The Benefits of Sponsored Research

What’s one way to bring real-world relevance into the classroom? Encourage faculty to work with industry partners on sponsored research.

The Benefits of Sponsored Research

For at least the past 40 years, business educators and industry executives alike have been wringing their hands about the lack of practical relevance of business school research. One recent article about the topic appeared in the Harvard Business Review in 2018. In “It’s Time to Make Business School Research More Relevant,” Debra Shapiro and Bradley Kirkman suggest that stakeholders—including scholarly researchers and practicing managers—should work together in a concerted way, although they describe the prospect as an uphill battle.

A 2018 article in BizEd also addresses the issue. In “The Moral Dilemma of Business Research,” William Glick, Anne Tsui, and Gerald Davis call for universities to incentivize professors to produce more research that is “credible and usable.” They acknowledge, however, that it will be difficult to overhaul the faculty reward systems that are currently in place.

I agree that business schools should be turning out more research with practical relevance, but I see a way make it happen quickly: Hire professors who are already doing it.

My Own Experience

Unlike most practitioners turned academics, but like many social science PhDs, I worked in industry after earning my doctorate. During that time, I conducted dozens of research studies for corporate clients, and I rose to the position of vice president of research for the PR agency Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide. While the use of scholarly research in business is rare, the use of research is common—and it’s big business. The marketing research industry alone represents approximately US$40 billion a year in revenue, according to ESOMAR, a nonprofit that represents the data industry.

After returning to a full-time faculty position, I continued collaborating with industry partners, conducting more than 40 sponsored research studies. I had university-sponsored research grants for some studies, but for many others, I acted as a private consultant for partners such as Bank of America, Pepsi, Home Depot, UPS, and Allstate. Working closely with industry partners on research studies provides the foundation for my professional service, teaching, and scholarship.

The process is simpler than many academics seem to believe. To get research funded, I must reach out to prospective partners, ask about their business problems, and propose research that will help them make decisions. After a company accepts my proposal, it pays for the research, and I do it. I work closely with marketing and research executives at the partner company to understand business problems, identify priorities, and define objectives in a process that functions as a deep ethnography of corporate business practices.

My main research project to date was the NASCAR Sponsorship Study, in which I measured performance for multiple corporate sponsors. I offered category exclusivity and worked with partners in retail, fast-moving consumer goods, financial services, and logistics, among others. The breadth of industry experience allowed me to identify marketing themes and issues across several fields, as well as industry-specific challenges.

One of my longtime clients was Bank of America. I first measured the effects of its NASCAR sponsorships and eventually researched its baseball sponsorships, too. A testimonial from a former global sponsorship executive explains that I helped the company “understand the value of our sponsorship assets, and the mechanisms driving brand preference and loyalty in a sponsorship context. Drawing on these insights across several years, we were able to fine-tune our tactics and, along with internal measures, demonstrate the value of our sponsorship programs to our C-level executives.”

The Classroom Effect

The most direct benefit of my research collaborations with business is that I’m able to help corporate partners find solutions to their problems. But these collaborations also directly benefit my students because I’m able to bring into the classroom an understanding of how business really works. In fact, these experiences touch pretty much everything I do in the classroom.

At the end of each corporate research project, I’m left with deeper, more valid insights about real-world business issues and practices than I could gather by reading the trade press, attending advisory board meetings, or listening to guest speakers. I’m also able to relate specific, personal examples of marketing principles to my students, which creates a more engaging classroom and enhances the credibility of my class content. Even when research results from industry partnerships are proprietary, I can discuss specifics about how I landed a client as an example of the selling process.

Perhaps the most valuable benefit is that these research collaborations inform the way I design and implement experiential learning projects. It’s difficult to make paid, professional consulting engagements conform to an academic schedule, but it’s fairly easy and inexpensive to replicate the subject matter in a traditional class format.

For example, drawing on survey research funded by internal grants, I’ve designed class projects in which I guide students through the entire research-based consulting process. They use the same methods I use when I’m working with industry partners: They identify a business issue, clarify objectives, analyze data, develop strategic recommendations, and write a final report. In this immersion model, a faculty member fills the role of industry partner and acts as a project lead for a marketing consulting agency. This solves the problem of the time constraints that industry partners impose, but still allows me to deliver an equivalent real-world educational experience to my students.

While students can deliver a final report to the partner company, that’s not required. If industry executives can’t or won’t devote the time to provide guidance and feedback, the model works as a standalone class project.

The Real-World Conundrum

While the teaching benefits of industry-sponsored research are pervasive and robust, the professional benefits to faculty are pretty close to zero. In fact, it is a struggle to publish industry-relevant research in scholarly journals.

I don’t think we need to overhaul our current publishing system, but I do think we should consider some modifications if we want a fast track to producing more research with real-world impact. For instance, deans can hire faculty who are already conducting such research, and journals can publish it. If existing journal editors don’t have the skills and experience to evaluate industry-relevant research, journals can hire new editors.

Even so, change is unlikely to be driven from the inside, because the current system is so good at serving the people who run it. However, as business schools face increasing external pressure to be more impact-driven, educators would be well-served to get ahead of the curve before changes are imposed from outside—and those changes are coming.

In a 2016 interview with BizEd, Jeffrey Pfeffer noted that business schools have done a great job of marketing themselves. It’s worth taking a look at how. Business schools almost invariably claim to be real-world, practical, and experiential. But our graduates say otherwise—and word is getting out.

According to the 2018 Gallup Strada study, if you’re looking for a graduate degree that will be relevant to your work and your day-to-day life, you’re better off majoring in the liberal arts instead of business. Policymakers are also taking notice of the disconnect between what schools say about themselves and what is actually true. In the U.K., the Advertising Standards Authority is warning universities about making exaggerated claims in order to recruit students.

Encouraging more faculty to partner with industry on research is an effective way to both increase the relevance of educational programs and substantiate claims of providing real-world content. There’s a lot of discussion about the future of business education. At the very least, we should make sure we’re doing what we say we’re already doing.

Larry DeGarisLarry DeGaris is a professor of marketing at the School of Business at the University of Indianapolis in Indiana.