Impact, Attention & The Division of Labor

by Tim Simcoe (Guest Author)

This post is in response to Olav Sorenson’s Want Your Research To Have Impact? Consider These Three Questions.

In an earlier contribution to this salon, Olav Sorenson proposed that “impactful” research provides a basis for believing that a feasible action will produce meaningful change in some individual or organizational objective. I like this definition. It emphasizes the scientific process, where beliefs are justified through a combination of rigorous empirical evidence and plausible theoretical explanations. In addition, it emphasizes the importance of creating “actionable” knowledge. In my experience, students and practitioners eagerly consume research that combines those elements.  

Yet Olav’s proposal met with two broad objections from this community.  

 The first objection comes from Mark Zbaracki, who argued that research should not necessarily prioritize truth over criteria like beauty or justice. Mark is right to note that truth-seeking is the hallmark of the scientific enterprise. But I do not agree that truth-seeking necessarily subverts beauty or justice, as those values can be incorporated into the objectives that (social) science serves.  A great deal of scientific effort, for example, is currently focused on addressing the problems of inequality and climate change. 

The second objection comes from Sarah Kaplan, who argued that predictive validity is not a necessary condition for impactful research. Again, Sarah is correct to note this argument. Darwin’s theory of evolution, for example, had a tremendous impact because it provided a new way of understanding the world, and not because of any specific predictions. On the other hand, evolutionary biology moved beyond taxonomy, and the utility of Darwin’s theory has been proved through application to practical problems like managing the rapidly evolving Covid virus.  

So, what lessons does this very brief dialectic yield for increasing collective impact in management research? 

  1. Attention is not impact: The lesson I take from the “Zbaracki objection” is to pay close attention to the broader objectives of the research enterprise. While I see no conflict between truth and beauty, I fear that the real goal is more often to gain attention. It is easy to conflate attention with impact. Yet the search for attention can lead to an over-emphasis on novelty, and efforts to distinguish “our” theories and phenomena from prior research, instead of placing them within a generalizable framework. In the long term, a stream of attention-grabbing but not impactful (i.e., true and actionable) findings will damage the credibility of a field. 
  2. Embrace the division of labor: The lesson I take from the “Kaplan objection” is that observation, theory building, and causal inference are complementary inputs to an impactful research agenda. There is growing recognition that it can be counter-productive to insist that a single researcher, or indeed a single paper, tackle every one of these steps. For example, the AOM launched “Discoveries” in 2015 as an outlet for papers without a theoretical contribution, and SMJ recently published a special issue on “Question‐Driven and Phenomenon‐Based Empirical Strategy Research.” Still, the PhD advising process encourages self-replication, and there is a natural tendency for scholars to sort themselves into theoretical or methodological tribes that may come to see complementary methods as competing schools of thought. 

Ultimately, in my view, collective impact is more likely to emerge from communities built around actionable research questions than around a race for attention or a shared taste for particular methods or assumptions. 

2 comments on “Impact, Attention & The Division of Labor

  1. Totally agree: “collective impact is more likely to emerge from communities built around actionable research questions than around a race for attention or a shared taste for particular methods or assumptions”

  2. Tim Simcoe’s post makes three significant moves in how we think about the research enterprise: First, he puts truth-seeking at the heart of the research enterprise and reminds us that the pursuit of truth draws on a broad range of activities. Second, he asks us to examine our role in the research process, pointing out that our ambitions can stand in the way of progress. Then he leaves us with the scholarly community as the true source of impact. This last move is particularly important, because it grounds collective impact in the relationships that are essential to our work. Much of the joy—or beauty!—in what we do comes from those relationships.

    His post also exposes an ambiguity in my original statement that I think merits more attention. Tim argues that truth-seeking does not necessarily subvert truth and justice and that those values can be incorporated in social science—and in science more generally. I think he is right on both points. But I emphasize “necessarily,” because the relationship between truth-seeking and justice is complex. I began considering beauty and justice after using Jeff Pfeffer’s book Power: Why Some People Have It—And Other’s Don’t to teach power and politics. In his book, Jeff reminds us that to understand power, we have to drop our just world assumptions. Jeff’s point: a lot of the techniques that people use to get power are unjust—but they work. And they make the world uglier. We don’t have to look far in our current world to see that Jeff has a point. So my question was how to rescue justice. I think it’s both useful and good social science to consider all the ways that it can relate to truth. We should rejoice when justice and power work together, but as social scientists, we also need to understand all the times that they don’t. And we need to recognize that the pursuit of justice can have its own form of impact, even if we don’t succeed in producing a just world.

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