Bridging the Research–Practice Gap

Bansal, P., Bertels, S., Ewart, T., MacConnachie, P. & O’Brien, J. (2012). Bridging the research-practice gap. Academy of Management Perspectives, 26(1), 73-93.
Management research often bears little resemblance to management practice. Although this research-practice gap is widely recognized and frequently lamented, there is little discussion about how it can be bridged. We partly remedy this problem in this paper by describing our experiences with the Network for Business Sustainability. Our experiences showed that the paradoxes underlying the relationship between research and practice make bridging this gap difficult. We argue that the reason why the research-practice gap endures is that bridging it is beyond the capabilities and scope of most individuals, and we call for the creation of intermediary organizations like the Network for Business Sustainability. We close by outlining some of the activities that can be undertaken by these boundary-spanning intermediary organizations, with the hopes of better aligning management research and practice.
This paper describes the Network for Business Sustainability (NBS). NBS was founded in 2005 to facilitate knowledge exchange among a community of researchers and practitioners in the area of business sustainability. By 2012, more than 900 researchers and 1,500 practitioners had joined the network. From the NBS website “NBS produces authoritative resources on important sustainability issues – with the goal of shaping management practice and research. We connect thousands of researchers and professionals worldwide who are interested in corporate social responsibility (CSR) and who believe in the value of research-based practice and practice-based research…NBS uses its academic and industry funding to commission research on the Canadian business community’s top sustainability challenges. We identify the best researchers in the world to study those issues and manage the research process to ensure findings are relevant and actionable for industry. We translate the academic studies into practical planning resources for business and disseminate them at no cost worldwide…To date NBS has produced nine systematic reviews on sustainability challenges identified by our Leadership Council.”
The NBS Leadership Council is comprised of about 20 representatives from corporations, federal government departments, and nongovernmental organizations, identifies their 10 most pressing questions. NBS releases an RFP to identify the best researcher to conduct a knowledge synthesis of academic and practitioner information sources. The completed knowledge synthesis is disseminated in a variety of formats to the broader NBS community. The paper describes this process using the “Culture Project” as a case study and presents perspectives of the Founder and Executive Director, the NBS Managing Director, the lead researcher on the Culture Project, as well as the practitioner and the academic representatives of the guidance committee for the Culture Project.
But first the paper opens with a review of the literature on bridging the knowledge to practice gap in management. This literature presents the familiar concepts of knowledge mobilization in new ways.
The authors summarize evidence based management as follows, “ultimately, this approach aims to synthesize research and render it more relevant to practitioners, while being sensitive to particular contexts in which the evidence may be applied“. Derived from evidence based medicine, this sounds like a case of knowledge translation and knowledge transfer.
“Engaged scholarship assumes that researchers and practitioners can investigate complex social problems by collaborating across the basic stages of the research process, including formulating problems, building theory, designing research, and solving problems. While they also mention forms of action research such as embedding researchers in management teams, the roles of researcher and practitioner remain distinct. This sounds more like a knowledge exchange paradigm when the end user is engaged in the research process but the locus of the research remains with the researcher.
Relational scholarship takes engaged scholarship further. The focus shifts from the research community to the interface between research and practice. “Individuals begin to bridge the gap by taking tentative steps into the liminal space between these poles, conscious of the risk this effort entails. This approach advocates for new structures to facilitate more imaginative and useful research findings, implications for practice, and approaches to topics informed by the joint interests of both researchers and practitioners“. By entering the gap between research and practice this sounds like a co-production methodology where researchers and practitioners work together to create new forms of knowledge that has both academic and practical merit. For further discussion on co-production see two previous journal club articles, Knowledge for Theory and Practice and A Collaborative Approach for Defining the Usefulness of Impact.
NBS has produced 10 reviews in four years – these are deep dives into the academic and practiced based literature. They are guided by practitioners and produced by academics. NBS acts as an intermediary organization filling the gap between research and practice. In this way the work of NBS appears to be supporting engaged scholarship (i.e. knowledge exchange). While the roles of researcher and practitioner remain distinct the non-academic Leadership Council plays an active role in identifying the research question, refining the methods and overseeing the production of the end product.
The familiar tension between academic rigour and practitioner relevancy that we know of in the education, health, social justice and environmental literature are recapitulated in this management case study. The issues experienced in management appear to be similar to those experienced in other research-to-practice disciplines. It also appears that some of the same tactics are common: transfer, translation, exchange, co-production, although known by different names. There is also discussion of the academic merit of this type of scholarship and whether or not this is respected enough by the academy to be part of tenure and promotion. For more on T&P in community engaged scholarship see These issues appear to transcend disciplines.
I heard a presentation by lead author and NBS Executive Director, Tima Bansal, where she said she has raised over $2M from industry partners. There is a price of joining NBS and influencing NBS activities. The author of the Culture Project case also had a great response to her knowledge synthesis. She recounts, “in fact, I was surprised by the attention the report received. I was bombarded with requests to talk to the media and present at conferences and industry events“.
I find a number of things really interesting about this paper: 1) it shares challenges, approaches and tools with many other disciplines even though the genesis of these challenges and development of approaches and tools was likely wholly disconnected from those in other disciplines. This is another example of convergent evolution of knowledge mobilization approaches. See a Mobilize This! blog post from 2009 that discusses convergent evolution from the perspective or research-to-policy in environmental sciences; 2) it presents a successful model of knowledge mobilization that has nothing to do with the co-production method of which I (and others including Sandra Nutley) am a proponent; 3) the success of NBS appears to be dependent on its knowledge products and not the active engagement of its network despite literature to the contrary (see work recently posted by Amanda Cooper and reviewed in Mobilize This!); and 4) businesses pay for these knowledge mobilization activities – proving the wise words of Peter Levesque (@peterlevesque) and Sarah Morton (@CRFRTweets) that knowledge mobilization is a real cost and must be budgeted for.
This third part is just a guess as there is no indication, apart from the Leadership and other topic specific Councils, that the broader NBS network actually exists to do more than receive the disseminated knowledge products arising from the knowledge syntheses. If this is the case then NBS has been successful focusing on knowledge products and not on active engagement of stakeholders through networks and events.
Questions for brokers:

  1. What methods do you employ in your knowledge mobilization practice and are they sufficient to meet the needs of your stakeholders? An earlier journal club posting reviewed a paper that demonstrated how a mix of methodologies was more effective than a single methods (although effects were small for both)
  2. Participation in NBS costs because knowledge mobilization costs. How are you funding your knowledge mobilization practice? What different funding models are there?
  3. This paper and the blog post referenced above are examples of convergent knowledge mobilization – similar practices from unrelated disciplines. In light of the convergent evolution of knowledge mobilization in so many diverse disciplines, are there overall guiding principles of knowledge mobilization that transcend contexts? But at the same time there seems to be no one size fits all approach to achieving successful knowledge mobilization (see below). Common approaches but no one size fits all….can there be a “right” way to bridge the research-practice gap?
  4. And while we’re at it….I don’t like the bridge the gap metaphor. It doesn’t work for co-production where the researchers and practitioners create common ground that fills the gap, or (preferably) closes the loop. See discussion point #1 in a previous journal club post for more on this.
  5. One size does not fit all. The K* Concept Paper has a nice diagram mapping a variety of knowledge intermediary organizations against goals and methods (check out the link above as the image doesn’t fit here). Where does NBS fit into this diagram? Where does your organization fit into this diagram?

Kstar mapping roles diagram.jpg
RIR is producing this journal club series as a way to make the evidence on KMb more accessible to knowledge brokers and to create on line discussion about research on knowledge mobilization. It is designed for knowledge brokers and other knowledge mobilization stakeholders. Read the article. Then come back to this post and join the journal club by posting your comments.