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).