We’ve been bringing academics and practitioners together for 30 years at the Oxford Institute of Retail Management. Sometimes, like animals warily circling each other at the waterhole, there can be mutual incomprehension. Sometimes conversations can be at cross-purposes, since both groups have different sets of obligations. Academics think of REF-able journals and scholarly career trajectories rather than business impact; practitioners focus on shorter-term commercial goals. This has been particularly true of retailing, where meaning and utility can be lost in translation. But sometimes there can be a realisation of mutual benefits.
I attended two such ‘knowledge exchange’ events (as they are known in the education industry) recently. The first of these was one we organised in Oxford on behalf of the Consumer Data Research Centre and the Local Data Company in May. Here’s the first innovation: the stimulus for the event came from the commercial partner. The Local Data Company is a small start-up but has made a point of collaborating with a range of UK universities. It was keen to put the various sets of academic findings together and to invite practitioners to evaluate the usefulness of the insights that were generated. It proved to be a massively useful event: 35 academics and practitioners reviewed together the findings from 6 projects using data supplied by LDC – ranging from the future of Scottish town centres, to understanding the customer experience of different shopping locations; to the techniques available for modelling shopping catchments. We tackled a whole variety of questions:
The second event was organised by Professor Kim Cassidy at Nottingham Trent University. Kim has been working with ESRC for three years as their Retail Research Navigator, bringing together academics from a wide variety of universities as part of the Retail Sector Initiative, funded by ESRC. Last month saw the final presentation of research in a session chaired by the indomitable Bill Grimsey. Bill took no prisoners: “so what?” he asked, as each presenter concluded. Most – but not all – had pretty defensible answers.
But as interesting in both workshops was the discussion over how academics and practitioners might work better together, as well as considering how academics should better communicate their findings to practitioner audiences.
This reminded me of some work we did a few years ago asking “where does retail knowledge come from?” In the UK at least, at the time, very few ideas came from higher education institutions. The majority were from competitors, customers and suppliers. Of course, academics don’t have a monopoly on ideas. Do a Google search of ‘retail research’ and you’ll find around 382mn results. Confine this to the UK, and this shrinks to around 257,000 – around 0.06%. Check out .edu sites and that number increases to 6.5mn. But that’s still only 1.7% of the overall total. A pretty crude surrogate, of course, but it reminds us that retail research and ideas can also be found in other domains: market research firms, general and specialist consultants, property agencies, IT companies and investors. That’s no bad thing of itself, but the free white papers produced by consultants are very different from the articles and conference papers produced by academics. On the upside, they are generally speedier to market and more accessibly written! On the downside, they havn’t been subjected to rigorous critical peer evaluation on their methodological or conceptual merits (that’s what takes the time) – kicking the tyres, if you will. At worst, ‘retail research’ becomes press releases destined for tabloid fame.
So what should retail academics do? Take their ball home? Clearly, this is not an option. It’s a matter of finding those topics which will have direct relevance to both practitioners and policymakers as well as scholarship. It’s about building strategies for engagement with retail firms (something we’ve spoken about before – see the ‘circle of engagement’ above) and finally recognising that the best retailers are indeed seeking strategic insight, especially at the moment, and that academics may be pushing against an open door.
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