My wife Nancy gave a presentation at UQ’s research commercialisation workshop yesterday, recounting her experience with the Geriatric Anxiety Inventory. That’s what kicked off the thinking that led to yesterday’s post on creativity and commerce.
Right after I finished that post, we went to the workshop dinner, where Ian Frazer gave the keynote address, discussing his development of the vaccine for papillomavirus associated cancers.
At the end of his talk, he gave the best possible motivation for commercialising your creative ideas. He said:
There’s no point curing mice. They’re not even grateful.
He went on to say that if you are doing research that is important, you have to figure out a way to turn it into something real – otherwise all that creativity goes to waste.
This got me thinking about a conversation that I had with a PhD student that John and I are working with. After we talked about his project this week, I started sketching out what good business research looks like for me. It looks a bit like this:
For business research, there are three things that you have to consider:
- Is your research question interesting? There are different ways that you can define interesting: by importance to society, by how strongly it engages you, or by how many people are working in the same general area. Ideally, you should be doing work that is strong in all three of these.
- Is your research idea doable? There are lots of interesting questions that are actually impossible to research. In many cases, this reflects a measurement problem. Often, the things that we use as proxies for the concepts that we’re interested in don’t actually measure these concepts well. For example, think about all of the studies that use patent counts to measure innovation – a big mistake.
Many ideas end up being a black box, not because researchers are lazy, but because the stuff inside the black box is really hard to measure.
- Does your research have a practical application? I once watched a colleague present his latest research findings to a group of business leaders. The first question was “how can we use these results?” His response was “That’s for you to figure out.” This is wrong. I believe that if you are doing business research, the results have to help business work better. If they don’t, you’re just curing mice, so why bother?
Also, if you need to get access for firms to get data, the results need to have some kind of practical application.
If you look at the way that these three domains combine, you have four possible types of research:
- Research that is interesting and doable – this is Ivory Tower work. This is what my colleague was describing in his talk. His topic was interesting, and the research was doable, but there was no practical application. Too much academic research falls into this category.
- Research that is doable and practical – this is boring. Doable means you can measure something, and practical means that there is someone interested in the outcome. But if you’re not looking at an interesting question, there’s not much point, is there? There’s a lot of academic research in this category too – studies that incrementally extend someone else’s results.
- Research that is interesting and practical – this is frustrating. This is the category of the unfinished PhD thesis. The question is worth investigating, and people need the answer. But it’s impossible to operationalise the concepts. Many researchers wander into this sector – our PhD student accurately described it as “going down the rabbit hole.” This area is dangerous, because the temptation is to attack this with inadequate empirical tools. This leads to conclusions that aren’t actually supported by evidence.
- Research that is interesting, doable and practical – this is perfect! This is the sweet spot that we’re looking for. The challenge here is that you have to keep all three factors in mind as you develop your research questions. This is often difficult.
It’s actually really hard to come up with research ideas that are interesting, doable and practical. This is true for all creative work, really. Whether you are doing academic research, new product development, or art.
In all these domains, once you address a problem that is interesting, doable and practical, then you have a responsibility to get your results out to the widest possible audience. This is how you have an actual impact.
And if you’re not trying to have an impact, why do creative work at all? Creativity without impact is just curing mice. And there’s no point in just doing that.