• Katrin Heucher

Amanda Williams, ETH Zürich, Senior Researcher

Updated: Dec 7, 2020

“As an academic, you can have an impact in different ways but for me, it is about combining academic research with making an impact”, Amanda Williams states. She is currently a senior researcher in the Group for Sustainability and Technology (SusTec) at the Department of Management, Technology and Economics of ETH Zurich.

Impact on Research-Practice Collaboration

During her PhD at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, Amanda worked closely with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). WBCSD is a global, CEO-led organization of businesses working together for a sustainable world. Amanda was working on a guide for business action on the United Nations sustainable development goals: The SDG Compass. The Compass was a collaborative project between the WBCSD, United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), and the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). It was one of the first guides for business action on the SDGs. The guide outlines a series of steps that managers can take to integrate the SDGs into their strategic planning process. It launched at the same time as the SDGs at the UN Private Sector Forum in September 2015.

Amanda considered her collaboration with the WBCSD as separate from her research. “I expected my experience there to enrich my data collection, but I didn't necessarily think that the topic would also become the topic of my research”. The project resulted in an article in the Academy of Management Discoveries about the SDGs. While in the beginning, creating impact was separate from Amanda’s academic research, in the end, the two became one.

Many Pathways to Impact

Amanda lays out a few pathways to research impact. One is action research, which she is currently doing at ETH Zürich. Her current project is about working with companies to move beyond ‘being less bad’ or reducing negative impacts on making positive societal and environmental impacts. She decided to integrate research and practice from the beginning. “I started with a research question in mind and took it to the companies and tried to drive change within the companies.” Through a series of workshops, Amanda is using the SDGs as a framework to help companies set externally relevant targets and develop an action plan for achieving them. While other forms of qualitative research often rely on retrospective accounts, the workshops allow for data collection in real-time. It also allows the researcher to capture immediate reactions and see how perspectives change over time. The value of such real time data and capturing immediate reaction lies in the increased accuracy and comprehensiveness of the developments, without the participants' sense-making activities after the fact. By reflecting reality more accurately, research implications will be more relevant for the field.

Another approach, which is probably what most researchers consider when talking about impact, is related to disseminating findings to a wider practitioner audience. Amanda acknowledges: “I can't say I have been doing it to a degree that I would want. It is taking your research once it is done and then getting that information to practitioners so that they can use it. I have tried to write a blog or a short version of my articles.” Finding and getting access to the right outlet, however, is a challenge. So far, Amanda has written for the Network for Business Sustainability and the blog of the Copenhagen Business School. Yet, Amanda wonders what other channels are available and accessible to early-career scholars to reach broader audiences.

Advice for Early Career Scholars

When asked what advice Amanda would give to junior scholars and PhD students who want to have an impact, Amanda has several insights from her experience to share:

Find a supportive environment. The pressure to publish in top-tier journals can potentially take time away from focusing on having an impact. To pursue both, it is important to have supervisors and mentors who share the ambition of having an impact. This was the case for Amanda and still, her path was not easy. You need a supportive environment to allow and encourage you to keep going.

Start thinking about impact early and plan ahead. Conceptualizing a project that invites practitioner interest can be challenging. Practitioners have varying degrees of interest in academic collaboration, and again, finding the right fit is key. The work of forging a collaboration takes time so start thinking about impact early. You need patience such as in her case, she needed time for getting companies to say yes to the collaboration. She also had to wait for her visa issues to be solved in order to travel for the work. Keep such contingencies in mind as you plan your research.

Consider the advantages of your approach. Amanda lists many advantages of her research approach, which often becomes clear only in retrospect. First, despite its challenges, collaborating with practitioners affords a peek into their world, which usual research methods do not provide. The data she could collect was rich, even though it took her a significant time to collect the data. As well, she could speak to a variety of academic disciplines given the interdisciplinary nature of her collaboration with practice. She recalls her job interview at her current position. The group members come from different disciplines and have a focus on impacting practice. Amanda’s project was an advantage in applying for a position in such a group: “It helped me because there are people doing lots of different things using different methods. No matter which field you are coming from, I could speak to the context and they would find something in the story that is relevant for their own work.” You need to identify and highlight the advantages of the research approach of collaborating with practitioners.

Inspired by Amanda’s impact story, we encourage you to share your story and connect with academics and practitioners.

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