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  • Writer's pictureMarleen Wierenga

Helen Etchanchu, Associate Professor, Montpellier Business School

“We say that either you do research or you do impact, or either you do rigor or you do relevance. But in practice, it is a continuum, and there's a myriad of ways to be an academic.”

Helen Etchanchu does not make a distinction between scholarly impact in terms of academic publications and the impact beyond academic publications. For her, these are very much aligned. “Impact is the difference my work makes to the people around me” Helen starts, “so how can I improve the lives of people around me, in terms of the students, my colleagues, my academic community, and my local colleagues and partners at my home university?”

The role of management science for sustainable development

Through the incentive system in which academics work and the theories and content we teach, management scholars are actually part of the problem and a barrier for sustainable development, Helen argues. For example, Helen is seeing little pedagogical innovation around ways of teaching business and sustainability. “Society needs to have excellent teachers teaching students the new skillset that they need in an increasingly complex business environment and the new competencies specifically around sustainable development, but many of us neglect pedagogical innovation since it is less prestigious than research output.”

Similarly, early career scholars solely pursuing top publications is often at the expense of knowledge production for the wider public interest. “It's not about thinking about an academic publication as a career advancement tool, but more as a contribution to society in general.”

To widen her academic impact, Helen founded a research chair on Communication and Organizing for Sustainability Transformations. Helen wrote the proposal for her school that got accepted.Through a professional conference, she found an association with interest in climate change education that was able to provide initial funding to the research chair. Instead of waiting to be tenured, she did this while she was still an assistant professor.

Through this research chair, Helen is now responsible for developing research projects and teaching in the area of sustainability transformation, but also for supporting partner organizations in transforming to be in line with sustainable development. “Today I think 60% of my activities are related to this research chair, which to me is the perfect combination of what I would define as academic impact or engaged scholarship: linking research, practice and teaching, as well as leading by example.”

Creating the infrastructure

Helen is co-founder of the movement Organization Scientists for Future. The movement started when Helen, together with some other colleagues, wanted to reduce the carbon footprint of their conference travels. “At conferences, we talk about our research papers, but you don't talk about how you got there, or what you do in your private life to try to walk the sustainability talk. OS4F is about facing these difficult choices and about seeing together if we can find better solutions around conference organizing for example. Challenging people’s mindsets and our own behavior and functioning is really the key objective.”

From the initial idea of low-emission conference travel, the movement has advanced into a more scholarly direction by publishing book chapters. Through publishing on sustainability topics and organizing online discussions and events at conferences. OS4F is now also initiating a scholarly debate on these topics around the role of organization scholars in the climate crisis.

Helen also founded the Sustainability Lab at Montpellier Business School which unites professors from the business school working on sustainability and CSR. The Lab focuses on sustainability research and pedagogy in a transdisciplinary setting outside of the standard department meetings. Fostering sustainability education in the curriculum is also a crucial part of the Lab. “Now we have started working with our other colleagues outside the Lab, to train them around sustainability topics. And we are accompanied by the Transition Campus and the Shift Project, two French leading organizations around sustainability pedagogy and climate action. For example, we recently invited a climate scientist who trained our full-time staff in the basics of climate science.”

Helen is also elected City Counsellor, responsible for sustainability transitions. In that position, she has started an action research project. She is taking field notes on the barriers to sustainability action as well as the roles and activities of key players within the municipality. “The motivation for doing this is mostly personal to promote sustainability in the community where I live, but even if it's not directly linked to a research publication yet, this project really helps me to enrich my theorizing and my thinking.”

Advice to fellow young scholars

Helen stresses that she realizes that she is in a privileged position, working for a French private business school she is granted a lot of freedom. Nevertheless, she offered some advice which will hopefully be inspiring for our academic community.

  • Find your community. “Having a good PhD community is really about finding support from peers. I think this peer support is super important.”

  • Attend professional conferences. One’s research budget is often limited, so using it for a non-academic conference might feel challenging. Helen framed it as being part of her data collection and went to a conference which was attended by social entrepreneurs and sustainable businesses. She met companies with whom she is still in contact today. “It really changed my life as an academic. It transformed my role as an academic and I’m so grateful today that I did this.”

  • Build an impact dimension into your research project. Any new research project Helen starts, will have an impact dimension built in. For example, she launched a sustainability narrative observatory which aims at following how different actors talk about sustainability. It is meaningful for people within and outside academia, and through this observatory, Helen is able to participate in the societal debate on the topic. Here again the research chair is able to provide the necessary means for the execution of this. “You know, maybe a lot of junior scholars are not necessarily willing to include impact work at an early stage, but for me, this is my strategy, which I find to be a much more fulfilling and rewarding strategy .”

  • Define success for yourself. It is important to consider what success is in academic life, what makes one happy and where to draw the line between perfect and something that is good enough and meaningful to you. “I am ambitious, but my definition of success is not defined by the number of top journal publications. If in 10 years from now I have had 10A+ publications but I will have made no meaningful difference to audiences within and outside of academia, I'm not going to be happy".

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