Learning From the Collective Impact Dissertation Workshop: A Student’s Perspective

Christopher Bruno (Guest Author)

Deciding to “take on more work” as a PhD student. 

Last year, I had the pleasure to participate in the inaugural Collective Impact dissertation workshop offered by this salon [Learn more here]. Initially I hesitated to show interest because it sounded like “more work” on top of what I was already doing. As a doctoral student, the opportunity to take on “more work” is a common predicament many of us face. We need to balance what we take on as we develop our own academic identities and the many opportunities to collaborate with others through research, teaching assistantships, and coursework. Discerning which opportunities are worth it is a tough call to make. 

The workshop promised help in generating a succinct dissertation idea and offered feedback from the participants in this virtual salon, a fantastic group of mentors. 

Back before participating, I planned on orientating my dissertation towards better understanding corporate engagement in “local” social issues like poverty alleviation and felt I could benefit a lot from socializing my ideas. Who would be better to get feedback on these ideas than the folks whose work I was citing? Ultimately, I threw my hat in the ring.  

A key part of the workshop is the dissertation canvas. This canvas, developed by Phanish Puranam – as an ask from Jerry Davis inspired by the beloved business model canvas – helps students converge on their dissertation ideas. It prompts you to consider the research questions you are most interested in, who would be interested in knowing the answers to those questions (your audience), and how you propose to answer them. Then, participants meet with two leading management faculty for feedback. After this meeting, I knew I made the right call in applying to participate.  

A few reasons why I am happy I took on the Collective Impact workshop series. 

Narrowing my focus 

In my first dissertation canvas outline I had referenced six (SIX!) different theoretical streams in reference to my audience in under three paragraphs: agglomeration economies, transaction cost economics, knowledge-based views, institutional theory, stakeholder theory, and network theory.  

What a mouthful. Surely, and very confidently, I envisioned meaningfully contributing to six massive streams of social sciences theory in one dissertation! 

After five or six drafts of my canvas – while discussing the insights with my advisor Vit Henisz – it is safe to say that the process helped me sharpen my focus. The canvas helped narrow my dissertation proposal to two theoretical streams and a targeted audience of scholars by focusing on the unit of analysis (i.e., a row in the theoretical spreadsheet) and the dependent variables of different literatures. 

 Building my network 

Narrowing my focus was just the start though, as I then had to convert my dissertation canvas work to a three-page proposal to share my ideas about “geographically oriented non-market strategy” to Myles Shaver and Jerry Davis, both intimidatingly bright – simultaneously jovial and friendly – figures in the field.  

Shaver and Davis pushed me to think about the magnitude of importance of the variables I thought of using. For example, if I were to focus on corporate foundation giving as my proxy for corporate engagement, how substantial is this compared to employee direct involvement in local issues?  

They also encouraged me to focus on my audience one step (or paper) at a time – to not be overly concerned with whether I am viewed more broadly as an economist, organizational theorist, or whatever other label may be out there. This advice helped, as I had often worried that if I wrote a paper geared towards one audience, I’d forever be bucketed in that club. The conversation helped me feel agnostic to those buckets and focus on the important issues I was passionate about.  

Hearing this sort of advice from leading figures in the field was powerful.  

Learning to sell my ideas 

The dissertation canvas is broken up into two main exercises. The first of these is the iterative assignment where you focus your ideas. In the second part, you “sell” your ideas to an outside audience via a proposal akin to a short grant application. This is the proposal I discussed with Shaver and Davis.  

PhD students can be very passionate about their work, and I am no different. But if no one thinks that how firms’ different social responsibility, philanthropy, or government-engagement strategies vary by local communities is important then I am alone on an island. No readers, no funding, no cumulative knowledge development, no impact.  

Ultimately to have impact there needs to be an audience. Where is the conversation, and who are the readers, funders, and people who I can work with and/or build on? Shaver and Davis made me think about these questions and the conversations helped me formulate one of the ways I now conceptualize “impact”. Will there be people who care about this research and its outcomes, for better or worse? The work will not be impactful just because I am studying important social issues. That isn’t enough.  

A year later, I am now in the process of defending my dissertation proposal, and I was actually very surprised at how much the work I did in the workshop carried over. The three-pager ended up becoming the “baseline” for my dissertation, currently titled “Corporate attention and response to geographic communities’ pressing social issues”.   

As I continue to develop as an academic, a few key lessons from Collective Impact stay with me: 

  1. Your audience does not always have to be people interested in the context of your study. To what extent does the theory I apply generalize to other situations? 
  2. Impact can come in many forms – will people use, learn from, and/or reference my work as they work to solve problems? 
  3. If I were a funding agency, would it be worthwhile to fund what I propose working on?

Wish me luck!  

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