The real value of deep engagement

What sets us apart here at Cambridge Judge Business School is a focus on deep engagement. Deep what, I hear you ask? Deep engagement – or, to put it another way, engagement at the point where research and the messy real world of management intersect.

It might surprise some of you that pure research and the imperfect, ever-changing real world intersect at all. Only recently, David Willetts, the Minister of State for Universities and Science, declared (somewhat piously) that British business school academics should concentrate on helping business rather than publishing research in US journals, as if there were a natural choice to be made between research and training.

Back in the “real world” at my business school our academics and students work in the (usually digital) library, in the classroom, in boardrooms, in offices and communities and on the shop floor. And with good reason, because at this very minute, thousands of experiments are being undertaken in all those places, each one a novel attempt to beat competitors, win new customers, create social value. Some of them work, and many don’t.

By closely working with organisations of all types, the academic approach helps individuals and groups to interpret the implications of their experiences and put them into a wider context beyond themselves and even their industries.
We help them to learn faster and search more effectively. And the rub is that we can sometimes use what we have learned to construct generalisable “theories” that offer causal explanations, however incomplete or coarse, which we can publish. But whatever the outcome, we aim for an engagement that goes beyond the surface of a specific problem, brief or sector.

What does deep engagement look like in practice? Take this example: Jaideep Prabhu, the Jawaharlal Nehru Professor of Indian Business & Enterprise, works with Bangladesh-based BRAC, currently the world’s largest nonprofit organisation. The project involves stimulating small enterprises that create profits and employment and also provide socially useful services. BRAC is building a franchise of “land surveyors”, training entrepreneurs how to take land measurements that then prevent border disputes, a major source of disruption, lawsuits and even violence, and which inhibits economic development.

Professor Prabhu, and his PhD student Toby Norman, work with BRAC in incentivising the small entrepreneurs, even running natural experiments across districts, to see the balance between entrepreneurial aggressiveness (and thus growth and availability of the service) and serving everyone, even the poorest. The project will help BRAC and give us interesting insights to share in our teaching. It will also lead to high quality research (as far as we can assess the potential of this work).

In a completely different setting, Stefan Scholtes, Dennis Gillings Professor of Health Management, has worked for years with Addenbrooke’s Hospital on managing complex hospital processes. In the course of this work, he has gained access to data from across many hospitals to test whether ward occupation (how stretched their capacity is) causes ward problems (mortality in old patients). It turns out capacity isn’t a problem until you reach a critical threshold; after this point a lack of capacity can prove lethal. This piece of work has important implications for hospital funding; rooted in work with a real hospital it’s being published in a leading journal and has sparked a lot of interest in the press.

And as an organisation, we are learning how to incorporate this approach into our research, and working out how to actively encourage our faculty to engage at a deep level with organisations to root their theoretical insights in practice. A first step has been putting in place a system that systematically helps faculty to engage in such work: as well as funding and support, we have lowered the “tenure publications hurdle” for academics embarking on this kind of work. Reflecting on an innovative problem that you have identified within an organisation takes more time than writing only theory or working with commercial databases.

As academics, as teachers, as consultants: this is what we call “deep engagement”.

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