Rigorous, Relevant, Rewarded

A research competition at Washington University encourages faculty to think about the practical applications of their scholarly studies.
Rigorous, Relevant, Rewarded

Business schools face a perennial dilemma: How can they motivate faculty to pursue research that has scholarly significance, can be applied in the eal world, and is easily accessible to the corporate audience? The Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, has found its own distinctive answer. For the past three years, the school has held an annual competition to recognize the best paper produced by Olin faculty that offers both rigor and relevance. The prize comes with an engraved crystal statue and a $10,000 award.

The new competition is the brainchild of Dick Mahoney, former chairman and CEO of Monsanto and current executive-in-residence at the Olin School. Mahoney is well aware that much of the research produced by business school faculty has no direct application in the corporate world—and even when it does, it’s usually written in an academic style that busy executives simply don’t have the time to decode.

“There’s important, useful information in those research papers, but it’s not accessible to the managers and leaders who need it most,” Mahoney says. He provides the funding for the annual competition with the hope of achieving two main goals: to showcase Olin research and to “make a statement that business relevance is valued.”

Structuring the Competition

Now in its third year, the Olin Award attracts about 20 papers annually. To be eligible, scholarly papers must be authored or co-authored by an Olin professor; they must have been published or under review within the past two years, or be part of research in progress. Even more important, the papers must be presented in a way that emphasizes their practical value. Each executive summary has to include what amounts to a sales pitch to the judges, describing what impact the research can have on business and why it’s relevant to business today. 

The papers are judged by a panel of about ten business executives drawn from a variety of industries. Among those who have served are executives from Anheuser-Busch InBev, Wells Fargo Advisors, Monsanto, The Dilenschneider Group, and Emerson Electric, as well as smaller regional firms.

Each entry is read by three different judges in the first round, explains Dorothy Kittner, Olin’s director of corporate relations. Those that make it to the second round are evaluated by all judges, who hold a conference call to discuss the finalists against a checklist of criteria. Is the paper highly innovative? Does it have the potential to significantly advance business results? Does it have broad applicability to a wide range of businesses? Does it demonstrate findings that could be implemented though practical steps? Is it research that opens up future study opportunities?

Says Kittner, “The selection of the winning paper each year has been unanimous.”

Spreading the News

While the primary purpose of the competition is to encourage faculty to think about the practical applications of research, there is a second key benefit. The competition produces “a portfolio of applied research” that the school can share with a broad business audience in a variety of ways, says Karen Branding, Olin’s associate dean and director of marketing and communications. The school first announces winners at an annual dinner honoring distinguished alumni, then promotes the research through its Web site, in videos, and on Facebook. 

 But just as important, the school is able to put faculty research directly before the business leaders who serve as judges. Before these executives participate in the award process, “most are not aware of the quality of the research being conducted at Olin,” says dean Mahendra Gupta, the Geraldine F. and Robert J. Virgil professor of accounting and management.

Judges frequently request permission to copy papers they have read in the competition so they can share the ideas and solutions with their management teams. The school is planning an event where corporate leaders can meet this year’s Olin Award winner to promote an ongoing dialogue between faculty and executives.

Such interactions help dispel the notion that top executives aren’t interested in scholarly endeavors. “Academic research is valuable to business leaders,” insists Sally H. Roth, president, Greater St. Louis Regions Financial Corporation, and a member of the 2010 judges’ panel. “It promotes thought and assessment of how business is conducted. It provides new information and different perspectives that might not be directly observable in a business environment.”

Changing Perspectives

Although the award program has had clear goals from the beginning, Kittner notes that there have been adjustments every year. For example, this year judges were asked to provide the authors written feedback on their papers. Kittner believes this will be beneficial as professors think about future submissions.

It’s clear that the competition has encouraged faculty to view their research projects from a wholly new perspective. “In the three years since the award was initiated,” says Mahoney, “I have had a number of young faculty ask me whether their work is of importance to the business community rather than only the academic journals. That’s a real measure of progress.”

“We all think our research is relevant,” says Todd Zenger, Robert & Barbara Frick professor of business strategy and a winner of the first Olin ward. But a competition such as this one encourages faculty to consider its real-world implications by reminding them of “the ultimate marketplace” for their scholarly endeavors, he says.

Jackson Nickerson agrees. The Frahm Family Professor of Organization and Strategy—and co-author of two winning papers—believes the competition encourages scholars to undertake research that is both rigorous and relevant. “I think it is this translation to relevance that is the real disconnect between academia and business,” says Nickerson.

Schools interested in launching similar competitions would do well to gain the backing of a key benefactor as a first step, says Gupta “Dick Mahoney’s support and encouragement have been absolutely crucial to the success of this project,” the dean says. “While he is affiliated with the business school, he still represents the business world as a former CEO. His qualifications and statue make him an ideal link between the worlds of scholar and executive.”

An internal competition motivates faculty to consider how their scholarly endeavors might be viewed by the external world, where relevance is just as important as rigor. At a time when many schools are focused on aligning their faculty research with their missions, such a competition also keeps everyone working toward the same goals—and striving for real prizes.

Melody Walker is director of news and information at the Olin Business School of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.