The term impact ultimately signifies the process by which an abstract idea for good or ill becomes a practical reality. Whilst good ideas are often believed to find their own audience, Guillaume Carton argues that for research and ideas to achieve impact they require mobilization. Taking the example of a concept from management studies, Blue Ocean Strategy, he details how the success of the concept was dependent on the researchers’ ability to mobilize a range of actors over a period of decades.
On average, research and development accounts for 2.3% of OECD countries’ GDP. How this money is invested, transformed into practice and its overall impact on the well-being of citizens is a critical concern for individuals, organisations and governments. However, beyond simply demonstrating the impact of academic research, it is also important to understand how research moves from abstract concept to concrete reality. For instance, as Toby Green suggested in a recent post, moving from research to impact goes well beyond publication. Generating impact involves engaging with stakeholders and creating different forms of connection within practice. To do this requires specific skills. Chris Cvitanovic and myself have previously discussed how boundary-spanning roles necessitate the ability to speak the language of both practice and research. In this post, I want to consider the whole process of research impact and what insights from influential social research can tell us about the mechanisms underpinning impact.
Charting the impact of Blue Ocean Strategy
Writing about impact has rightfully been critiqued for focusing on success stories and neglecting the wider contexts in which research becomes influential. Taking a different approach, I have used the concept of perfomativity to analyse impactful social research. Performativity, derived from the field of science and technology studies, looks to understand how theories both describe reality in an abstract sense, but more importantly also become materially embedded within actors and objects to change these realities.
To do so, I took as an example the strategy concept Blue Ocean Strategy, which encourages managers to create new market spaces, rather than competing within existing ones. I focused on this case because of its exceptional diffusion: the book outlining the theory was published in 2005 and has sold more than 4 million copies, the concept is taught in more than 2,500 universities in almost all countries over the world and its two authors, W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, were recognised in 2019 as the best management thinkers by the Thinkers 50 ranking.
The impact of Blue Ocean Strategy emerged by transforming business practices and influencing both academics and practitioners through its mobilisation and interpretation, often outside of the academy, rather than through its scientific grounding
Retracing the historical development of the concept, Blue Ocean Strategy originates from a consulting project that took place between 1990 and 1996 at Philips, which brought together academics, consultants and employees and aimed at transforming the organisation. During that project, W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne benefitted from the opportunity to test the implementation of strategy tools in different divisions of the firm. Drawing on this experience, they generalised the methods they had put in place at Philips, by studying the long run strategies of different organisations. This study led to the publication in 1997 of a first article published in the practitioner-oriented journal Harvard Business Review.
It was the beginning of a series of publications aimed primarily at practitioners, which publicised the strategy tools they had begun to develop. Public interest in the concept led to further consulting projects organised within a consulting network and to the publication of teaching cases aimed at training managers. After two Harvard Business Review articles authors usually publish a book. However, it was not until 2005, and not two but seven articles, that W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne published Blue Ocean Strategy.
Given their growing success, they then developed the Blue Ocean Strategy Institute within INSEAD, the business school they belonged to, in order to manage help them propagate the idea further, investing particularly in the production of teaching materials. They consolidated their consulting activities within a series of Blue Ocean Strategy Centres dispersed all around the world, worked for several governments including the USA, Singapore or Malaysia, and published a second book in 2017 entitled Blue Ocean Shift.
What does Blue Ocean Strategy tell us about the impact of social research?
The case of Blue Ocean Strategy presents three insights into impactful research. First, social scientific ideas have substantial transformational power that may not always derive from coherent academic grounding. For instance, as one academic explained why they were drawn to the concept: “I was told that [Blue Ocean Strategy] isn’t academically instructed enough, there were boundary conditions, it was not a testable proposition… but I said, hey you know, if I get 20 executives and I work with them to exercise, they are very happy with the results.” The impact of Blue Ocean Strategy emerged by transforming business practices and influencing both academics and practitioners through its mobilisation and interpretation, often outside of the academy, rather than through its scientific grounding. Impact therefore not only requires working to create the best academic idea, but also working to give that idea traction.
Second, to benefit from this transformational power, concepts need large amounts of time! Developing a concept is a long and chaotic process that cannot always be assessed within normal research assessment regimes. To do otherwise risks recognising only instrumental ‘quick-fix’ solutions. It took a lot of time before Blue Ocean Strategy proved to be impactful: before working on the concept, W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne authored 18 academic articles (on other topics), authored more than 12 publications in Harvard Business Review and it led to the publication of only two books! There is a 21-year timespan between W. Chan Kim’s PhD viva and the publication of Blue Ocean Strategy. This reinforces the view that a long-term perspective of research and career paths is necessary to understand impact generation.
Finally, creating change involves a reliance on a large array of people and objects. When it comes to people, academics and practitioners equally contribute to performing realities. Thus, social scientists should rely on both, given their distinctive skills, activities and networks. For instance, in the case of Blue Ocean Strategy, the book was not simply a product of academic thinking, but had involved practitioners and consultants from its inception, who in turn were instrumental in applying and disseminating the concept globally. Books, articles or strategy tools, are just as important as people for making a concept a reality. Blue Ocean Strategy has been successful, partly in thanks to its ability to be translated into different strategy tools and articles intended for and incorporating different audiences.
Studying the case of Blue Ocean Strategy through a performativity lens reveals how orchestrating networks that bring together, academics, consultants, strategy tools, practitioner-oriented articles, books, teaching materials, etc., is inherent to the process of transforming theoretical ideas into practical realities. In other words, impact is less about translating abstract ideas into practical ones and more about mobilising different actors and objects that give life to an idea. Thus, if social scientists want their ideas to be transformative, they might keep in mind that generating impact is not only about getting the best idea, but also and more importantly about investing in people and objects. Teaching is a cornerstone of such investment. In turn, research assessment bodies would be well served to recognise that impact rarely resides in single minds, events and objects, but in a far wider and long-lasting range of objects and practices.
This blog post is based on the author’s article, “How assemblages change when theories become performative: the case of the Blue Ocean Strategy”, published in Organization Studies.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.