Mark DesJardine, PennState, Assistant Professor
“I am just one person, no policy-maker really cares about me. When people start to be informed about what’s really going on in the world, that increases understanding and can create the necessary pressure for change I’m looking for. Knowledge enables change—that’s the way I think about impact.”
In Mark DesJardine’s view, we can have impact in three key ways: by informing or changing practice through our research, through our teaching and by changing and evolving the norms for highly theoretical research. Mark considers impact work important for academics: “The question I ask is ‘Who is reading this stuff that I am working on and how is that helping to change real-world decisions?’”
Intentionally reaching practitioners
Mark has made impact an inherent part of his work. Nearly weekly, he makes sure he speaks to someone in practice—a hedge fund manager, investor, or CEO—who can inform his work and understanding. He has also paid for some of his publications to be open access. And with all his research, he has made the extra effort to personally reach out to people, such as journalists and key practitioners, who can help disseminate that knowledge to the outside world.
These outreach activities yield results so that now journalists and practitioners reach out to Mark. Among others, Mark’s research has been covered by Reuters, where he now has a close relationship with the organization’s investor correspondent. He was also invited by France24 for a live television interview the day Danone’s CEO and sustainability maven, Emmanuel Faber, was let go. Further, New Climate Capitalism invited him for a podcast on sustainability and investing. “This stuff is not just happening; it takes time and effort. So it’s not pure luck. I have been fortunate with where my research has been picked up and where it’s taken me, but I have also worked toward that goal of impact.”
Mark was also invited to be a panelist at the Council of Institutional Investors annual meeting where he spoke about the influence hedge funds have on business sustainability to a wide investor-based audience, including state treasurers, executives at some of the largest institutional investment houses, and representatives of activist hedge funds. “That was a special moment, to have the opportunity to shed new light on this topic to so many influential parties.” Volans recently asked him to do the same at their annual Tomorrow’s Capitalism conference.
Not all practitioners have Mark in their good books, however. In part of his research, Mark shows that aggressive short-term shareholders can erode the long-term prosperity of a company and of society. This challenges the agenda of some. For instance, activist hedge funds really do not appreciate what some of his research has uncovered, as demonstrated in the responses his research has elicited on public research domains. But he’s not surprised. “If you ask questions that matter, then some people will get upset. Calling the model of activist hedge funds into question causes a lot of anger – they have made it clear, they hate it. That’s just part of it.”
Impact through teaching and evolving research norms
Indirectly changing the world through education tends to be forgotten when talking about impact. Scholars educate others with their published work, but they also educate students in classrooms almost every day. It is crucial to leave a positive imprint on these students, who one day will become our future business leaders. “You don’t have to teach on social issues to have impact. You teach with ethics, character, integrity, and that has impact—in any subject.”
In addition, there is too strong of an idea that only theory-heavy studies get published in top journals. We as academics can have an impact by helping these research norms evolve and showing that practice-focused research can also be published. “Many of the most impactful academics are those published in top journals while still asking questions that matter. I was fortunate to have Tima Bansal as my advisor. Jerry Davis was also a huge motivator early on and still is. I look at the critical questions he is asking and how he is still reaching the best journals and broad audiences. It’s important to show that things can be done differently.”
Advice for early-career scholars
Mark offers some pointed advice for how he has made his research have impact, and how others can do the same.
Use your teaching statement to stand out. “You can differentiate yourself from not being yet another management professor, by showing that you teach differently and in a way that impacts students and changes the way they think about business.”
Research and ask what matters and motivates you. “Start with a question that needs to be answered or a context that needs to be changed, instead of starting with a theory that needs to be extended. There is pressure to be super theoretical, and that can be important, but don’t let it be the deciding factor.”
Try to work on impact and outreach activities regularly. “Making it a habit to work on outreach and impact activities is important. After having used the most productive hours for research and teaching, you can move to a list of impact and outreach activities with the rest of your time. This helps ensure that article you just spent all morning working on will get read by lots of interested parties.”
Be very strategic with your outreach activities. When publishing in academic journals, impact scholars cannot leave the published work sitting there, but should be active in directly reaching out to people. “The initial step is to just get it out there. So think, who covers this stuff, who might this be of interest to? How do I get in touch with them and share this work? Then do it.”
Realize that you will not see most of your impact. Mark sees impact as an iceberg of which we see only a small fraction. For example, you will impact your students but rarely hear back from them down the road (though it’s sweet when you do!), or practitioners might use your research top inform their decisions without you even knowing it. Hang onto your visible impacts to stay motivated to keep going.
“Overall, the most important thing is the long-term focus and not getting discouraged, as real positive impact does not come overnight. Keep at it and keep learning from others about different approaches to executing on impactful research.”
Are you inspired by Mark’s story and want to share yours with the Impact Scholar Community? If you would like to be featured, write to Marleen Wierenga (firstname.lastname@example.org).