Entrepreneurship is a complex, inherently multidisciplinary field. As such, there is often little consensus about priorities within the broader entrepreneurship research community. Research is as much about framing the right questions as it is about uncovering answers. But, the right question from an academic perspective often does not provide the answer that practitioners and policymakers are urgently looking to apply in their work.
As entrepreneurship research continues to develop, evolve, and grow, Global Entrepreneurship Research Network co-chair Amisha Miller noted that an important goal for GERN is to “find ways to broaden the space and the experts involved in entrepreneurship studies.” To develop new testable theories, she suggested “involving people from other disciplines – anthropology, ethnography, natural sciences, etc.” – who have not traditionally applied their perspective to entrepreneurship. In addition, she said, “GERN could tap its broad networks to include more inputs from a wider variety of voices into developing the next set of research questions that GERN members could look into.”
The value of crowdsourcing questions from the wider community, said Jonathan Ortmans, GEN president and GERN co-chair, is that GERN will be educating practitioners while affirming that its members’ current focus is on the most important areas of inquiry and unearthing new ones. For primary entrepreneur supporters in the ecosystem – investors, accelerator leaders, mentors, policymakers, etc. – their ability to steer research to areas that help them to be more effective requires that they have a better understanding of how the academic community goes about research in terms of methodology. “It’s one thing to be asked questions and give your point of view and another to understand how the researcher will utilize the data and come back with robust actionable results.”
To explore the variety of methods used to learn the views of key ecosystem actors when seeking the best questions to ask in the field of entrepreneurship, GERN turned to Jill Panetta during its October member conference call. She co-founded InnoCentive, which offers firms an alternative to traditional, resource intensive, innovation and, in the process, changed the way that many companies go about conducting science-based research and development.
InnoCentive was initially financed by the Eli Lilly Company, which was facing a wide “innovation gap” and sought a means to “increase research and development without hiring more scientists and building more laboratories.” Panetta’s team had devised a way to “tap creativity efficiently and effectively on a scale beyond the reach of scientists from academia, government and industry.”
In an article for innovations, Panetta described how Joy’s Law, which is the principle that “no matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else” creates an essential dilemma for all organizations. The law highlights the fact that in any given sphere of activity, most of the pertinent knowledge will reside outside the boundaries of any one organization, and the central challenge is accessing that knowledge.
To address this challenge in the field of entrepreneurship Panetta reiterating what Miller said about encouraging experts from a variety of disciplines to engage in studying entrepreneurship. A key to InnoCentive’s continuing success, she added, is its ability to bring key constituencies (who in our case would be entrepreneurs, support program leaders, policy makers, academics, etc.) together. “Because solutions to complex problems often come from unexpected places,” she noted, “leadership is critical structuring lateral thinking among groups of experts from a variety of backgrounds who view the same phenomena through quite different lens of experience and expertise.”
To crowdsource a comprehensive list of agreed research questions and priorities from the wider entrepreneurship community, Professor Bill Sutherland of Cambridge University has pioneered a procedure that involves a series of what he calls question prioritizing exercises, which has been adapted and used in a wide range of fields.
A professor of conservation biology, Sutherland found that academic research on the subject often lacked resonance among policymakers. Seeking policy-relevance, he set out to develop a list of the 100 ecological research questions of most interest to policymakers. To this end, he organized a meeting of two dozen people from a variety of backgrounds who each had experience with the subject to compile candidate questions – they came up with more than 1,000. This was followed by a policy conference where the questions were whittled down through discussion and several rounds of voting.
“When we put the first of these question prioritizing exercises together, we had no idea what to expect,” Sutherland said. But the result, an agreed upon set of priorities, was more than the simple list he originally sought.
The initial exercise garnered attention from researchers, funders, and the media, as have similar efforts aimed at capturing and distilling the interests of practitioners and policymakers in other fields. It has been used, for example, to generate a list of questions on the causes of poverty, another multidisciplinary subject that involves social, economic, political, and governance aspects. According the Sutherland, the process was “just as technical and evidence-based as any I’ve done. There was a really intense, high-level debate about what you need to understand.”
The approach Sutherland developed has proven widely applicable for framing lists of priority questions that are both appealing to researchers and useful to practitioners and policymakers. “The meetings are intense, the pruning of lists ruthless,” says Jacqueline Gill of the University of Maine, “the process is fascinating, often brutal, always challenging, and always really, really revealing.”
Keys to employing the process successfully, according to some who have done so, include canvassing broadly for questions, narrowing down the topic to make it manageable, linking questions to the size of effort needed to answer them, and fostering interaction between researchers and users. Vital for discussions to bear fruit is careful planning and strong leadership to encourage ‘co-design’ of research by finding overlaps with what is researchable and what is useful, which is, essentially, the core question that drives the exercise.
For GERN, Sutherland provides a useful method for framing questions to better understand entrepreneurial dynamics: another highly complex, multidisciplinary phenomenon. Such an approach might contribute to correcting a tendency among researchers, Miller noted, “to go large and look only at macro-level issues because these have the potential to influence a lot more people – but which may not change on-the-ground practice.” On the other hand, examining and evaluating micro-level interventions may improve that program, but such studies are usually too specific to influence other efforts.
“The sweet spot,” she said, is somewhere between the macro and the micro because the findings, conclusions and recommendations of researchers need to enable people to change behavior. “In this way,” Miller said, “GERN would inform the field while pushing it forward.”