Milla Wirén

“What’s the gap?” is a familiar question to many young aspiring scholars presenting their plans in seminars or conferences. The question reveals one of the basic assumptions prevalent in academia: any intellectual pursuit starts by finding and defining a gap in the existing theoretical knowledge. This is preceded by identifying the theory or theories with the holes in them, which, in turn, has the prequel of choosing one’s academic home, the discipline.

The most familiar competing approach, problematisation, zooms a bit further out. In problematisation, the scholar does not take the existing theoretical knowledge at face value (with or without gaps), but instead questions the underlying premises of the theories. However, problematisation still builds on the same foundation as gap-spotting: the beginning point is the theory, underpinned by a choice of discipline.

However, in our current era of radical technological advances, global socio-political turmoil and dire environmental issues, many of the objects of scholarly scrutiny have transformed dramatically from the entities our established theories are capable at explaining. The effort of squeezing the real-life phenomena into such parcels that can be explored from the vantages of established disciplines with the aid of equally established theories is becoming increasingly hard and, to an increasing degree, futile.

While the pursuit of well-grounded truthful claims is even more necessary than ever, we in the academia need to be sensitive to the ongoing changes around us – even when it means transforming some of the well-proven practices we employ.

We at the Centre for Collaborative Research at the School of Economics of the University of Turku believe in the necessity and merits of engaging in phenomenon-based and collaborative research. While there are wide-ranging understandings about both concepts, we view them as avenues of conducting such science that genuinely reflects the needs of society.

What is phenomenon-based research?

Phenomenon-based research means that instead of utilising a theoretical knowledge gap or theory problematisation as starting points, we start by identifying puzzling phenomena we want to understand. We draw from existing knowledge embedded in diverse theories and disciplines to seek aid for creating understanding and, when necessary, embark upon creating novel conceptualisations and theories in an abductive way.

The process requires both wide awareness of existing knowledge and deep sensitivity regarding the underpinnings of diverse explanations. Throwing together a set of theories is not enough. Instead, in weaving together synthetising understandings, the diverse theoretical building blocks must align in terms of philosophical assumptions, context dependent issues, and levels and units of analysis.

For us, collaborative research means people who are able and willing to participate in the aforementioned process by either pointing out the puzzling phenomena or by contributing to the knowledge co-creation through bringing their practical and/or theoretical expertise to the table.

 Why is collaborative research not consulting?

As we often collaborate with companies, it is a typical misconception to perceive the identification of an intriguing phenomenon indistinguishable from a consulting assignment.

To clarify, in a consulting assignment a firm has a problem they want to solve with the help of existing scholarly insights contextualised to fit their specific circumstances. In turn, in the phenomenon-based collaborative research, the puzzling phenomenon is an abstracted newly identified entity spanning beyond specific contexts and in need of conceptualisations and theoretical means of exploring. These phenomena may be identified by the practitioners, by the researchers working closely with the firms (or other actors outside academia) or by individuals otherwise equipped with sensitivity and awareness of the changing societal landscape.

Put simply, in consulting, the academically well-versed consultant seeks an answer to a firm-specific question from the pool of existing theoretical knowledge and context-specific practical insights, and shapes it to fit the needs of the firm.

In collaborative research, the aim is to create theoretical knowledge with practical value potential about an entity not yet conceptualised or theorised enough.

Venturing outside the academia

In terms of co-creating knowledge about these identified phenomena, we need individuals with both expertise in and understanding of existing theories, and an openness to research not conducted in disciplinary trenches or in the solitude of research chambers. To sum up, we need aptitude to conduct research by weaving together old wisdoms and new insights in a process of negotiating multiple voices and viewpoints.

The results of such collaborative research processes contribute to the accumulation of scientific knowledge, but additionally, each collaborator from outside the academia is a distribution channel of that new knowledge, a medium through which the new insights can lead to better practices with impacts reverberating far beyond the scholarly journals.

However, this also means that the researchers involved in collaborative research must be willing to contextualise the emerging theoretical insights to the non-academic partners involved when needed – or that the participants from outside the academia must have other means of utilising the co-created knowledge for their specific needs.

Collaboration does not end with the creation of new theoretical knowledge, but the relationships must be nurtured to mutual long-lasting benefits. This in turn requires such scholars who are at times willing to don the hat of a consultant in order to ensure the diffusion and relevant applications of the newly created knowledge. It also requires openness and curiosity from the partners outside academia; willingness to explore emerging phenomena sometimes even when the practical applications are not immediately obvious.

So, do you have the ability to identify puzzling phenomena in need of knowledge-creation? Do you want to pool your theoretical and practical knowledge with experts of diverse backgrounds and areas of interest? Are you a scholar willing to translate theoretical knowledge into lay language – or a business practitioner with a passion for seeing the bigger picture?

And most importantly, do you have the desire to make an impact beyond the academia or beyond your business? Let us at the CCR hear from you! We’re here to collaborate.

Milla Wirén
The author works as a Research Manager in the Laboratory of Business Disruption Research at the Centre for Collaborative Research.