The Impact from Engaging Stakeholder Voice

by Rocki-Lee DeWitt (Guest Author)

By virtue of my rank and choice of where to work, I am privileged to be an academic the way I think best fits the academic me.  I focus my effort on delivering benefits for business owners.

Please do not jump to the conclusion that this type of impact is one more corn stalk in a well-cultivated shareholder field.  It is easy to conclude that when a quick query of ABI/Inform using the search terms “ownership” and “Academy of Management” results in 985 hits in scholarly journals.

Rather, I encourage some of you to join me, if you haven’t already done so, in feeling ownership through the boots of a variety of stakeholders who have substantial financial and psychological stakes in an enterprise.

It’s the first-year undergraduate business student who is borrowing to pay for tuition and housing because their parents want them to “own” the responsibility.

It’s the employee who just bought a house assuming that because they participate in making strategic decisions they are building a career with that company.

It’s the business founder who 25 years into running the company, has that child in college, values that employee, and has a tempting acquisition offer.

These stakeholders are wrestling with a myriad of “how might this play out” scenarios. In sum, it’s MacGregor meets Arendt with a dose of Bradbury.

Being impactful for these stakeholders requires spending time hearing the stories of founders/leaders/managers/students as they enter and progress (or not) through organizations. It requires initiating and sustaining relationships even if it limits the time available to craft one more submission to an “A” level publication or offer developmental feedback on another scholar’s work.

How does this matter?

Our scholarly preparation provides us with a discipline of objectivity and the ability to see an array of possible systems relationships. This preparation then allows us to engage people in a conversation about what might happen next vis a vis their role in a system and the unintended consequences of their actions.

We are familiar with doing this if we have experience with qualitative research because we are familiar with the art and science of extracting data and drawing inferences. As qualitative methods often involve reflecting our analysis and findings back to the informants in advance of submitting work for publication consideration, it must pass two hurdles to get published. 

So, how does this get counted? If it results in a published, peer-reviewed article, we know how to count it. Accounts of “messes” can sometimes be anonymized to use as business decision scenarios in the classroom. But there will be many times where what we learn can only be shared in stylized, unpublished ways and it’s hard to “count those beans.” 

Ultimately, we need to entertain the possibility that a disciplined and well-trained scholar can hear a person’s business struggles and reflect “words of wisdom” to keep them from going over an emotional edge. That discovery may not be publishable, but it can influence enrollment decisions, internship opportunities, and donations.

Are you as an academic who participates in governance (yes, as an owner) ready to entertain the notion of a more inclusive model of impact? It takes courageous academic leadership to pose the question “how might a business owner benefit from our discoveries?” It takes colleagues who can appreciate and celebrate that type of work. And it takes adjustments to resource and teaching load allocation systems largely built on counting peer-reviewed publications.

4 comments on “The Impact from Engaging Stakeholder Voice

  1. Rocki-Lee’s commentary and her insights about different forms of impact definitely struck a chord with me. I have been struggling for several years with the question of how, exactly, the stuff we publish in journals has an impact beyond a readout on Google Scholar. The requirements for journal publication in organization studies often seem to be a mix of methodological showiness and trickery to mystify and delight readers, who have been conditioned to prize novelty. Imagine if the discoverers of the mRNA Covid vaccine spent half their time worrying about framing their findings, or whether their contribution to theory were sufficiently novel to satisfy reviewer 2.

    This is especially salient right now. The climate crisis is arriving much faster than we expected, and the only option to maintain a livable world is to rapidly decarbonize the economy. That means changing how business is done at all scales. Business faculty need to be on the front lines of this effort, through our teaching, outreach, and research. 20% of US undergrad degrees are in business, and the MBA is the most popular graduate degree in America. Graduates of these programs need to be trained in actionable insights for decarbonization that they can implement right now. We also need to get the word out through our research and outreach. What works, and what doesn’t? What can we share with enterprises large and small to enable them to decarbonize?

    Tenured faculty have a special obligation here. Vanity may favor notching up some additional publications, but species survival urges you to help the decarbonization effort. After all, enabling faculty to do the right thing is what tenure is for.

    In my own case, I’ve been trying to channel university resources, including student work, into tools and information that entrepreneurs in Detroit can use to create equitable enterprises for the clean energy transition. Our students have created dozens of how-to guides that break down how to use funding from the Inflation Reduction Act to fund their business, how to find skilled labor to install heat pumps, when installing solar is a good business choice, how to apply to a CDFI, how to get health insurance for their workers… And we’ve done outreach in the community to get the word out. It’s a pretty different kind of impact than what Google Scholar captures, but as Rocki-Lee describes, it’s a lot more inclusive and rewarding.

  2. Rocki, thanks so much for this great post on what it feels like to study how organizations serve stakeholders in real life. In part due to our decades-long conversations on these things, I’ve learned a ton about the ways in which firms and other organizations support stakeholders in actualizing their ambitions, but often at significant personal costs. You’re bringing humanity into business education in ways that are long overdue. Well done!

    • Anita — thanks for the kind words. Please know that your penchant for tackling gnarly issues inspires me to do the same (and take students on the journey).

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