Turning Academic Research Into Public Engagement

Jönköping International Business School (JIBS) developed a blogging platform to translate faculty research into information that’s relevant and valuable to the public.

THE CHALLENGE: In the eyes of the public, academic research is not innovative or engaging, nor does it create an impact on society. One renowned 2007 study claimed that 50 percent of academic papers are read only by their authors and journal editors, and 90 percent are never cited, which signifies that no one finds them useful. At Jönköping International Business School (JIBS) in Sweden, we wanted to challenge this perception. We asked, “How can we translate our faculty’s research into information that’s relevant and valuable to the public discourse?” Our answer was to create a new blogging platform called Vertikals.

The three of us played major roles in bringing Vertikals to life. Johan Roos, former dean and now a professor at JIBS, led the project and championed it across the university. Emil Danielsson, who was experienced in entrepreneurship, business development, and media promotion, serves as the school’s marketing and PR agent; as a former “placebranding” consultant for the city of Jönköping, he also was familiar with the role that JIBS and the university play in our city. Finally, Charlotta Mellander, a professor of economics at JIBS and a visiting faculty member at the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto, was one of our first and most prolific early bloggers— and, as it turned out, the force behind our first viral post.

THE APPROACH: Founded in 1994 to help grow entrepreneurship and international trade in our region, JIBS already had social impact embedded in its charter. But while our researchers were productive, we wanted them to make a deeper impact on critical matters in our country. So, in 2012, we decided to “come out of the shadows” as a small school and take bolder steps to bring our faculty’s work into the foreground. We formalized this commitment as part of our new strategy to enlarge our footprint in the broader society.

When we first started talking about expanding the reach of our research, a blog was not the first solution that came to mind. But as we looked at different approaches, a blog platform seemed the most accessible and interactive way for our researchers to explain their work to the public in clear nonacademic language. With that in mind, in 2013 we created Vertikals (www.vertikals. se), which is Swedish for “vertical.” We chose that name because our researchers who would contribute to the blog were experts in very specific fields.

We knew that publishing the blog would be only half the battle. We also needed Vertikals to attract the attention of our stakeholders, the media, and Swedish opinion makers in JIBS’ three primary areas of research—entrepreneurship, urban renewal, and firm ownership. For this, we needed the skills of a knowledgeable marketer and public relations agent, so we selected Danielsson, once a CEO of an Internet-based startup, to serve in this role.

Our next challenge was to find a way to pay for the blog. We had limited resources to finance Vertikals, and we did not want to divert money from existing budgets. Then, we realized that if we treated Vertikals as a research project—one focused on how academic research gets disseminated and utilized to impact public policy—we could look for a grant to support it. After reconceiving Vertikals in this way, we obtained a five-year grant from the Carl-Olof and Jenz Hamrin Foundation, which focuses on issues related to Swedish media. The grant provided us with enough funds to cover our projected operational budget of roughly US$20,000 per month, which covered costs such as Danielsson’s salary, small reimbursements to bloggers, media training workshops, and activities such as recording podcasts.

Vertikals went live in September 2013 with a small number of articles—we initially accepted posts written in either Swedish or English. Danielsson contacted newspapers, magazines, and radio stations when a new blog post might capture an editor’s interest. He also sought contributions from all of JIBS’ nearly 140 faculty. These included our doctoral candidates, who are considered faculty in Sweden because they are paid a salary. But despite his efforts, only a handful wrote even one blog post. The exception was Mellander, who has been one of our most prolific bloggers from the start.

On average, we were getting only a few hundred unique “hits” on our blog each week. For the first three months, Vertikals limped along. However, we knew it would take time to build an audience, so we were committed to keeping the effort going. At this time, we made a slight adjustment to our strategy: We decided to post blogs only in Swedish, so that we could emphasize that we were serious about influencing our country’s own national affairs.

Our patience paid off when Vertikals had its first “viral hit”—in December 2013, one of Mellander’s blog postings exposed a serious economic issue in Swedish demographics. With a PhD in regional economics and a research focus in the area of urban renewal, Mellander had been working closely with practitioners who noted that young people were leaving smaller urban areas in Sweden. But at that time, no research had been done to quantify the trend. She examined Swedish census data to discover that 85 percent of Swedish municipalities were being depopulated at alarming rates. Young Swedes were leaving them for the country’s main cities to find more opportunities for education, jobs, and social life.

 

 

These maps of Sweden plot the location and number of Vertikals readers. In 2013 (left), most readers were located in Jönköping (darkest blue). By 2015, their number had more than doubled, with most located in Stockholm (darkest blue) and Gothenburg (second-darkest), the country’s two key regions.

More comfortable using social media than most other faculty, Mellander writes a few articles every month, participates in Twitter exchanges, and posts to Facebook several times per day. So after she posted her blog about her depopulation findings, she tweeted links to it and Danielsson promoted it via PR channels. Swedish government agencies dealing with urban and rural development policy took notice, and Mellander’s blog created a groundswell of interest among Swedish banks and real estate agencies eager to learn what the future trends would be. Suddenly, we had achieved the “lift off ” that we had sought.

In just two months, 23,600 people read Mellander’s post, and she was interviewed by nearly every radio station in Sweden. More than 150 articles about the trend were published in Swedish newspapers to discuss its impact on their communities. Mellander and Danielsson were approached by a leading Swedish bank, which offered to sponsor a national conference on the topic. In just six months, Mellander and Danielsson orchestrated the two-day event called “250 Opportunities.” Held in September 2014, the conference attracted more than 200 government officials, bankers, real estate professionals, social scientists, and academic researchers. Mellander and Danielsson repeated the conference in September 2015, attracting more than 300 attendees and a wide range of academic and nonacademic speakers.

Mellander’s research has influenced thinking and policymaking in Swedish government—exactly the kind of impact we wanted to make. Now perceived as a thought leader among practitioners in her field, she continues to blog about her research, and she is invited to give speeches to Swedish policymakers and industry groups on demographic trends. The number of people following her on Twitter has jumped from 200 in 2013 to nearly 1,500 today.

BUSINESS SCHOOLS WILL BE REQUIRED TO MAKE THEIR RESEARCH MORE RELEVANT TO SOCIETY. THE DAYS WHEN IT WAS ENOUGH TO PRODUCE RESEARCH WITH LITTLE PRACTICAL APPLICATION ARE ENDING.

Many of our faculty were inspired by her success. When Vertikals kicked off its second year in 2014, eight faculty committed to writing a monthly blog. Several others agreed to contribute single articles here and there.

Since then, other Vertikals posts in different fields have sparked conversations both in print and on the radio. One post discussed the economic benefits that sporting events bring into a region. Another presented research on the economic costs of segregation, a timely topic as the number of refugees immigrating to Sweden from the Middle East is expanding rapidly.

We now offer “newbies” among our cadre of bloggers the opportunity to take a media training workshop over two and a half days. Although we can’t know what will make a particular post go viral, we still can present techniques for writing strong blog articles. We invite journalists to lead workshops to teach academics about writing to meet the needs of average readers, and we cover ways to use Twitter to drive traffic to our website and Facebook page. Finally, we’ve started conducting simulated radio and TV interviews, in which we put our bloggers on the spot by asking them difficult questions in front of a camera or microphone. This way, we can give them practice in case one of their blog articles leads to media appearances.

CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT: We still have challenges to overcome with Vertikals, primarily when it comes to strengthening our bench of regular bloggers. We naively thought we would need fewer than a dozen active contributors to Vertikals, but we now see that “it takes a village” to build the substantive value that the platform needs to be “sticky” for the media. We are working harder to encourage faculty to see the benefits of publicizing their research via short articles.

To multiply our effectiveness, we now record interviews with some of our researchers and make the audio available as podcasts on iTunes. We’re exploring the idea of posting video interviews with faculty on YouTube, which might encourage the participation of researchers who are more comfortable talking about their work than writing about it.

That said, when we started this entire process, we wanted JIBS faculty to gain visibility and have an impact, and Vertikals has delivered tangible results on both counts. First, it has helped us increase the number of page views on our website, the time visitors spend on each page, and our number of Facebook fans and Twitter followers. Our faculty’s research is more widely known now than it was in 2013; posts on Vertikals are inspiring more discussions on social media and are being read by more people from key regions of Sweden (see maps on page 49). Our visibility in Swedish media also has increased substantially. Since 2012, the number of articles written about JIBS has gone from 160 in 2012, up to 337 in 2013 (the year of Mellander’s viral blog post), to 283 in 2014.

Second, we have succeeded in helping several of our researchers develop their own brands, so that they are now sought-after sources for media outlets. Mellander and Lina Bjerke, another blogger, have multiplied their social media followers. Using measurement tools like Twitter analytics, we have discovered that their readers come from important stakeholder groups, including business news media and government agencies.

Third, we have learned that the right blog can strike a nerve in society—so much so that it can launch a national conference. With the success of 250 Opportunities, we are exploring the conference potential of two other topics, based on blog postings that went viral.

Finally, Vertikals has gained credibility in the eyes of JIBS’ academic community. Participating faculty now cite Vertikals in their grant applications as an outlet they use to disseminate their research findings. Our most active contributors also talk about how their blogging has inspired them to a higher level of personal development beyond any other research project they’ve done in the past.

In today’s climate, business schools will be required to make their research more relevant to society. The days when it was enough to produce pure academic research with little practical application are ending. We are proud of Vertikals, and we would be pleased if it became a model for using research as a basis for engagement and impact.