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ABDC Research Scholar, Professor Stephen Taylor, on the need to include teaching and other business school activities in national measures of impact and engagement.

The Australian Industry Group (AiG) recently released a report, which found that collaboration on innovation in Australia was ‘rare and shallow’ and at the lowest level of all developed countries.

The Joining Forces: Innovation Success through Partnerships report investigates business perceptions of barriers to research collaborations ­– like short-termism, ad hoc efforts and inconsistent public policy.

In its recommendations, the report urges a change in how we measure collaboration for innovation to take into account commercial outcomes and the quality of engagement, as well as the number of research collaborations and inputs, like money invested­.

The AiG report is a welcome addition to the national conversation on ways to improve innovation but, when it comes to measuring levels of engagement and impact, it does not go far enough.

Measuring the quality of collaborations and identifying commercial outcomes makes sense. However, the majority of research that addresses current business issues and underpins the tertiary teaching of our future business professional and leaders is still largely being ignored.

In its current consultation paper, the Australian Research Council looks at engagement and impact with too narrow a focus – an approach that is at odds with the UK Stern Committee that has already examined this area and strongly advocates a broader and deeper understanding of what engagement and impact mean.

For example, Stern argues for consideration of the impact of research on teaching. A great deal of long-term, sustainable, systemic change comes from changing behaviour, which is influenced by business education.

For example, when extensive, rigorous research on ‘why managers make accounting choices’ is incorporated into the teaching of statutory financial reporting, students understand not just the rules, but how those rules are applied (and sometimes twisted).

Students, who understand incentives that drive behaviour, can learn how to anticipate, and possibly combat, undesirable practices. This influences how our future business professionals and leaders improve the longer-term quality of financial analysis and auditing.

Business education is based on rigorous, academic research whereas political ‘solutions’ to problems often result from high-profile cases and anecdotes. There have been many times when business research has produced results that disprove prevailing and popular beliefs on which proposed regulatory intervention has been based or, worse still, already put in place.

Business researchers use wide-ranging forms of engagement to understand pressing industry issues and frame relevant research. They do not, as some might imply, conjure up ideas in a vacuum and then look for someone to foot the research bill.

Areas like customised executive programs also provide links between business research and knowledge that address specific user demands.

Executive programs are one of many forms of multi-faceted engagement between business schools and researchers. Others include direct and indirect links to professional organisations, standard setters, regulators and consumers, industry and government.

However, like broader definitions of impact, these multiple forms of engagement are currently excluded from the ARC’s proposed new assessment system, which narrowly defines how engagement is measured.

Another issue of concern is assessment time frames. If an impact is to be demonstrated as explicitly following from specific research outputs, then the current ERA time frame of six years is a very short time in which to determine long-term impact. It is imperative that we do not define impact too narrowly by tying it to a short window of time to assess quality, or to an overly narrow body of work.

Based on extensive UK experience, the Stern Committee also warns against the sort of ‘mechanistic’ thinking in which A leads directly to B. Long-term change is a complex process and rarely the direct result of an input, leading to an outcome, that causes an impact.

The Stern Committee makes useful suggestions about how to address attribution issues, suggesting that longer-term research programs be used to demonstrate impact rather than draw tenuous links between one, or a small number of, research papers and substantial socio-economic, cultural, or educational impact.

Few would argue there is merit in the idea of assessing the engagement and broader impact of our universities. However, as Stern cautions, we need to ensure ‘a richer picture of the impact of research is developed encompassing expertise, facilities and networks of individuals, groups or institutions’. We must learn from the experience of our UK colleagues and avoid an overly narrow or mechanistic definition of engagement or impact.

Stephen Taylor is Professor of Accounting at UTS Business School and Australian Business Deans’ Council Research Scholar.

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