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Leaving the theory cave: Forays into innovation policy and practice in Wales

Leaving the theory cave research in Wales

Complex Societal Impact Projects Requiring Tri-Sector Collaboration and Cooperation

The field of management studies routinely finds itself in debates regarding the rigour and relevance of its research (for a brief overview, see Thomas, 2022). These debates have become more prominent and, some might argue, more urgent as we contemplate wider social and environmental crises and the contribution, or lack thereof, made by the management research community in seeking to respond to these.

Such debates have called into question the role of business schools and have also seen many leading academics review their own careers and contemplate whether they might have spent more time engaging with practice and seeking to deliver a wider societal impact from their research.

In this paper, I will reflect on some personal choices that I have made in the last few years, which have indeed seen me depart from what my good friend Nicole Biggart described as the ‘theory cave’ in her own reflective essay (Biggart, 2016). While almost all of my research has been undertaken in partnership with others, this latest period in my career has seen me working more collaboratively with practitioners in a more interdisciplinary manner.

The emphasis has been on ways of designing and undertaking research that sees partners involved in both the conception and execution of activities. Moreover, there has been an explicit focus on societal challenges with the purpose of influencing policy and practice. In the short paper that follows, I organise a discussion of these activities under three headings:

  1. Building institutional structures
  2. Nurturing partnerships, and a policy
  3. Problem focus for research

I then consider some of the implications of these issues for business schools and universities before closing with some more personal reflections.

Building institutional structures

The first component of the developments I’ve been involved in over the last decade or so in Cardiff that I want to outline is the work that colleagues and I have undertaken to develop new institutional structures that underpin a more impactful and interdisciplinary approach to research. The most prominent and innovative of these institutional developments has been the creation of sbarc|spark (1), our social science research park building located on the university’s innovation campus in Cardiff (for a discussion of the social science park concept, see Price and Delbridge, 2015).

From initial conception to promoting the proposal through the labyrinth of sometimes unsupportive and challenging university bureaucracy, the project took nine years to see the completion of the physical space within which I and up to 800 colleagues now work. The motivation for the initiative came both from internal university politics with a desire on the part of myself and other business school and social science colleagues to secure investment in our area of research, and also from a clear commitment to and recognition of the value of interdisciplinary work which draws together researchers from multiple disciplines and sees those researchers work intimately with practitioners from the very beginnings of research design.

In itself, the spark initiative was a response to a growing discourse in science policy around the importance of addressing societal problems or so-called ‘grand challenges’ in new ways. This discourse provided the basis for our proposal to develop a social science-led research facility which houses applied social science-led research groups alongside other disciplines, external research stakeholders and collaborators from the public, private, and third sectors.

Central to the vision for Spark was a recognition of the importance of physical spaces that are designed to encourage creative interaction, promote serendipity and conversations, and encourage the adoption of collaborative approaches to research, which in turn provide novel ways of thinking about what are, by now well-established societal challenges.

More fundamentally, the spark was born of a view that we need to create new spaces, new organisational forms, and new ways of producing practical knowledge if we are to address these pressing societal challenges. The social science research park we have constructed in Cardiff is a physical space but also represents an investment in seeking to develop collaborative relations, building trust and developing the shared understanding needed to work in disruptively innovative ways.

Cardiff University, the city of Cardiff and Wales are fertile settings for this initiative since the university has considerable strength and depth in social science research. Researchers have good working relationships with local and national institutions and with the Welsh Government, and the nation itself is both home to many of the challenges that society is facing while being of a scale where pressing societal needs may be addressed through policy development.

Fostering innovation and interdisciplinarity

Sbarc|spark is now home to 16 research institutes and centres which address a range of issues from sustainability and climate change through children’s mental health and public health to education, civil society, the economy and public policy, amongst others. Each of these centres has strong social science components but also contains researchers from a wide range of disciplines.

For example, the collaboration of computer scientists and social scientists has been very productive in the areas of security, crime and intelligence, and cyber innovation. Alongside the physical spaces, the university has also extended its commitments to innovation and impact through the creation of innovation institutes, two of which are located in the spark building. The university’s business engagement and commercialisation teams are also in sbarc|spark.

It should be acknowledged that while sbarc|spark is a space that is manifestly dedicated to novelty, it is governed according to some very traditional metrics by the university administration, and there is a danger that these will stifle innovativeness and creativity. I return to these issues in a later section.

Personally, having spent seven years as the university’s Dean of Research, Innovation and Enterprise and as the academic lead for the development of spark throughout this period, I took the opportunity to return to a more conventional academic role in the school and university and established a new Centre for Innovation Policy Research with colleagues from the Business School and also the schools of Geography and Planning and Social Sciences (2).

The centre has become my intellectual home, where I am working in a more interdisciplinary and policy-focused way with a particular emphasis on place and the importance of geographic and political systems in understanding how management research can contribute to practical developments in seeking to respond to societal challenges.

While, as noted above, science policy discourse has for at least a decade talked the talk of interdisciplinarity and impact, it has to be said that both funders and universities have often failed to show the imagination and ambition needed to do things differently in practice. The physical space of sbarc|spark contributes to these ambitions, but it is also important to note the organisational structures that are crucial in facilitating and supporting interdisciplinary research.

Nurturing partnerships

Creating new knowledge across disciplinary boundaries and seeking to deliver practical impact from these insights requires the development of partnerships both within the academy and beyond. The sbarc|spark initiative builds on research that has shown previously the importance of co-location and proximity in facilitating the conversations and the building of the social relationships that can underpin disruptive innovation.

My own previous research has emphasised the importance of trust and a sense of shared enterprise in seeking discontinuous innovation (for a summary, see Price and Delbridge, 2015). Alongside around 400 researchers, when fully occupied, the sbarc|spark building will be home to approximately the same number of people who work in external organisations.

These organisations apply to move into the building, and we seek to identify those with the most to gain from co-locating with researchers and the most to offer to that community of researchers, both within the building and more widely across the university. To date, space has been highly sought after, and we have seen a range of different organisations move in.

In my own case, a large part of my activity in the last few years has been undertaken working alongside my centre colleagues in collaboration with the Cardiff Capital Region (CCR) (3). The CCR is one of our community members in the sbarc|spark building, and indeed, their offices sit just across the way on the same floor where CIPR is located. The primary area of work that we have collaborated on over the past three years has been the design and development of a new Local Wealth Building Challenge Fund (4).

The challenge fund was developed in part at least as a response to the challenges that had been brought by the COVID-19 pandemic and has focused on seeking to identify new and innovative solutions to problems experienced by the public and third sector in the areas of health and well-being, sustainability and decarbonisation, and in transforming local communities. The fund was developed as a novel approach, drawing on challenge-led innovation, in seeking to address societal challenges and create new commercial opportunities for businesses within the region and beyond.

While drawing on established practices of procuring innovation, such as the Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI), the partnership between the university and the Cardiff Capital Region allowed for the development of a bespoke and novel approach. Our intention is both to deliver solutions to individual challenges and also to develop greater capacity and capability for challenge-led innovation in the public sector and, more widely, in the region.

Building from the initial partnership between the university and the Cardiff Capital Region, the challenge fund then developed further partnerships around specific challenges, which allowed the development and delivery of innovative solutions. For example, our first challenge saw us fund two small technology firms that developed virtual reality and immersive technology solutions to the challenge of training medical staff in clinical procedures during the COVID-19 pandemic (5).

Delivering this challenge involved us partnering with the local health board and also with the Welsh Government’s Centre of Excellence in SBRI. Such partnerships are vital in delivering this form of challenge-oriented innovation and have not always been easy to develop, particularly given the major time constraints that practitioners in both the public and private sectors have been facing.

As the university partner, we have had a role in both the design and delivery of the challenge fund and also in nurturing a community of practice within the region and building an evidence base on what has worked and not worked in the initiative to date. We have also played a wider role in working alongside senior colleagues in the CCR as they seek to develop their innovation policies and develop inclusive economic growth activities to deliver on their goals under the city deal funding from the UK Government.

A policy and problem focus for research

The experience of working with the Cardiff Capital Region brings me to my third point of reflection with regard to how my own research objectives have developed as I ventured beyond the theory cave with interests that were more exclusively focused on generating knowledge and theoretical contributions within the academy.

Being able to contribute to policy development both specifically through our work on the challenge fund but more generally as experts, informal advisers, and friends to the senior leaders of the Cardiff Capital Region has provided an energising opportunity to reflect on how the work of management researchers can be incorporated into policies and practices that speak to delivering public value and societal benefit.

Along with outlining empirical evidence and past research findings, academic researchers can contribute through their analytical focus and through ‘in-the-moment theorising’ discussions in ways that can help make both the implications and conclusions of these discussions more tangible.

For example, in seeking to offer a useful framing for the Cardiff Capital Region’s discussions around innovation policy, I have coined a 4Cs framework that seeks to both reflect as well as offer potential guidance on how the policies might be developed in the future. Each of these four Cs has an underpinning in academic literature ranging across management, organisation and innovation studies and has also benefited from input from colleagues with far greater knowledge of regional economic development and the governance and politics of such undertakings than I have.

The 4Cs of regional innovation policy

  1. Clusters: investment in perceived areas of comparative strength is a well-established component of regional innovation policy. Such clusters are typically defined in sectoral or technological terms and are sometimes criticised for being too technology-led and linear. In our discussions with CCR, we have been keen to highlight the unpredictable nature of innovation and to encourage a ‘portfolio’ approach rather than having all the eggs in a very small number of baskets. We have also stressed that a capacious understanding of innovation and an acknowledgement of the different types of value that may be created is important for policy to deliver on the needs of our citizens.
  2. Commons: this component emphasises the processes of cooperation and resource pooling, which are seen as the initial ‘raw material’ and ‘pre-conditions’ of entrepreneurship and innovation (Potts, 2019). The concept of innovation commons is defined as a space for, and a means of, sharing data, information and knowledge in order to facilitate learning and discovery. Key aspects include the openness of data and availability of resources, connectivity and the skills and capabilities needed to mobilise these (6). The commons can be seen as the ‘hedge bet’ on the basics of future innovation activity from which future clusters may emerge. There are two further elements that speak to the ‘ecosystem’ conception of place-based innovation policy.
  3. Catalysts: innovation policies need to ensure that there are a range of ways in which innovation is catalysed and supported. And that this is done in ways that complement and extend the investment in clusters, address local needs and opportunities, and balances risk. The example above of the Local Wealth Building Challenge Fund is such a catalytic intervention. Challenge-oriented innovation is closely associated with the mission approach that has been gaining considerable traction in innovation policy circles, primarily through the advocacy of Mariana Mazzucato (7). Our experience to date suggests that regional interventions may be better constructed as ‘micro-missions’ in order to both more accurately reflect the narrower focus of what is currently being undertaken but also to make such initiatives more comprehensible and identifiable for those who are needed to engage and contribute to the endeavour (Henderson, Morgan and Delbridge, 2023). Thus, There is a balance between the scale of ambition and practical delivery. The importance of collaboration and partnerships has been outlined above, and our first-hand experience in working to deliver the policy into practice front has underscored this. Consequently, this means that a final key component is the capacity of a region to deliver on its innovation agenda.
  4. Capacity: absorptive capacity has long been acknowledged as a key feature of innovation. Innovation at any level relies on actors’ abilities to recognise and apply knowledge in order to produce value. In our work with the CCR, we have sought to develop elements of regional innovative capacity through working with local organisations, including local authorities and health boards. These elements include promoting an understanding of innovation practices, encouraging a willingness to experiment and take risks, and, at the most basic level, finding the time and resources needed to engage in innovative activity. These are crucial components in the capacity of a region to be innovative and need to be explicitly recognised in regional innovation policies.

These four elements of innovation policy have also been informing work that colleagues and I have undertaken for the Welsh Government (8) as it has been developing its recently announced new innovation strategy (9) and also for the local authority of Carmarthenshire for whom we produced an innovation report (10) which has been developed into a strategy for the county.

We have also recently completed a report for the Innovation Caucus (11) comparing innovation and regional economic growth activity in Cardiff, Glasgow and Manchester city regions. Alongside these reports, I’ve also been working with the Learned Society of Wales as the President’s adviser on research and innovation in order to provide insights that may be of use in the development of the innovation agenda in Wales.

The primary mechanism to date has been to draw insight from a variety of sources, which are then developed through roundtable discussions with invited fellows from the Learned Society, key stakeholders and external guest speakers. These have then been captured in a series of briefing notes which cover a variety of different subjects with the intention of contributing to the wider debates around how Wales might improve its capacity for innovation and seek to ensure that future activity and policy are informed by lessons from other small and innovative nations (12).

Implications for business schools and universities

Previous work has argued that business school scholars have found themselves in a publication imperative ‘iron cage’ with the result that little academic work has an impact on practice (Johnson and Starkey, 2022). If more academics are to engage with the sort of problem and policy-focused research I have outlined, we will need to see scholars not just leave the theory cave but escape this iron cage.

Such endeavour will need the support of senior leaders, and it is no coincidence that my ‘journey’ was undertaken as a senior academic with management responsibility. From such a role, I had more autonomy than most, and I was actively involved in seeking to create a more conducive context for such work. Along with the institutional changes described above that have been pursued in Cardiff, we have also developed, over the last few years, a new public value strategy for our business school, which puts research with societal purpose at the heart of the school’s activities (see Kitchener and Ashworth, 2022).

We have discussed some of the wider institutional challenges that needed to be overcome in navigating this course in detail elsewhere (ibid). There has been considerable debate over whether and how business schools need to change if they are to deliver more impactful research. And I will not reiterate these here, but suffice to say that without institutional support, the future generations of business school scholars may well find themselves pursuing the impact and societal benefit of their research despite, rather than because of, their institutions (Baudoin et al., 2022).

Beyond business schools, there remains a very important and parallel discussion over universities’ role as key local actors in their economic and innovation ecosystems, which is perhaps less evident to readers. In our own research (8, 11), participants have recognised the important role of universities as ‘anchor institutions’, sources of continuity, and providers of skills and knowledge as part of a functioning ‘triple helix’ in collaboration with government and business.

Indeed, the sbarc|spark initiative was intended to support such activity and strengthen the university’s capacity to act as a ‘convenor’ for the region and as a collaborator with external partners. But there have also been critics who identify that universities are driven by research and funding priorities and are poor listeners; one comment that resonated was that universities are only interested in research-led innovation, not innovation-led research.

As I noted above, sbarc|spark has been integrated into the established university bureaucracy and its conventional performance metrics in ways that might impede rather than encourage innovation and experimentation. While it would be churlish to complain too loudly given the backing that the university has provided to the spark initiative, it is the case that, along with most if not all UK higher education institutions, we have become more centralised and increasingly less agile, innovative and responsive over the time that spark was in gestation. It is vital that resources and decision-making authority are invested in those working closely with practitioners if the potential of universities to deliver inclusive economic regeneration and innovation is to be realised.

Some final reflections

In some ways, these are still fairly early days in my research life beyond the theory cave. And I hope I have conveyed that I have not abandoned theory so much as more actively sought to have that theory and underpinning conceptual work inform research that is driven by problems and seeks to be impactful on policy and practice. From my experiences to date, I would observe that a practical, societal challenge focus emphasises the value of inter-disciplinarity and the absolute need to work collaboratively. I would also say that experience has shown the tension between seeking to move at pace and the benefits of patience in thinking, planning and building the understanding and relationships that are necessary.

Second, I would say that the expertise of management and organisation researchers is potentially valuable (and welcomed) but that we need to be good at listening as well as talking. As my colleagues might attest, there has been some need for this old dog to learn new tricks along the way.

Third, as the latest round of inward-looking management studies debate on the purpose, relevance and rigour swirl, I would say that it seems ever clearer to me that new, innovative and ambitious approaches are needed when it comes to policy (and much more besides), but that policy remains a crucial mechanism through which our research can potentially benefit our citizens. And finally, I will borrow some words from my colleague and friend Alessia Contu (2020), who once concluded her talk on intellectual activism in a session to which I also contributed, thus: “It is hard to do, but it is also joyous and hopeful.” So, when foraying from the theory cave, travel in hope, and I wish you some joy.

Leaving the Theory Cave: Research into Innovation Policy and Practice in Wales

References

Baudion, N., S. Carmine, L. Nava, N. Poggioli and O.M. van den Broek (2022) Imagining a place for sustainability management: An early career call for action, Journal of Management Studies, 60(3) pp.754-760

Biggart, N. W. (2016) Biggart’s lament, or getting out of the theory cave, Journal of Management Studies, 53(8) pp.138-1387

Contu, A. (2020) Answering the crisis with intellectual activism: Making a difference as business school scholars, Human Relations, 73(1) pp.737-757

Henderson, D., K. Morgan and R. Delbridge (2023) ‘Putting missions in their place: Micro missions and the role of universities in delivering challenge-led innovation’, Regional Studies.

Johnson, G. and K. Starkey (2022) ‘How management academics have locked themselves in an iron cage’, EFMD Global Focus, Vol 1. Brussels

Kitchener, M. and R. Delbridge (2020) Lessons from creating a business school for public good: Obliquity, waysetting and wayfinding in substantively rational change. Academy of Management Learning and Education 19 pp.307-322

Kitchener, M. and R. Ashworth (2022) Building back better- Purpose-driven business schools, EFMD Global Focus, Vol 1. Brussels

Potts, J. (2019) Innovation Commons: The Origin of Economic Growth. Oxford University Press

Price, A. and R. Delbridge (2015) Social Science Parks: Society’s New SuperLabs. London: Nesta

Thomas, H. (2022) Perspectives on the impact, mission and purpose of the business school, EFMD Global Focus, Vol 1. Brussels

Weblinks

  1. https://www.cardiff.ac.uk/social-science-research-park
  2. https://www.cardiff.ac.uk/research/explore/research-units/centre-for-innovation-policy-research
  3. https://www.cardiffcapitalregion.wales
  4. https://www.challengefund.wales
  5. https://www.challengefund.wales/?playlist=9a4a98a&video=b5 21d5d
  6. https://www.learnedsociety.wales/our-publications/innovation-commons-the-raw-materials-of-innovation/
  7. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/public-purpose/research/mission-oriented-innovation
  8. https://businesswales.gov.wales/innovation/sites/innovation/files/documents/MASTER%20COPY%20-%20Scoping%20innovation%20policy%20in%20Wales_final%20report_19th%20May%20 final.pdf
  9. https://www.gov.wales/innovation-strategy-wales
  10. https://www.carmarthenshire.gov.wales/media/1231175/ local-innovation-strategy.pdf
  11. https://innovationcaucus.co.uk/2023/06/15/regional-economic-growth-through-innovation-policy-and-business-engagement-evidence-from-three-uk-city-regions/
  12. https://www.learnedsociety.wales/our-publications/lessons-from-small-innovative-nations/

Rick Delbridge is Professor of Organisational Analysis and co-convenor of the Centre for Innovation Policy Research, Cardiff University. While the university’s Dean of Research, Innovation and Enterprise, he led the development of sbarc|spark, the social science research park, which opened last year.

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