Scaling the Ivory Tower: Does academic research matter in the world of business?

Source: Creative Commons

I was recently discussing with colleagues why academic skills are not always considered as relevant to the world of business, but with so many organizations investing billions of dollars in high-risk projects, the need for clear and thorough research has never been more important. In this article, I want to explore why the skills of academic research matter in the world of business more than ever and how they can be applied in a relevant and practical way.

To a lot of people, academic research conjures images of ‘abstract thinking’, ‘ivory towers’, ‘theoretical’, ‘not practical’, ‘white coats’, ‘labs and crazy experiments’. While some of this may be true, there are a lot of important positive features of academic research that are not always understood by people in the business world.

I feel that there is more that academics can do to promote the relevance of transferable skills gained in research that are also important within the business setting, whether that is marketing, HR, logistics, cybersecurity, or accounting. In exploring this issue, I want to focus on one skill that is demonstrated in the process of working on an independent research paper- the research question.

The Importance of the Research Question

Every research project should have a clear research question.

This involves identifying a problem in an area that then needs to be clearly articulated to an external audience.  To do this effectively, involves an explanation of why the problem is important and what is already know in relation to the issue.

Any connection to the business world? Well, formulating a clear problem or issue that needs to be addressed is a very important skill in business and an important first step to various benefits including efficiency gains, enhancements to existing services or product lines, new product development, and, most importantly, helping a business adopt to a dynamic environment.

First Define the Problem

In addition to identifying a problem, it is important to articulate why solving the problem is important, to avoid spending resources that do no benefit on issues that may be interesting, but are not relevant to an organization. A Government could spend billions of dollars on building a new bridge, only to see minimal traffic because it is sited in the wrong place. Relevance will certainly require professional judgement and feedback, but articulating this is an important step towards that.

Don’t ‘Reinvent the Wheel’

Moreover, in highlighting a question it is important to understand how others have addressed similar issues (a literature review in the academic world). Demonstrating an awareness of existing practice is important, so that resources are not spent reinventing the wheel and so that lessons can be learnt from previous experiences. What is the data and information that already exists and what does it tell me that is helpful in answering my question, without needing to commit valuable resources to further research? This does not necessarily mean having to agree with existing solutions, because the problem itself may stem from inadequacies in existing solutions, but someone may have encountered a similar problem before that sheds new light on what we are trying to achieve.

I do not claim that we should engage in academic research to be successful in business, but the intention is to highlight important transferable skills that are gained in this process.  In my next article, I will discuss the importance of another important transferable skill- data gathering and analysis.

Written by Santhosh Abraham

Editor’s note: I am grateful to Will Trevor for spurring me to write this blog and for providing me with editorial guidance.