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How Knowledge Leaders Turn Academic Research Into Organisational Impact

FLI Academic research Hannah Arendt Center

Knowledge leaders need better institutional support to effectively apply management research and successfully drive innovation and change within organisations, a new study has found.

Published today in Human Relations, it identifies how organisations can overcome the difficulties of translating research-based knowledge into workplace practices.  It comes at a time when governments internationally are striving to boost societal and economic impact from research investment by focusing on commercialising and scaling up research and innovation, including a £310m commitment to support the discovery, development and commercialisation of research in life sciences in the UK. But knowledge is ‘sticky’ and structural and cultural factors often impede the flow between people, places and organisations.

The paper is based on a broader UK government-funded research partnership, led by Professor Sue Dopson, Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford, with researchers at the University of Melbourne, King’s College London and Warwick Business School. Funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) the study examined 137 senior managers in six leading organisations in the UK health industry.

‘We examined how managers use academic research in their decision making to affect organisational innovation and change,’ said Professor Dopson. ‘We identified the importance of ‘knowledge leaders’, who act as more than mere facilitators or translators of the research, but develop a deep-seated personal investment to apply this formal knowledge to their specific setting and create the momentum for organisational change. The challenge for organisations is to identify, support and nurture these knowledge leaders and help drive the transfer of academic research to developing an evidence-based health sector.’

‘Our study reveals how the most effective leaders ‘unstick’ and mobilise research to make it more useful to society’, said the paper’s lead author, Dr Michael Fischer, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne and University of Oxford. ‘Instead of attempting to translate and shift it further down the chain, they find ways to personally act as the knowledge itself.  They create emotional engagement by actively ‘becoming’ the knowledge.’ 

The team identified three different types of effective knowledge leadership:

  • Through transposing research, leaders act as carriers – they personally bring established research inside their organisation and enact it by creating organisational change.
  • In appropriating research, leaders select and combine various research findings to reassemble these inside their organisations.
  • By contending research, leaders select and challenge established research-based models as a way to drive innovation and alternative solutions.

However, being a knowledge leader is sometimes easier said than done. ‘Knowledge leaders are few and far between, but their leadership is key to moving research across university and industry boundaries,’ said Dr Fischer.

The findings have major implications for governments as well as management consultancies, universities and other knowledge-intensive organisations in how we develop effective knowledge leadership. The researchers make a series of recommendations for companies and policymakers to nurture knowledge leaders and accelerate the flow of research across university and organisational boundaries.

  1. Create opportunities for much closer collaboration between universities and organisations to stimulate the flow of people and research across boundaries.
  2. Creating ‘safe spaces’ for knowledge leaders to engage with research, innovate and shift practices.
  3. Identify and develop ‘hybrid’ individuals skilled at straddling boundaries between research and organisations.
  4. Increase postgraduate engagement and sponsorship in industry-focused research problems to spark cross-fertilisation of knowledge.



Sue Dopson
Sue Dopson is the Associate Dean of Faculty at Saïd Business School, a Fellow of Green Templeton College, Oxford, and Visiting Professor at the University of Alberta, Canada. She is a noted specialist on the personal and organisational dimensions of leadership and transformational change.

Michael D. Fischer
Dr Michael Fischer is Visiting Scholar at Saïd Business School and Senior Research Fellow in Organisational Behaviour and Leadership at the University of Melbourne.

Louise Fitzgerald
Professor Louise Fitzgerald is Visiting Professor, (Organisational Change) at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford & Emeritus Professor, De Montfort University, Leicester. She has a PhD; BA (Econ.) Hons.; and Dip. in Personnel Management.


The full paper: can be found here

Source: Saïd Business School Oxford University

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