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Research engagement Q&A with academics

  • Tuesday, June 7, 2016
  • School

There are now significant opportunities for doctoral students to receive funding for ‘engaged’ research. Here, five academics from Alliance MBS share their thoughts on how they see their research as being engaged.

Ken McPhail, Professor of Accounting
My research is around business and human rights and is motivated by wanting it to be relevant, have impact and change something - whether through policy, practice or profile. For me, it is particularly about having impact for the most disenfranchised people in society.

Engagement is very much about trying to find out what the problems are in the first place. For instance, in my subject area we can think of examples where businesses have violated democratic rights, so it is about formulating what the questions are as well.

Engagement does not come at the end of the process, but in the formulation of the questions. The wider point I would also make is that PhD students have to care about what they are studying so that they can be truly engaged.

Damian Grimshaw, Professor of Employment Studies
My work involves a lot of qualitative data, so building relationships and finding people with a reliable voice is key. For instance, I am involved with the ‘Just Work’ initiative in Greater Manchester which is looking at the challenges of developing and sustaining decent work. As a result we have a strong relationship with key stakeholders in the city region, and we see engagement as very much a two-way process.

However, one word of warning is that if your research is overly politicised from the outset then that can lead to problems. For instance, sometimes you will engage with a policy body and they may have a very clear line on what they want to hear. But in the end you might not say what they want you to say, and that can be difficult to handle.

It can come back to the point that people often don’t want to hear a complex story, but yet research can be very complicated. Sometimes a story cannot be translated into a single, simple narrative.

Paula Hyde, Professor in Organisation and Society
As academics we are in a unique position to raise the voices of people who might otherwise go unheard. One thing I would stress is that working in a business school you are sometimes perceived as just here to help businesses, but this is not necessarily the case. Instead you might be drawing to the attention of businesses a particular issue.

For instance, I have been looking at the residential care market in a study funded by the Department of Health and Comic Relief. This work was sparked by a number of national scandals over quality of care, and during our work we came to understand the predicament of care workers in sustaining care quality. What we found was actually that workers were often mitigating the effects of some policies associated with austerity, which came as a surprise.

To be engaged you have to stay in touch with the outside world, while also accepting that there can be a tension between research and practice.

Bruce Tether, Professor of Innovation Management and Strategy
Alliance MBS is an applied business school and that means it is about being relevant and doing work that has value in the real world. Very often practice is way ahead of us and that puts the onus on us as academics to catch up.

What does engagement mean to me? Well, my view is that anyone can get hold of data. But it is by talking to people in specific sectors that you can find out so much more about your area of research and that you can maybe get hold of unique resources.

For instance, I work with a number of journals that gather information on particular sectors. One example is an architecture journal which sends out a huge survey to people in the industry and gets a terrific response. I then get access to this survey thanks to a relationship that I have built up over many years.

Nikolay Mehandjiev, Professor of Enterprise Information Systems
My research involves building models, systems and theories that underpin software, so for me rigour and relevance are key. Life may seem far too easy in our academic ivory towers, when out there in the real business world the complexity is unbelievable. So when carrying out your research you have to find space within that complexity and make sure it is grounded in that complexity.

In terms of wider engagement with the private sector, given the research that we do another angle that we might also consider is the possibility for creating spin-off companies.

*A full list of funding opportunities for doctoral students can be found here