Academics and executives join forces on sustainability research
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The partnership between our business school research team and Co-operators, the Canadian insurer, offers a blueprint for bridging the divide between academia and practice. Rather than researching issues and then translating the findings for practitioners, we work with managers from the start to develop a tool to tackle complex systems challenges.
Karen Flamand, assistant vice-president of claims shared services at Co-operators, approached us to help tackle one of the knottiest problems her company faces. Co-operators wanted to find a way to build sustainable homes that are more resilient to damage from serious weather incidents, without increasing overall costs.
Over the past eight months, we worked with Co-operators employees and other stakeholders to generate ideas: from simple internal policies, such as training programmes, to radical systems changes, such as a resilience fund to which all insurers contributed. Our approach to corporate innovation applies “out of the box” systems thinking.
Co-operators could have developed solutions by itself but, often, businesses hone in on feasible ideas limited by their own experiences. We believe partnering with academics fosters more creative solutions, because they can think abstractly and introduce ideas from other contexts. Co-operators is now exploring some of these ideas to help tackle the challenges of climate change.
Most business school academics work at arm’s length from managers. Academics spend years collecting difficult-to-acquire data, analysing it, writing up their findings and then engaging in rigorous review and revision before publishing in specialist journals. This process frequently generates narrowly scoped, hard-to-decipher papers locked behind paywalls.
Although the research may be sound, sometimes even profound, the process can distance academics from managers. So the large majority of publicly funded research intended to create better business rarely reaches the audience it was intended to influence.
Never has it been more important for business researchers to bridge this divide, as climate change, new technologies, complex supply chains and geopolitical destabilisation generate uncertainty and turbulence. Yet, in the face of instability, executives tend to narrow their field of view and search for easy, incremental solutions — often compounding problems rather than solving them. Managers feel they are drowning in data, yet starving for useful insights.
At the same time, by researching problems independently, publicly funded academics are filling the pages of hundreds of journals that are rarely read by managers. Most executives have difficulty naming even a single academic who has influenced their practice.
Academics have the potential to reverse this tendency, but not with traditional approaches that simply translate and disseminate their research. Instead, they need to work jointly with managers, bringing abstract knowledge to their more detailed insights. We are more creative by working with each other than independently.
This is not consultancy carried out under the banner of research. We do not offer advice, nor charge high fees that incentivise us to simply echo back to managers what they want to hear. Instead, we deeply engage in the challenges, collaborate closely and seek to change business practices while also advancing academic research. Our primary objective is learning and sharing those insights with other academics and future managers.
Some academics argue that this form of partnership is not research because those involved work together too closely and lose their objectivity. But we take careful measures to retain our independence in what we know, how we think and the outcomes that we co-create. Our differences are what makes the effort so valuable.
Through the Network for Business Sustainability, we learnt the value of translating and disseminating research to managers. But we also saw that it was difficult to change business practices based only on research insights. Innovation North, a community of researchers and business “practice partners”, is the response, which embraces two important principles.
First, the researchers and practice partners share the same objective: to create new products and services that foster sustainability and build more resilient systems. Second, we build tools, not models or frameworks. Models are anchored in the past, while tools shape the future. The tools shift the focus from probabilities, based on what is known, to possibilities that managers can imagine.
Our online tool and approach is called the Compass. Developed with our practice partners, it guides organisations through a corporate innovation process to tackle systems challenges. Applied in partnership with executives, it helps businesses navigate to their “North Star”: a purpose beyond profit. Compass departs from design thinking, which can inadvertently create systems problems with its dogmatic focus on customer needs or problems, such as the accumulation of plastic waste and greenhouse gas emissions. Our approach facilitates innovations that are both profitable and meet the needs of communities and the planet.
We have already generated novel ideas with Co-operators. We are also working with the Cboe Canada stock exchange and the RBC Foundation to develop a financial instrument to improve biodiversity and contribute to climate resiliency.
Our partnership revealed that biodiversity — in general — was too broad an issue, so we narrowed the focus to regenerative agriculture. We then mapped systems to see where farmers could intervene meaningfully with the help of additional funding. By assembling diverse stakeholders in a safe space and drawing on evidence-based research, we have been able to jointly create solutions.
The financial instrument will be accessible to the mass market, not simply mainstream investors. By speaking to and convening a broad range of stakeholders, we understand the barriers in the system that hamper the protection of biodiversity on agricultural land, and are unearthing mechanisms that will value regeneration, not just extraction.
At its conclusion, Cboe Canada and RBC will have the structure of an innovative financial instrument, the research team will have data to shape leading ideas in sustainable finance, and Canadians will be able to support their country’s biodiversity.
Tima Bansal is a professor of strategy at the Ivey Business School at Western University in Canada. Garima Sharma is an assistant professor, Kogod School of Business, American University. They are co-authors of Three Different Approaches to Impact: Translating, Co-creating and Performing (2022, Sage)