and culture to executives at the doctoral level. The students are mid to high level executives and business owners working on a doctor of business administration (DBA) degree. One goal of the program is to provide tools to translate academic research into something that practitioners can use. A frequent topic in class discussion is how to do just that. In other words, what makes research actionable for practitioners?
Two Basic Research Questions
Listening to class discussion, it occurred to me that there are two basic questions that both practitioners and academic researchers share.
- What are the drivers of important outcomes? A fundamental issue for practitioners is how to achieve the results that they seek, and how to avoid problems. Outcomes can be financial (cost, profit, or sales), or nonfinancial (customer satisfaction, employee retention, or medical errors). Knowing what drives outcomes focuses attention on the sorts of actions needed.
- What are the results of actions? Managers make decisions and take actions based upon them in the hopes of achieving desired results. Sometimes those actions are effective, and sometimes they have unintended consequences, both good and bad. When contemplating an action (implementing a new policy), knowledge about likely outcomes can inform what action to take and what to avoid.
Why isn’t Academic Research More Actionable?
Academic research is generally based on theoretical ideas and is focused on filling gaps in the academic literature. Rather than addressing the two basic questions directly, it is focused on more narrow issues. In order to make studies as methodologically rigorous as possible, problems are simplified to deal with an easily manageable piece. The questions tend to be much more narrow. Instead of asking about the drivers of an outcome, the question might focus on only one potential driver, and often that choice is based mainly on theory. Further, the methodologies of many studies merely establish that the driver and outcome are associated with one another. It is silent about what might happen if you were to try to change the driver. In other words it suffers from the problem of “correlation does not indicate causation”, and causation is what the practitioner needs to know. How can I change the driver, and what can I expect if I do?
Another issue with academic research is much of it is focused on mechanisms by which drivers might affect outcomes. Often the connection is well established, for example, we know that employee job satisfaction drives retention. Happy employees are more likely to stay on the job. Academic research on this issue today is likely to test complex models that might explain why happy people stay. But knowing the why is not all that helpful because it does not inform how you might go about increasing retention by raising satisfaction. This problem is made worse when the methodologies used to test mechanisms provide only weak and indirect evidence that the mechanism is correct. Such studies are statistically rigorous, but do little to answer the basic questions broadly enough to inform practice.
What Makes Research Actionable?
Actionable research provides evidence that a particular driver will affect outcomes, and ideally, how one might go about driving that driver. If I wish to change my organizational climate, say create a climate of diversity, how should I go about it, and what research evidence exists that informs what to do? If I am successful in changing that climate, what can I expect? How will it affect my customers, employees, other stakeholders, and my overall organization? Will it decrease costs, increase sales, or lead to better retention? What are the drawbacks and unintended consequences?
Academic research might not necessarily inform practice directly, but it still provides glimpses into how organizations function. The bodies of literature on organizational issues might not have nicely packaged solutions, but they offer useful pieces of the puzzle.
- Hints on Where to Look. An academic study might merely show that two things are related (customer satisfaction and employee satisfaction) without showing that one actually drives the other. However, this can be a good place to start because it tells the practitioner where to start looking. In this case we might not be sure if happy employees produce happy customers, or if happy customers lead to happy employees. But we can begin to take steps to see if doing something about employee satisfaction moves customer satisfaction, or the reverse, and ultimately if what we do affects sales.
- Methods for Finding Solutions. Practitioners will often conduct their own research in order to find solutions for organizational problems. Many organizations have their own internal research experts who can conduct studies on important issues that need solution. Those experts will likely consult the academic literature for methods that can be used in their own organizational research.
- Tools for Assessing Organizations. The academic literature contains countless measuring tools for assessing customers, employees, and organizations. These tools can be used to address organizational problems and for evaluating potential solutions.
Over the past few decades I have seen academic research become more theoretical and less directly relevant to practice. It is hard to dispute that theoretical research is necessary for scientific advancement, but it should not be an either/or proposition. There should be more room in academic outlets to publish research that focuses on practical problems of organizations, even if that means the use of simpler methods and statistics. A combination of the practical and theoretical would provide a better balance that advances a more complete understanding of organizations and other phenomena.