The Social Value of Translational Research

Warwick Business School creates social value by collaborating with medicine and focusing its research on innovations for the healthcare field.

THE CHALLENGE:

At a time when business and society are changing quickly, how can business schools maintain their relevance and show the world how they provide social value? One crucial way is by asking faculty to address societal challenges in their scholarship, particularly through developing alliances across the university to produce cross-disciplinary research.

At Warwick Business School (WBS) at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, we call this our “lowering the walls” strategy. By this, we mean that our faculty look beyond the business school to join forces with other academics, not just in the social sciences, but in medicine, science, engineering, and the arts and humanities. We believe that, in order to survive in today’s markets, business schools must seek out interdisciplinary collaboration on projects that put social value front and center.

THE APPROACH:

Because we recognize the needs of the healthcare industry in our region, at Warwick, we encourage our faculty to address what is termed “translational health research,” defined as research that provides evidence-based innovations that can be quickly scaled across the health system for patient benefit. We specifically encourage research related to improving healthcare for people diagnosed with long-term conditions, from young people with mental illnesses to older people suffering multiple morbidities.

I lead a team of four postdoctoral researchers from Warwick Business School who work closely with researchers from Warwick Medical School over the life of a five-year grant. Our researchers embed themselves in hospitals, community health services, and other providers in the West Midlands region of England to offer feedback in real time. The goal is to help providers improve their operations, leadership, risk management, workforce development, and decision-making processes. For instance, one of our researchers is embedded within Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals, providing feedback to healthcare providers as they pilot test a system to triage patients diagnosed with medically unexplained symptoms. The objective is to refer them to psychological services delivered within the hospital. With our feedback, the hospital plans to expand the pilot from three clinical departments to departments across the entire hospital.

Our postdocs take a similar approach with other providers, in ways that make a direct, positive impact on the region’s healthcare services. Examples of our other projects include:

■ Working with local healthcare agencies that want to continue offering mental health services to young people up to age 25, rather than transitioning them to adult care at age 18.

■ Helping community-based providers improve services for patients experiencing lower back pain, as a way to reserve hospital care for more severe cases.

■ Creating a triage intervention for pregnant women at Birmingham Women’s Hospital.

■ Designing a leadership development program at University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire to foster innovation.

Once the postdocs are finished giving feedback, doctoral students, funded by Warwick Business School, follow up with each healthcare organization to help its leaders implement our research team’s recommendations.

SOCIAL RESEARCH STRATEGIES:

Business schools can place greater emphasis on translational research in many ways:

Prioritize a research focus. A business school can intensify the impact of its research by prioritizing a limited number of issues, which we call “communities of impact.” At WBS, we choose to focus on healthcare, as well as topics such as energy and global governance. Other schools could target different social challenges, from population migration to food security.

Seek out grants. In our field of translational health research, largescale funding is available. We recently received £10 million in funding from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) through its five-year initiative called Collaborations for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care (CLAHRC). These funds, along with £20.6 million we received from regional healthcare partners (about US$37.3 million total), now supports the core of our translational health research projects.

Invest in the right faculty. We have made significant investment in faculty with specific interests in the healthcare field, and we now have 20 full-time faculty whose scholarship revolves around healthcare. We are careful to mainstream these faculty into more traditional business disciplines—such as operations management, organization and human resources management, behavioral science, information systems management, and entrepreneurship—so that they do not find themselves marginalized within the business school. Recruiting faculty with expertise in translational health research, who also can publish in top journals, has not proved easy, but it has been possible. The good news is that as schools establish a critical mass of research faculty interested in a particular area, recruiting others becomes far less challenging.

Hire professors of practice. WBS has appointed professors of practice whose work spans academic, corporate, and public-sector organizations. One such professor is Ian Philp, associate medical director at the Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust. Philp facilitates access to studies, particularly those concerned with the care of the elderly, his area of clinical expertise. He also helps facilitate the implementation of our research and is currently co-writing several academic articles.

Such collaborative efforts do not just generate a virtuous circle that promotes impact for social value. They also result in peer-reviewed publications, external grant applications, and capacity building for future research efforts.

Invite external participation. We have physicians whom we call Diffusion Fellows embedded within our research teams. These fellows act as “knowledge brokers,” applying their expertise and understanding of current medical research to our work. We also solicit feedback from patients, who have a vested interest in the particular services we evaluate. Taking all of this input into account, we create short summaries of our feedback and findings. These summaries then are disseminated to healthcare providers to encourage the adoption of best practices not only at the site where our researchers were embedded, but also at other providers in the West Midlands region and beyond.

Offer incentives. To progress in their careers, business academics have learned to publish in journals that are increasingly specialized in nature, often siloed within their disciplines. As a result, many prioritize theory over social impact—they would rather attend to their own research than invest the time and effort necessary to build relationships with clinical scientists.

To mediate this, business schools often must incentivize faculty to engage in interdisciplinary research. At Warwick, researchers who work collaboratively are funded for part of their time through the NIHR CLAHRC grant. In addition, WBS has adopted what it calls an Academic Balance Model, in which we accommodate any time faculty spend on external research by reducing time devoted to teaching or administration.

Our annual appraisal system offers financial rewards to faculty who engage in this activity. Faculty view research income generation, academic publication, and impact for social value as complementary to their work rather than mutually exclusive.

Build external relationships. Through our CLAHRC West Midlands project, WBS has extended its relationship with Warwick Medical School and Australia’s Monash School of Medicine. Each university has contributed £1 million (approximately US$1.2 million) to develop collaborative research related to low- to medium-income nations. In addition, the partners are creating a master’s-level distance learning program focused on healthcare improvement for clinicians and managers; it will include case studies developed by clinical and management scientists in collaboration with practitioners from both sides of the world.

Of course, no school can adopt a social-value strategy without the support of its leadership. We are fortunate that our previous dean saw the benefits of making healthcare a core theme in WBS research and impact strategy. Andy Lockett, appointed as dean in August 2016, not only supports our emphasis on healthcare organization and management, but also engages in translational health research himself.

FROM ‘KNOW’ TO ‘DO’:

Our projects have been aided by strong faculty relationships that already existed between the business and medical schools. Prior to the CLAHRC bid, a large number of teams made up of business and medical faculty already had made several successful smaller bids to Research Councils UK and NIHR. Leaders from both schools have agreed to split any funding equally across the two departments.

In addition, senior managers across the university had supported another interdisciplinary initiative, Global Research Priorities, which provided administrative infrastructure and a budget for events to promote interdisciplinary research related to social issues.

However, we have faced challenges, largely stemming from epistemic gaps between the disciplines, especially when it comes to setting criteria to judge the quality of our research. In our case, clinical scientists in medicine who highly value experimentation have occasionally downgraded the value of qualitative research carried out by our management scientists. As we developed our CLAHRC bid, a professor from the medical school repeatedly questioned the senior professor from the business school about his theoretical references.

Our management scientists, on the other hand, regarded the experimental methods preferred by medical academics as insufficient to capture the subtleties of the social world.

Even so, we look forward to expanding our healthcare initiatives. For example, we recently won a £2 million NIHR grant to create a center dedicated to improving the mental health of youth in India. We will use the grant money to work with Warwick Medical School and NGOs in Delhi and Chennai.

What’s important is that business schools encourage faculty to step beyond business to pursue such projects—if not in healthcare, then in areas where they believe they can make the largest contributions. We must “lower the walls” and invite other disciplines into our communities. As my team notes in our objectives, our aim is “to move from what we know to what we do” to solve societal challenges. By adopting more global research policies, business schools will more easily be able to demonstrate positive impact on the communities they serve. In the end, their long-term survival might depend on it.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's September/October 2017 print issue. If you have comments or feedback on its contents, please contact us at bized.editors@aacsb.edu.

Graeme Currie is pro-dean research and professor of public management at Warwick Business School at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom. He recently co-authored “A call for university-based business schools to ‘lower their walls’: collaborating with other academic departments in pursuit of social value” with Julie Davies, HR subject group leader at the University of Huddersfield, and Ewan Ferlie, a professor of public services management at Kings College London in the U.K. Their paper appears in the December 1, 2016, issue of Academy of Management Learning and Education.