Angela Greco, Ivey Business School, Postdoctoral Associate
“Recently, someone from the organization I conducted my PhD research at messaged me to say that thanks to my research they included community engagement as the first step in their housing design process. And I felt ‘yes, this is impact!’.”
Working with practitioners comes naturally to Angela. She does not show up as an academic who is an outsider, or a distant expert, instead, she has fostered meaningful relationships with her project partners from practice. The practitioners she worked with during her research on a sustainable housing project attended her Ph.D. defense. “One of the greatest points of satisfaction for me was that at my defense, they told me, you know you really helped us change and improve how we involve tenants,” said Angela. Seeing these small seeds of change that her involvement can plant, makes action research rewarding for Angela.
The Impactful Role of a Teacher
When asked about other dimensions of impact beyond research, Angela reflects on her elementary school teacher and how what Angela learned early on had a great impact on her life. “I cannot think of a more impactful job than a teacher.” In Angela’s teaching during her PhD, she designed a sustainable entrepreneurship course for a new master’s program for the University of Groningen. The course provided an opportunity for the students to work with local businesses. For example, one of the students she supervised investigated business models to employ refugees or people with disabilities to produce a high-end organic perfume branded by a local artist.
From Ethnography to Action Research
For Angela, impact is not merely about disseminating the insights that academics garner at the end of their research project but thinking carefully about the needs of the user of the knowledge you create. “In a way,” she says, “I think of impact in terms of the design thinking process”.
Angela started her dissertation research by conducting an ethnography and then transitioned into action research: “I saw people at my research site struggling in their day-to-day work and asking me questions that I could not answer with my current approach. I decided to completely re-design my research.” Ethnography helped Angela gain an in-depth understanding of her research site, which was important for subsequently designing a rigorous action research project. She describes this approach as that of a caterpillar who takes its time before going into a cocoon to transform into a butterfly ready to spread its wings. To design the right research project for impact, you must take time to understand the context of what you are studying.
The Future of Impact-Driven Research
Angela is optimistic that the question of impact will play an increasingly important part in job interviews as well. “Actually, I think it sets you apart in your job application!” She is confident that the future in academia is not going to look like the past. “We are in an environmental crisis, and we cannot just keep on repeating what we did in the past. This is true for businesses. This is true for academia. We're looking at impact of research in a different way.” Moreover, Angela sees an opportunity for us to shape this discussion together through communities such as the Impact Scholar Community.
Advice for Early Career Scholars
Angela shares the following insights for Ph.D. students and junior scholars:
- Design your research project with the intended ‘users’ of your research insights
Design your research keeping in mind the interests and needs of the intended ‘users’ of your research insights. Crafting your research design requires you to find the sweet spot between focusing on a theoretical contribution (your supervisors or other faculty will support you here) and practical relevance. Talk with practitioners about your ideas and especially listen! That way, impact is not an afterthought but integral to your research project.
- Involve your audience in all steps of the research process
You are not done by involving the intended users of your research insights in crafting your research project. Research evolves, and so does the world. Reflect on your research process and emerging insights with a different audience. That does not mean letting the field censor your analysis, but the feedback you receive from practice can contribute to your understanding of the phenomenon you are studying.
- Keep an impact journal
Some of your “impact moments” may not make it into your dissertation or your paper. Instead, Angela keeps an impact journal to remind her of the moments of positive impact, or when she received feedback that she had left a positive mark. Otherwise, these moments may just slip past you. Recording these moments can prove beneficial for grant applications, grant reporting, tenure and promotion packets, and as reminders that your work matters.
- Start somewhere
Angela keeps her feet grounded when she aims for impact. “I think about impact as a step-by-step process”. It’s not about changing the whole world or an entire organization at once. Impact can take many forms such as a department changing a policy or someone you have had coffee with who was inspired by you to consider more sustainable business decisions. Together these many small moments aggregate toward big change. So, do not be overwhelmed or frustrated if you start small, just start somewhere.
Share your impact story with us. Write to Katrin (firstname.lastname@example.org).