Knowledge champions are key to ensuring academic research can make an impact

Knowledge champions are key to ensuring academic research can make an impact

One of the ongoing challenges of governments and academia internationally is how to boost societal and economic impact from research investment by focusing on commercializing and scaling up research and innovation. A new study published in Human Relations, identifies how organizations can overcome the difficulties of translating research-based knowledge into workplace practices.  It suggests that academic research will only have an impact if it has a champion cheerleading it within the organisation.

The study identifies that knowledge does not easily flow between people, places, industries, and organizations or even across departments. It therefore looks at how academic research can be more effectively mobilized into practice and society.  Researchers from Warwick Business School, University of Oxford’s Said Business School, King’s College London, and the University of Melbourne worked together to study 137 senior managers in six leading organizations in the UK health sector.

Funded by the UK’s National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) the study looked at how academic research was used in various organizations in the health sector including a global management consulting firm, a policy think-tank, university partnerships, and major teaching hospitals.

The team explored which people and teams used research most effectively. In the published paper, they describe how effective leaders mobilize management research by ‘personally being the knowledge’. Gerry McGivern of Warwick Business School said, “Many of the most effective knowledge champions or leaders trace their motivation to mobilize knowledge back to formative experiences, for example while studying for a Masters degree or a PhD, when they became deeply engaged with academic management knowledge and research.”

Knowledge leaders also typically have ‘hybrid’ identities, combining professional or academic expertise and management roles, so were able to personally straddle and mobilize knowledge across disciplinary and organisational silos.

“The research finds that knowledge leadership is the key to mobilizing academic management research from universities into organisations. Universities’ collaborating with organisations, whether in the public or private sector, is not enough; we need knowledge leaders embedded within organizations in the long-term, actively being the knowledge they are trying to mobilize.”

Sue Dopson of Saïd Business School said, “We examined how managers use academic research in their decision making to affect organizational innovation and change. We identified the importance of knowledge leaders, who are more than mere facilitators or translators of the research, but develop a deep-seated personal investment to apply this formal knowledge to their specific setting and create the momentum for organisational change. The challenge for organisations is to identify, support and nurture these knowledge leaders and help drive the transfer of academic research to developing an evidence-based health sector.”

The study identified three different types of effective knowledge leaders:

  • Carriers – knowledge leaders personally bring research inside their organization and enact it by creating organizational change.
  • Magpies – by selecting and combining various research findings to reassemble inside their organizations.
  • Challengers – knowledge leaders argue against established research-based models with new findings to drive innovation and alternative solutions.

The paper’s lead author, Dr. Michael Fischer, senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne and University of Oxford, added, “‘Knowledge leaders are few and far between, but their leadership is key to moving research across university and industry boundaries. The findings have major implications for governments as well as management consultancies, universities and other knowledge-intensive organisations in how to develop effective knowledge leaders.”

“Our study reveals how the most effective leaders ‘unstick’ and mobilise research to make it more useful to society.  Instead of attempting to translate and shift it further down the chain, they find ways to personally act as the knowledge itself.  They create emotional engagement by actively ‘becoming’ the knowledge.”


The researchers make a series of recommendations for companies and policymakers to nurture knowledge leaders and accelerate the flow of research from universities into organizations:

  1. Create opportunities for much closer collaboration between universities and organizations to stimulate the flow of people and research across boundaries.
  2. Make ‘safe spaces’ for knowledge leaders to engage with research, innovate and shift practices.
  3. Identify and develop ‘hybrid’ individuals skilled at straddling boundaries between research and organisations.
  4. Increase postgraduate engagement and sponsorship in industry-focused research problems to spark cross-fertilization of knowledge.

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