We spoke with Professor Dorothée Baumann-Pauly to find out what it takes to do impactful research, the process of influencing decision-makers and the problem of measuring change through proxy measures.
Dorothée Baumann-Pauly is a Professor at Geneva University’s School of Economics and Management and directs the Geneva Center for Business and Human Rights. Since 2013, she has also served as the Research Director at the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights. She has extensive practical experience of implementing human rights reforms within business, and her work has been instrumental in affecting policy change at national and organisation level.
Bridging academia and practice
Overton: What does ‘impact’ mean to you?
Doro: For me personally, impact means being able to create positive changes in the lives of workers and communities that are affected by business today. In my specific field of human rights, I think there’s a particular urgency to turn your work into practical change and focus on the impact to people outside academia.
My research focuses on developing practical solutions for corporate practitioners and policy-makers to improve human rights. I want to generate work that guides decision-makers to take action themselves, to create a systematic positive impact for workers and communities. I see a really clear role for academics to guide policymakers and practitioners towards developing better approaches to pressing ethical challenges in business.
Can you tell me a bit about your career? How did you end up where you are?
My research interests have always stemmed from practice. I’m interested in things that impact the real world of business. I’ve had a mixed career - though academia is currently my main base, I started my professional life in non-profits and think tanks and have continued to have a number of practical experiences even since becoming a scholar.
It was this mix of different experiences that drove me to the positions that I have now, at Geneva and NYU. In both roles, I see myself as a hybrid - we conduct rigorous research on questions that are pressing for practitioners and policymakers today, so we can take our findings back out into the real world. The interplay between rigour and relevance, I think, has characterised my career and allowed me to launch the Geneva Centre for Business and Human Rights. I believe there's a growing interest in connecting and bridging academia and practice, and a knowledge of the practical barriers to implementing human rights reforms in the wider world - in organisations and other settings - is essential to doing this.
I feel like right now I take lessons from both academia and practice, to try and drive change in the best way possible. NGOs are incredible at advocacy, and communicate information in a really creative, powerful way. They really use all the channels available to them to put their message out in a way that’s undeniable. Academia could really learn from that. And on the other side, the rigour and accuracy and precision which is prized within scholarship is something that NGOs could sometimes use more of. During that part of my career I saw organisations put out things that weren’t rigorously researched enough. This sloppiness undermined their credibility, in a way that was really disappointing, because their mission and purpose was often spot on.
The business of affecting change
Is it important to design research with impact in mind? Or can it often be a by-product of asking the right questions?
In academia there will always be a place for foundational research, where the direct applicability is not entirely clear from the outset. For me however, the primary objective is policy impact - because of the nature of my field - so it’s always at the forefront when designing my research. The need to address human rights abuses in business is incredibly urgent, so I feel a responsibility to try and create work that is as applicable and usable as possible. Maybe an additional factor is that I'm in Geneva at a public university. Taxpayer money supports my research so I feel a greater obligation to use this funding to directly create public good and public knowledge that can guide policymakers and practitioners. I see myself as part of a societal context, not outside a societal context.
However, the important thing to remember is that real impact or change can take years. So while it can be helpful to frame your research objectives and methods in a particular way, you can’t necessarily categorise research as ‘impactful’ or not, especially at first. It takes a huge amount of perseverance to drive change. We can’t expect to happen within months of a research piece being published. And more so, one big breakthrough doesn’t always translate to positive change in people’s lives. I’ll stick to my projects for a long time - I’ve been working on some issues for over a decade. If you’re serious about it, you won’t lose interest. And that is the central tenet to affecting change.
Continuous stakeholder engagement
In practical terms, how do you go about engaging with decision-makers?
There’s not a blueprint for how to engage. But one incredibly important lesson is that engagement starts before you begin the research.
Only through engaging with decision-makers, or more generally with stakeholders - from workers, policy-makers, corporate practitioners, communities at large - do you get a feeling for the pressing questions. Because if you want to influence decision-makers, you also have to be opportunistic. And this all starts with finding the most compelling research question that has issue maturity and has the most relevance to the largest group of stakeholders at a given point in time. This means that timing is important - even the best and most impactful research will fall on deaf ears if the moment isn’t right, if it’s not recognised as a general interest.
So, topic and timing are important. And then you have to think about how you conduct your research. You can’t expect your research to become a game changer if you sit at your desk alone for months at a time and then confront policymakers with your results at the end. So you build your relationships with relevant stakeholders at the beginning and then you maintain engagement throughout. They need to see that they've been part of your thought processes. Not only will this help you produce more relevant results but they’ll hopefully feel some ownership over your work and want to carry it forward.
It’s also important to remember the saying ‘different strokes for different folks’. Depending on which decision-maker you're trying to influence, you need to be framing your research objective in a way that can be beneficial for them. You need to think about the story of your research and why you’re doing what you’re doing. Understanding what they need to do their job well is helpful to get them to cooperate with you. And this goes for policy-makers who you want to engage with the importance of an issue, but also decision-makers who are more intimately involved with the issue that you’re researching. If I’m working on a project looking at the supply chains in a certain industry for example, I need to think about what my counterparts - whether that’s corporations or workers or civil society organisations - will get out of collaborating. I do a lot of field research, which often requires access to sites that are not easily accessible, so I need to switch perspectives to sell the usefulness of my work to them.
This sounds like a huge amount of impact work is done before you do any real ‘research’?
Absolutely. But funnily enough people tend to forget about both the first phase and the last phase. While the publication of your results is typically the endpoint for academics, for me it’s the end of the beginning. This is when the real work starts in terms of making sure that key research conclusions are being carried forward. You cannot expect that you drop a research report and then the world will change!
Sometimes I also reach out to organisations that I think should know about my work - I proactively reach out to policy makers. I've reached out to politicians in the German parliament - the German agency that now oversees the country’s supply chain laws - and we now have a good relationship in which my voice is heard. So there’s still value in seeking to engage people at the post publication stage that you didn’t necessarily connect with in the research phase. But I should stress that this clearly isn’t as easy until you have a reputation in the sector, and a track record of speaking on an issue.
Make your issues undeniable
What’s the role of media in creating impact? Is stakeholder engagement more important, or should you focus your efforts on generating public conversation on an issue?
It’s essential to do both. There needs to be public awareness for certain topics, to get decision-makers to care about it. For example, I'm currently trying to raise awareness of the issues with the cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo that have implications for the supply chains of many companies. Small scale mining in the DRC is rife with human rights issues, from child labour to unsafe conditions. I've done some media work, addressed to public audiences, which has been hugely important in forcing big companies to come to terms with these abuses. It often helps to reach a tipping point where decision-makers have to listen to you. It makes the issue undeniable. So if I can help decision-makers to acknowledge the problem - via the public - then we can start working on it.
The challenges of affecting real change
What are the barriers to researchers doing impact work?
The primary issue is that the incentive structure for hiring and promotions focuses solely on academic publications. So writing research papers that get published in the top journal becomes a goal unto itself. And this is a problem because these journals aren’t read by corporate practitioners or policymakers, so no bridging of knowledge is occurring naturally. But also it leaves no time for trying to create impact or affect change so you have to be highly motivated to do it on top of your everyday work, in time that you don’t have.
This is a big problem - there is no reward for this work so you have to have a huge passion. You need to be so motivated to affect change that you will go far above and beyond the normal remit of your job.
Is there anything you think new researchers should know about the landscape of decision-making?
Some things that look like impact are really superficial. For example, the research that I mentioned on the cobalt supply chain actually led to a change in the law in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and created a new agency there to monitor abuses! However, these policy changes are taking place in the DRC where words on paper don’t mean that much to the actual miners that I’m concerned about!
Measuring actual positive impact to workers and communities is very difficult. We can get distracted by proxy measures. But this is a widespread issue across many organisations and sectors. Organisations and even governments tend to talk about their achievements in the field of human rights in terms of activities - bringing in a human rights policy for example! But is this changing anything? We rarely know. Because this would require taking a baseline assessment of where they are at the beginning, and then continually and strategically measuring whether their interventions have changed things. I always want to know whether the benefits reached their target audience. The changes we need to know about are ‘do workers earn more?’ or ‘can they take care of their children?’.
I would hope that companies eventually ask researchers to conduct independent baseline assessments and are excited at the prospect of hopefully telling a positive impact story. But I haven’t seen that in action as of yet. And until you have that - and a similar thing taking place in the policy sector - it’s hard to quantify true research impact.
So this is a much wider issue that permeates many sectors. What is change, really? What is impact? We need to dig a bit deeper to really understand it. Even changing the law doesn’t impact the lived experience sometimes, and that’s really important to acknowledge! It’s a start, but that’s it. It’s a long process. And that can be disheartening sometimes, which is why I think it is ok to measure and celebrate proxies. But we need to remember that they aren’t the end goal. Actual change might take years or decades. So you do have to acknowledge the small steps that absolutely are progress. But you also have to be realistic about them.
That takes me on to another important point which is that change never comes from one person. You’re part of an ecosystem. Your role is to produce knowledge that helps push that ecosystem to a tipping point, until there’s no other choice but for action to be taken. You can rarely attribute any of this to an individual actor or organisation. So all you can hope for is that you’re pushing in the right direction. So finding good collaboration partners that push with you in the right direction can make all the difference.
We're grateful to Dorothée for making the time to speak with us and share her expertise!
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