Features & Interviews

Schulich Research Day Celebration 2015
Theodore J. Noseworthy – Canada Research Chair
Schulich Marketing Chair Russell Belk Received Title of Distinguished Research Professor
From Top-Tier Pub to TEDx Talk: Reaping the Benefits of Integrated Scholarship ­ – Professor Markus Giesler
Social Impact Research Lab: Improving the Implementation of International Poverty Solutions – Professor Geoffrey Kistruck

Schulich Research Day Celebration 2015

50 years of innovation, research excellence and collaboration

The CIBC Marketplace at the Schulich School of Business was abuzz during the School’s second Research Day on January 28th, 2015, an event that invited academics and practitioners from the research community to showcase their investigative work through engaging poster exhibits.

Nearly 150 students, alumni, academics, business guests and staff attended Schulich’s second Research Day to celebrate the formidable work of faculty, post-doctoral and PhD students on January 28. A gallery in Schulich’s CIBC Marketplace showcased 27 posters highlighting research on topics ranging from “Gender Diversity and Securities Fraud” to “Accountability, Performativity, and the Ethical Self,” demonstrating all subject areas contributed with amazing work. The celebration offered a fascinating tour through cutting edge research with real implications for today’s business leaders. Researchers were available to elaborate on their research and answer questions.

Several of the research projects had been carried out in collaboration with researchers from other departments at York University or other universities, lending an interesting cross-discipline approach to the topics. Academic books by faculty were also available for review.

Later, a panel discussion on “Research Frontiers at Schulich: Past, Present and Future” followed a keynote speech by Professor Dirk Matten, Associate Dean, Research, and Hewlett-Packard Chair in Corporate Social Responsibility.

“Over the last 50 years Schulich has established itself firmly in the top tier of global business schools through its world class education performance at all levels. Schulich faculty members have done an absolutely fabulous job to ensure that our credibility as a school is deeply rooted in world leading research contributions,” Professor Matten said.

Schulich Dean Dezsö J. Horváth outlined in the Welcome message, “This milestone event provides us with an opportunity to celebrate a half-century of achievements and our School’s transformational role as a global leader in management education, captured in the slogan ‘Business Education Transformed’. At the same time, we intend to inspire and engage the next generation of leaders and achievers”.

Associate Marketing Professor Markus Giesler, who was named “one of the most outstanding business school professors under 40 in the world,” and who co-ordinates the Marketing PhD program, moderated the panel discussion between Eileen Fischer, Professor of Marketing, Tanenbaum Chair in Entrepreneurship and Family Enterprise; Gareth Morgan, Distinguished Research Professor and Professor of Organization Studies; Geoffrey Kistruck, Associate Professor and Ron Binns Chair in Entrepreneurship; and Irene Henriques, Professor of Sustainability and Economics. The panelists shared memories of their years at Schulich and discussed plans to continue to transform the way management research is conducted at the school.

The Schulich School of Business Dean’s Research Impact Award for Lifetime Achievement was presented to Wade Cook, Professor of Operations Management and Information Systems and Shaw Professor of Management Science. Professor Cook is an international pioneer who has made a long-term impact on the field of Operational Research, which involves the development and application of quantitative and computer-based tools for addressing processing problems in industry, the public sector, health care, education and business. He has published an impressive volume of high quality work in the form of journal articles, book chapters and conference proceedings (numbering at around 150 articles in total, with 135 of these being journal articles), books (five) and edited journal volumes (four).

Professor Cook’s teaching interests cover the areas of statistics, operations research, production/operations management and inventory control. He is also the recipient of the designation of ‘University Professor’ for his significant service and leadership to the York University, longstanding impact on the University’s teaching mission and international recognition as a scholar.

Douglas Cumming, Professor in Finance and Entrepreneurship and Ontario Research Chair in Economics & Cross Cultural Studies: Public Policy and Enterprise, received the Dean’s Research Impact Award for Emerging Leader. Professor Cumming was recognized for his research accomplishments, his commitment to fostering relationships in the research community and for advancing Schulich’s international reputation for research excellence. His research spans law and finance, public policy, entrepreneurial finance, venture capital, private equity, IPOs, hedge funds, exchange regulation and surveillance.

Professor Cumming has published more than 120 refereed articles in leading academic journals, and 20 in journals used by the Financial Times (FT) to rank business schools around the world. Professor Cumming is listed amongst the highest ranked authors in the world on Repec and SSRN in terms of downloaded papers, journal pages and citations. He has published 13 books on venture capital, private equity, entrepreneurial finance, hedge funds, and law and finance with leading publishers that include Elsevier Science Academic Press, Wiley Press, and Oxford University Press. His teaching ratings have consistently been very high throughout his academic career and he has been nominated for teaching awards at various institutions where he has worked.

Anton Siebert, a Schulich doctoral student visiting from Witten/Herdecke University in Germany, and Professor Markus Giesler won the Best Poster Award for “Emotional Consumption Systems and the Glocalization of Romantic Love,” which explores the market shaping of emotions. Professer Giesler specializes in the study of markets as social systems and researches how ideas and things such as products, services, experiences, technologies, brands and intellectual property acquire value over time. “While we know much about emotions as motivators and outcomes of consumption, we know little about why consumers express and manage their emotions in certain ways and not in others,” Siebert said. “Research Day has demonstrated how exciting the excellent research at Schulich is, and has inspired many new thoughts about my own work.”


Schulich Gains New Canada Research Chair in Entrepreneurial Innovation and the Public Good

Schulich School of Business welcomes the appointment of Dr. Theodore Noseworthy as its new Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Entrepreneurial Innovation and the Public Good.

The Canada Research Chairs Program (CRCP) stands at the center of a national strategy to make Canada one of the world’s top countries in research and development, and attracts some of the world’s most accomplished and promising minds. The Chairholder aims to achieve research excellence and improves our depth of knowledge and quality of life, strengthens Canada’s international competitiveness, and helps train the next generation of highly skilled people through student supervision, teaching, and the coordination of other researchers’ work.

Dr. Noseworthy, an Associate Professor in Marketing at Schulich, is leading a research program to advance our understanding of how consumers respond to innovation. His goal is to develop theory while informing business and policy makers about the benefits of properly communicated innovation and the potential costs to susceptible consumers and society. His research project encompasses three branches that collectively examine how marketers can better communicate disruptive innovation, how consumers may be susceptible to certain food innovations, and how behaviours alter with monetary innovations. This research program is designed to help combat Canada’s innovation deficit by helping the private sector transfer knowledge into commercialized products and services to grow the economy.

Professor Noseworthy has been awarded a sole-applicant SSHRC insight grant to explore how innovative ambiguous foods (e.g., calcium enriched ice-cream sandwiches) can cause people to over-consume by confusing category membership. He hopes to increase public awareness about the role that food-marketing plays in obscuring the health costs of certain food products, and to inform policy-makers about how food ambiguity shapes consumer choice. Similarly, one of his more recent publications, which was published in the Journal of Consumer Research, was sparked by Canada adopting polymer currency. The project explored how peoples’ spending behaviour differs based on the visual appearance of banknotes. The study was picked up by over 1,600 newsfeeds around the globe. Some notable mentions were in the Financial Times, Forbes, The Smithsonian, Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, and Time Magazine, as well as a host of Canadian outlets such as interviews with the Toronto Sun and a television interview with Global News and the CBC. The Canadian Council for the Advancement of Education (CCAE) awarded this research the silver medal for best English news release. The work led to connections with the US Federal Reserve, and led to speaking invitations at leading academic institutions (e.g., Kellogg at Northwestern). This research represents one of the newest extensions of Professor Noseworthy’s work, which focuses on the unforeseen impacts of currency innovation.

Furthermore, in recognition of his already impressive accomplishments, Professor Noseworthy has been awarded a sole-applicant institutional infrastructure grant from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI) to build “The NOESIS: Innovation, Design, and Consumption Laboratory,” a world-class behavioural lab to extend his primary research programs. The NOESIS lab is designed to foster innovative research into consumption, consumer behaviour, and design. He has developed this lab with the specific intent of conducting high quality research, training high quality personnel, and facilitating knowledge mobilization.

There are only few researchers at the same stage in their careers with this level of productivity and international coverage. Furthermore, there are even fewer who can boast multiple publications in the Financial Times top 45 ranked business journals in the world. While only three years removed from his PhD, Professor Noseworthy currently has eleven publications in these journals. To put this in the Canadian context, there is not an existing CRC-II this young in their career that can match this record of quality.

Earlier this year, the Schulich Research Office sat down with Professor Noseworthy and asked him some insights from his work and his vision for his new position at the school.

What pedagogical changes do you see on the horizon in your discipline through your research?

Although it’s hard to speak for my discipline, I can say that much of my research on innovation, and in particular on the role of creativity, has led me to alter the way I approach my teaching. I see a growing need to foster entrepreneurship. This requires training that incorporates calculated ambiguity (i.e., less structure) while facilitating an unthreatening environment that embraces failure, as opposed to stigmatizing it. I see more cross functional learning, with hands-on project-oriented curriculum. My MKTG 6440 “New Products” is the culmination of these efforts.

How do you engage students in research, more particularly what are your training strategies?

My approach to training resembles an apprenticeship model (probably from my career as a chef). I start by bringing a student on to a developed project, and expose them to the review process. We then get more technical around methodologies and the crafting of logical arguments. As we move further in our relationship, the student becomes more of a colleague and starts to drive their own projects. I then assume the role of a coach and critic. The goal is to develop their confidence along with their capabilities.

How do you motivate your existing students to pursue their career as an academic researcher?

It’s usually not hard to motivate students who have that natural tendency to ask “why” or to question conventional wisdom. I find it helps to put academia in perspective. I convey that our job is to inspire leaders, while researching pressing issues in a field of our choosing. If we’re lucky, we may do something to better society. If we’re really lucky, our legacy will be in our students who do something to better society. I promote the autonomy in the broader academic community. The greatest motivator, however, is showing a student how research works. This undoubtedly sparks the curiosity of anyone who has ever felt naturally inquisitive about the world around them.

Given your reputation as a high-quality researcher, what ordinary interests do you have that might surprise people?

It may or may not be surprising, given my background as a chef and my interest in category ambiguity, that I enjoy fusion cooking (combining different styles of cuisine from around the world). My wife and I do a lot of entertaining. I’m also a big basketball fan, and I regularly play basketball with members of the NOESIS lab. I also thoroughly enjoy working out, but it gets hard to keep up my routine with three kids and my research.

What academic breakthrough or advance would you like to see in your lifetime?

In my specific area of innovation, I am fascinated by artificial intelligence and creating a platform of self-awareness that mirrors human consciousness. It may sound like science fiction, but I’d like to see research that takes machine learning to a level where a computer can mirror episodic thought, and thus begin to situate itself in its surrounding environment and anticipate the environment’s response to it. Not to get too nerdy, but language and episodic projection may hold the key to synthesized consciousness. Once that happens, your Apple watch may be wearing you.

Have you ever had a great idea but been told that you could not implement it? How did you react? What did you do?

Tough question. Sure, I’ve been told, like many young scholars, that certain research questions shouldn’t be attempted or certain schools of thought should never be challenged. This is frankly one of the biggest problems with PhD training or advice to junior scholars. I didn’t react too well to this advice.

Instead, I made a point in the majority of my work to challenge existing conventions. It’s my view that we as academics signed up for this — theories are meant to be tested! That said, I can’t say this philosophy always yields success. It can make for a challenging, but ultimately rewarding career.

What are one or two of your proudest professional accomplishments?

One of my proudest accomplishments as an academic is undoubtedly being acknowledged by York University, as well as my peers, as a Canada Research Chair. As for my second proudest accomplishment, I’d have to say it’s a tie. The first, which I didn’t appreciate until much later, was landing tenure right out of my PhD. My second, was having one of my first graduate students hit a top publication. It made me remember how that felt. We academics lose that feeling over time and it just becomes “the job.” I remember what it’s like to do the fist-pumps in the air and yell a primal scream of joy… err relief.

You found in one of your research projects that “Peoples’ spending behavior differs based on the visual appearance of banknotes” – can you talk a bit more about it?

Yeah, it’s true. If I gave you a worn looking $20 bill you’d be more likely to spend it than if I gave you a crisp-looking $20 bill. Much of this has to do with the normative belief that money is dirty, and thus people infer that a bill that looks worn must have been handled more than a bill that looks brand new. The importance of this is that people then place values on the bills that differ from the nominal (i.e., face value) of the bills. Obviously there’s a bit more to it than this, particularly with the experimental design and the intuitive explanations we controlled for, but that’s basically the gist of it. This isn’t too surprising when we think about our own every day experiences. If grandma gives you a crisp and clean $50 bill for your birthday, you’re not going to go buy a case of beer (assuming you have such a proclivity), you’re going to go buy something more worthy of grandma’s approval. It’s in this respect that money can maintain an essence from those who have previously touched it. The reason these findings are important is because they suggest that money isn’t as fungible as we might think. In the same way that diamonds, art, and real estate is not suitable as money, bills too may carry subjective assessments of value.

Would you like to tell us how to guard against several well-known biases that can lead to overconsumption?

That’s a complicated question given the number of biases. Much of it comes down to awareness, a healthy skepticism, and understanding that there’s no silver bullet, despite marketing claims to the contrary. There’s a natural asymmetry in consumption whereby the marketer is often privy to more information than the consumer, and thus where the consumer is passively engaged as a recipient of the marketing message, the marketer is actively engaged in tactics of persuasion. This can manifest in numerous biases. For example, one of the most noteworthy is the fallacy of regression following claims that force a baseline response. What this means is watch out for those used car-salesmen claims like “have you tried every doctor prescribed remedy out there with no results? Well now you’re in luck” The baseline is that they catch you at your worst when you’ve exhausted all options. Thus, after you try this magic remedy you will undoubtedly regress back to a natural state (i.e., even the terminally ill do not feel awful every second of the day…there’s variance in everything). We tend to misconstrue variance as causality, and thus any perceived relief from our baseline state ends up being misconstrued a validation of the product’s efficacy. Marketers push these baselines in anything from amber teething rings for children to alternative medicines based on pseudo-science. It’s a real conundrum because people truly want to believe in magic, and marketers are very good at facilitating this desire.

How can food innovations have serious consequences to our health?

When given a choice of snacks that are branded ‘healthy’, it seems like a no-brainer to reach for that granola bar. And why not? After all, it tastes pretty darn good, and it’s healthy, right? Well, not really. Ignoring the fact that many granola bars have the equivalent caloric content as a Kit Kat bar, there’s another consequence whereby people will consume more than they normally would under the belief they are engaging in something healthy. The reality of many food innovations is not to improve health, but to mitigate unhealthiness. The two are not equivalent. Something that makes you healthy should indeed scale. That is, if something makes you strong, then eating more of it should make you stronger (ignoring the “too much of a good thing” argument for a second). Conversely, if something makes you fat then eating more will make you fatter. The problem comes with “health” innovation that makes you “less fat.” What do people do? We treat them as they make us healthy – we treat them as if they scale. Thus, we consume more, offsetting the purpose of the innovation. This problem is compounded when we try to fortify foods that are traditionally considered junk. We do nothing to negate the negative aspect of the food. Instead, we augment them with positive aspects. The two do not cancel out, but consumption increases leaving many to consume more calories than they normally would. A similar phenomenon is occurring with packaging innovation, whereby inflation is manifesting in smaller package sizes because consumers are more sensitive to price increases. Marketers are taking the opportunity to position these new offerings as healthy, when in fact it’s nothing more than price inflation masquerading as portion control. The consequence? Exactly as above… people end up consuming multiple portions after categorizing the product as “healthy,” and in some cases they exceed the caloric content of the natural, unmodified counterpart.

The Schulich School of Business takes pride in close-knit ties to its alumni community. How could your research engage our alumni?

My research speaks to how marketers can better communicate product and service innovations to maximize adoption and awareness. In this respect, I believe alumni engaged in anything from product design, innovation, R&D, or even product positioning could benefit.

Schulich Marketing Chair Russell Belk Received Title of Distinguished Research Professor

York University honored Schulich School of Business Professor Russell W. Belk with the title of Distinguished Research Professor at Spring Convocation in June 2014. The title is given to active faculty members in recognition of their outstanding contributions to the University through research. A Distinguished Research Professorship is awarded for life and evolves into a Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus upon retirement.

Professor Russell Belk is the Kraft Foods Canada Chair in Marketing at the Schulich School of Business since 2006. His research involves the meanings of possessions, collecting, gift-giving, sharing and materialism and his work is often cultural, visual, qualitative and interpretive.

Professor Belk has sustained an unprecedented degree of productivity over the course of his academic and research career, now spanning about four decades. The sheer number of published journal articles, books, book chapters, and conference proceedings that Professor Belk has authored or co-authored is astronomical. The majority of his articles have appeared in top tier journals and they have gathered numerous awards and accolades. Professor Belk’s research has been cited more than 28,000 times (Google Scholar), placing him among the most cited Canadian business school academics. His 118-page curriculum vitae lists over 550 publications and numerous books that he has co-authored and edited. They include Consumer Culture Theory: Research in Consumer Behavior (2014); Russell Belk, Sage Legends in Consumer Behavior, 10-volumes (2014); Qualitative Consumer and Marketing Research (2013); Routledge Companion to Digital Consumption (2013), and The Routledge Companion to Identity and Consumption (2013). One of the stellar examples is his paper “Possessions and the Extended Self” published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 1988 which dramatically reshaped how people think about consumer identity. It is the most cited article in the 40-year history of the journal.

Widely considered by academics around the world to be “the father of qualitative marketing research”, Professor Belk was presented with the Schulich School of Business’s inaugural Dean’s Research Impact Award in January 2013. The award recognizes faculty members who have demonstrated excellence in research and whose work has had a major impact on management education.

“Professor Belk has produced an extraordinary volume of top-calibre research of the sort that keeps Schulich among the world’s leading business schools in management research,” said Dean Dezsö J. Horváth.

Professor Belk has also received the prestigious Paul D. Converse Award for outstanding contributions to marketing scholarship, the Sheth Foundation/Journal of Consumer Research Award for Long Term Contribution to Consumer Research, the Society of Marketing Advances 2013 Distinguished Marketing Scholar Award, two Fulbright Fellowships and honorary professorships on four continents.

Over his career, Professor Belk has been awarded thousands of dollars in research funding from both the private and public sectors. After receiving an impressive three year grant of just over $195,000 from SSHRC in 2013, he has received another SSHRC grant, with regards to ‘Psychological Drivers of the Discrepancy between Traditional and Touchscreen Equipment,’ along with Ying Zhu.

He is the past president of the Association for Consumer Research and the International Association of Marketing and Development. He is a fellow in the Association for Consumer Research and the American Psychological Association, as well as the co-founder of the Association for Consumer Research Film Festival. He served as the director on the Consumer Culture Theory Consortium. For countless years, Professor Belk has been involved in many editorial roles. For instance, he sits on the Advisory board for the Journal of China Marketing, Journal of Islamic Marketing, Applied Economics Research Bulletin, Behavioral Marketing Abstracts, etc. He also sits on the Editorial Board for Annals of Social Responsibility, International Journal of Business Anthropology, Journal of Marketing in Emerging Economies, Journal of History Research in Marketing, etc.

Professor Belk is a phenomenal educator. He received the Best Professor in Marketing award by the World Education Congress in 2012. He has taught a variety of courses in the marketing field at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. He has played significant roles with the supervision of many graduate students. He has been a visiting scholar at Hong Kong University. He has also been a visiting professor at the University of Exeter, England; Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand; Lancaster University Management School, England; Davidson Institute, University of Michigan, USA; and University of British Columbia, Canada.

Over the course of his long career, Professor Belk has been instrumental in helping to advance the career of countless others. He has also invited people from schools around the world to co-edit books with him or to co-author papers. A number of young scholars have benefited in this way from his generous spirit of intellectual adventure and engagement.

“If he sees someone with a bright mind, he is ‘blind’ to their institutional affiliation; he finds a way of working with them and in doing so he invariably helps integrate them into a broader network of scholars, and advance their publication records,” said Eileen Fischer, Schulich’s Professor of Marketing, Anne & Max Tanenbaum Chair in Entrepreneurship and Family Enterprise and the Director of PhD Program. “Hiring Professor Belk in 2006 was a ‘coup’ for our department, but having him as a colleague has exceeded my expectations in every way. He is not just a celebrity scholar who increases our reputation, but a solid citizen in terms of teaching and service, willing to do what is needed and to go beyond the call of duty.”

From Top-Tier Pub to TEDx Talk: Reaping the Benefits of Integrated Scholarship

As our society is changing at a rapid pace, so are our definitions of research excellence. To explore where this may take us both individually and as a research institution, we sat down with Dr. Markus Giesler, Associate Professor of Marketing at the Schulich School of Business.

How is scholarship changing in today’s world?

I think there are two basic approaches and also an infinite amount of possible combinations between these two: the classic differentiated approach and a more recent integrated approach. In the classic approach, researchers look at their work like independent art directors look at their movies – something that inspires and transforms you and your tribe members but not many others beyond that. That’s where the second model begins. In a world where 13-year olds reshape entire industries only by using their Twitter and Instagram accounts, some researchers are asking why we do so little to allow other researchers, managers, policy makers, journalists, and the broader public to benefit from our work? So the goal in the integrated approach is to assemble larger institutional webs through a range of strategic devices from research studies and white papers to videos, blog posts, media interviews, industry partnerships, TED talks, and even tweets. Both models seem legitimate. But I personally lean more towards the latter.

Do you see this as being part of a larger trend in scholarship?

The fact that funding agencies such as the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada are expecting us now to provide strong evidence of our ability as researchers to advance the interests and agendas of multiple stakeholders suggests that our definitions of excellence in scholarship may be dramatically changing. At the same time, taxpayers, politicians, students, and CEOs are asking why should we invest in your institution in exchange for knowledge that remains largely inaccessible to us? In the past, high numbers and quality of publications were enough. Now our stakeholders are asking more and more for concrete evidence that your research also informs and inspires boardrooms, classrooms, courtrooms, chat rooms, newsrooms, and even living rooms.

It has been argued that this new logic puts a lot of pressure on researchers. What has your experience been in terms of time investment?

It certainly requires researchers to adopt a number of new roles and responsibilities. We are expected to be faster and more entrepreneurial, flexible, and tech-savvy. But I would also say that it depends a lot on your institutional environment. 99 percent of my research time goes into theory building. This entails the usual scholarly practices and processes such as designing studies, collecting data, writing papers, writing revision notes, etc. Everything else happens on the side. And Schulich is just an excellent place for doing this efficiently. For example, my Huffington Post blog reaches over half a million monthly readers. But it only takes about an hour per week to manage. I usually write the post on the subway up to Schulich and by the time I reach campus, it’s online. I wouldn’t be able to do any of this without the excellent technological infrastructure we have at Schulich as well as the generous support from our IT director Mark Orlan who has taught me a lot about how technology can help us tell better research stories. Beth Marlin in our media department, our Research Officer Dr. Farhana Islam and my esteemed Schulich research colleagues have been equally supportive. More than ever before, scholarship is a team effort. And our flexible culture at Schulich enables this nicely.

Let’s talk about one of your recent initiatives. What was your TEDx talk all about?

TED is one of these knowledge communities where people of various stripe are looking for ideas and inspiration. It has an enormous reach and it is organized as a global franchise. Thanks to the leadership of Ross McMillan, a very engaged YorkU student affairs coordinator, we have our own TEDx YorkU event. Ross and his team helped me translate my research into the TED language. In the final version, I used bird feeding as an accessible metaphor to demonstrate that market creation success is not merely about creating a powerful innovation or understanding consumer behavior but about harmonizing the interests of multiple actors and elements. It’s an act of network building. That’s the central premise behind market system dynamics and design, the marketing subfield that I’ve created: marketers who look at and shape markets as social systems can be more successful than those who only think about birds and breadcrumbs.

What concrete benefits did the talk generate?

Thus far, it has generated research-related awareness, interest, desire, and action. At this point, it has had around 25,000 views and it has been shared by fellow researchers and researchers in other fields, media journalists, industry players, and policy makers at the United Nations and at the World Economic Forum in Davos. This reach has led to a solid increase in number of article downloads and Google Scholar citations as well as invitations for more talks. In addition, it has helped drive corporate donations for the Experience Design Lab, a new bridge between marketing research and practice that our recent Schulich hire Ela Veresiu and I are currently institutionalizing.

On the local level, it has helped integrate Schulich research with the interests and agendas of the larger YorkU community. The TEDx speaker group has begun to work together on a number of projects that add value to our schools and to the university at large such as paper collaborations, research fairs, and university marketing initiatives. As well, the talk is helping us attract new students. Just the other day, I received an email from one of our incoming MBA students who wrote that the talk had played a key role in his decision to join Schulich this coming fall. This alone made it worthwhile.

Social Impact Research Lab: Improving the Implementation of International Poverty Solutions

Geoffrey Kistruck joined the Schulich School of Business two years ago as Associate Professor and Ron Binns Chair in Entrepreneurship. Coinciding with his arrival, he launched a new research initiative called the Social Impact Research Lab (SIRlab). SIRlab designs and tests solutions to management challenges faced by organizations that are working to alleviate poverty in an international context.

Fifteen years ago, Professor Geoff Kistruck was working for a publicly-listed Canadian company as vice-president of corporate development. Though he enjoyed the role, he felt unfulfilled and unhappy with what he was contributing to the world. Wanting to do more, he quit his job and returned to school to finish a PhD focusing on how businesses can contribute to solving some of society’s most pressing problems. Combined with his love of international travel, this research triggered in Geoff a passion for poverty alleviation. He had found his path.

Throughout the process of completing his PhD at the Richard Ivey School of Business, Western University, Professor Kistruck travelled extensively throughout Africa and Latin America to study how both nonprofit and for-profit organizations were using markets as a tool for social and economic development. Many projects involved establishing international supply chains between small-scale local producers and large-scale developed-country buyers. Other projects involved introducing new, low-cost products and services into impoverished communities as a means of improving their standard of living. While both these ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ types of market-based approaches to poverty alleviation held a great deal of potential, he quickly noticed that they were also fraught with a number of challenges.

Says Professor Kistruck: “These challenges often involved how to effectively govern market transactions in environments where formal legal institutions were weak or non-existent. At the same time, the organizations seeking to build market linkages faced a constant tension; they needed to provide enough support to impoverished communities to create new trade linkages, but they couldn’t provide so much support that the local communities became dependent upon the organization for their survival.” In looking at the academic literature as a source of guidance for how to deal with these challenges, he quickly realized that current management theory was ill-equipped to provide adequate prescription. There were a limited number of studies within the management literature focused on market-based solutions to poverty alleviation, and those that existed were almost exclusively historical and case-oriented in nature.

In order to help redress these shortcomings, Professor Kistruck created the Social Impact Research Lab. SIRLab focuses solely on poverty-related challenges that are both practically relevant and theoretically interesting. ‘Practically relevant’ means that the focus is on real-time problems that are currently keeping managers awake at night. ‘Theoretically interesting’ means that the practical problem also represents a gap within current academic literature, and thus provides an opportunity to extend theories of organization more generally.

For each project that SIRlab undertakes, Professor Kistruck forms a research team that consists of at least one senior scholar and one junior scholar from a developed-country context, one local scholar from a developing country context, and a representative from the poverty-focused organization. The team then spends approximately two weeks within the field interviewing organizational staff, community members, and other relevant stakeholders to gain multiple perspectives on the business problem. These field insights are then combined with current academic theory to help design a potential solution, and an implementation plan for the field experiment, or ‘pilot’, is created. Baseline measures are collected and the study participants are randomly assigned to either a ‘treatment’ or a ‘control’ group’ – the treatment group will experiment with the proposed solution, while the control group will continue to operate using the status quo. Upon completion of a pre-defined treatment period, post-hoc measures are collected and the quantitative data is analyzed. “The team also returns to the field to conduct follow-up interviews to gain greater insight into the findings of the experiment. The final output of the study consists of both a practitioner report to the poverty-focused organization, as well as a manuscript to be submitted for academic publication,” he adds.

In its first year, SIRlab undertook two research projects. The first was in Guatemala. SIRlab worked in partnership with a social enterprise that was attempting to distribute socially-valuable products (i.e., eye glasses, water purifiers, etc.) into rural markets. The second project took place in Sri Lanka in partnership with a nonprofit organization that was attempting to create a greater sense of community ownership over newly constructed school buildings. In both instances, SIRlab was successful in helping the organizations come up with a solution to their practical problem. Both projects also resulted in a significant contribution to theory with both studies being accepted for publication in the Academy of Management Journal, and one study receiving the prestigious Carolyn Dexter Award at the 2014 Academy of Management annual meeting.

In its second year, SIRlab elected to narrow its geographic focus, while at the same time expanding the number of research projects undertaken simultaneously. Ghana was selected as the country of focus, and Professor Kistruck, along with a small research team, set off on an exploratory trip in early 2014. “The purpose of the trip was to meet with a number of different organizations involved in poverty-alleviation projects within the country, and to assess their level of interest in partnering with SIRlab. In the end, we selected five organizations as collaborators who were facing a number of different challenges such as mitigating conflict in newly formed producer cooperatives, improving the psychometric screening for an entrepreneurship business plan competition, and designing salesperson training for distributing a nutritional product. I also felt it was important to bring together members from all the research teams to build the trust in each other and to introduce them to the SIRlab process,” he notes.

With a Connections Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and with the support of matching funds on the part of Schulich Dean Dezsö J. Horváth, Professor Kistruck began the process of planning a three-day workshop in Toronto. This event took place in November, 2014 at the Schulich School of Business. In attendance were representatives of the poverty-focused organizations from Ghana (i.e., CARE, Technoserve, Canadian Cooperative Association) scholars from Ghanaian Business Schools (i.e., Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, University of Ghana), and junior and senior-level scholars from developed-country institutions (i.e., The Ohio State University, Texas A&M, University of Toronto). Also attending was a representative of the organization that SIRlab had worked with previously in Sri Lanka, so the workshop participants could hear, first-hand, what to expect in their upcoming research projects.

“The outcome of this workshop has high potential to generate and pave the way for other exciting and meaningful research projects that can benefit both the academic and practitioner communities around the world” says Christine Oliver, Schulich’s Professor and Henry J. Knowles Chair in Organizational Strategy. Professor Kistruck considers SIRlab’s Ghana workshop a success on multiple fronts – “First, it set the expectations on the part of both scholars and practitioners for the long research journey to come. Second, it allowed practitioners and scholars to develop a common understanding of each other’s lexicons to improve communication as the projects developed. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it allowed practitioners to see, first-hand, that the scholars in attendance had a sincere desire to help. Unfortunately, many poverty-focused organizations are not satisfied with academic partnerships – they have begun to see them as a ‘one-way street’ in which scholars gather copious amounts of information, but give very little back to the organizations in return. This workshop built up the trust that would be essential in the work to come by allowing practitioners to see the mutual benefit in the action-research approach of SIRlab”.

Since November 2014, there have been multiple visits by members of the research teams to Ghana, and many of the field experiments are currently being launched. “For example, one field experiment will examine whether ‘promotion-focused’ or ‘prevention-focused’ approaches to conflict management are most effective. Another experiment will look at whether centralized or decentralized leadership structures are better suited to cooperative governance. Some of the experiments will conclude by the end of 2015, while others will continue into 2016 to determine longer-term outcomes,”says Professor Kistruck.

What’s next for SIRlab? The initiative intends to expand into Peru in 2016, and then Tanzania in 2017. To help fund this expansion, Professor Kistruck has recently received a Partnership Development Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. What has amazed him the most is the enthusiasm for the SIRlab approach that he has encountered from the Schulich research community, and from scholars and practitioners around the world. He hopes to leverage such enthusiasm to develop SIRlab into one of the world’s leading research institutes in the poverty alleviation field.

*Professor Geoff Kistruck’s work has been published in journals such as the Academy of Management Journal, Journal of Business Venturing, Entrepreneurship Theory & Practice, Journal of Management Studies, Journal of Management, Journal of Operations Management, and Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal, and he currently sits on the editorial boards of the Academy of Management Journal,and Journal of Management. He has recently started a three-year term as an Editor for Entrepreneurship Theory & Practice, a leading scholarly journal in the field of Entrepreneurship studies and the official journal of the United States Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship (USASBE).