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The Important Role of Management Researchers in Addressing Global Crises: Insights from Innovation North



Executive Summary: In this chapter, we describe a process in which managers cocreate tools and knowledge with researchers to help navigate the turbulence and unpredictability of global crises. This cocreation process provides managers a private space to reflect and the tools to act. We draw insights from our experiences with a lab within Innovation North, which is based on the principles of American Pragmatism. Forthcoming in: Bartunek, J. M. (Ed.) In Press. Global Crises and the Impact of Social Science. Routledge 1
The Important Role of Management Researchers in
Addressing Global Crises: Insights from Innovation
Pratima (Tima) Bansal, Ivey Business School,
Garima Sharma, Georgia State University,
Executive Summary: In this chapter, we describe a process in which managers cocreate tools and
knowledge with researchers to help navigate the turbulence and unpredictability of global crises.
This cocreation process provides managers a private space to reflect and the tools to act. We
draw insights from our experiences with a lab within Innovation North, which is based on the
principles of American Pragmatism.
Forthcoming in: Bartunek, J. M. (Ed.) In Press. Global Crises and the Impact of Social
Science. Routledge
The frequency and magnitude of global crises, such as climate change induced weather events,
pandemics, financial shocks, and civil unrest, are growing. Although many of these crises are
catalyzed by business, the public discourse about these is dominated by 'experts' from climate
science, epidemiology, economics, and political science – not from business schools.
The absence of management researchers in these public conversations does not mean that
management researchers have been completely silent. Instead, management researchers are
playing a unique role by creating private spaces in which managers can reflect and act, not only
learn and understand. Such exchanges are important in addressing global crises.
In this chapter, we describe this type of knowledge creation through an initiative that we
launched in 2019, called Innovation North. This initiative provides a space for managers and
researchers to cocreate knowledge that can help managers innovate for turbulent environments.
This initiative develops insights that serve a dual purpose: 1) for managers to understand,
organize for, and deflect crises, and 2) for researchers to understand innovation processes that
create value for themselves and society over the long term.
In this essay, we first describe the lab at Innovation North. We argue that the approach taken by
this lab is particularly suited for systems-based global crises. A global crisis is a systems crisis if
it disrupts the way in which communities of people live, work and interact. A systems crisis is
particularly insidious because its effects are unpredictable and potentially catastrophic – much as
we saw with COVID-19. A systems view asks actors to see not just their own perspective, but the
broader system, so that they are able adapt to and potentially mitigate crises. After we describe
the lab, we show how the lab’s epistemological foundations are grounded in American
Pragmatism. This approach seeks not only for science-based understanding of global crises, but a
type of knowledge that stimulates reflection and action. We hope this chapter will inspire social
science researchers to engage actively with managers to address global crises.
Innovation North – Innovating the Corporate Innovation
Bansal launched Innovation North in October 2019. Its ambition was to develop the knowledge
and practices needed for organizations to innovate products and services that create value for
business and society simultaneously for the long term. Innovation North seeks several outcomes
to address this challenge: (a) to cocreate knowledge that is both rigorous and relevant so that it
can be used by both managers and researchers; (b) to catalyze action by companies that can serve
as inspiration for other companies and test cases for researchers; and (c) to build a network of
partnerships in which individuals can call on others, but also form collaborations that tackle
systems challenges.
Bansal created Innovation North because businesses were both experiencing and inadvertently
catalyzing systems-based crises. Managers, however, did not have the tools or knowledge to
understand how to manage within them.
Contemporary corporate innovation research and practice are either directed at business
challenges tackled by for-profit businesses or societal challenges tackled by non-profit
organizations. Business innovation processes include stage-gate models, design thinking, and
open innovation (Brown, 2008; Chesbrough, 2003; Cooper, 1990). These processes generate
value for business, but can inadvertently catalyze global crises, such as the increased traffic
congestion caused by Uber or the social consequences of the gig economy (Dubal & Whittaker,
2020). Non-profit social innovation processes, on the other hand, tackle societal challenges, such
as traffic congestion and social instability, but the solutions do not offer a business case, so that
for-profit businesses are unlikely to adopt the solutions.
Innovation North cocreates academically rigorous and practically relevant knowledge with
researchers and managers through a lab process. It will mobilize that knowledge through open-
source digital media and develop communities of practice and training programs. Innovation
North's lab kicked off in October 2019 and will wind down in July 2024.
The lab draws on Bansal and Sharma's previous experiences with the Network for Business
Sustainability (Sharma & Bansal, in press; 2020) and the experiences of the Minnesota
Innovation Research Project (Van de Ven & Poole, 1990). Innovation North also applies the
principles of American pragmatism through action research (Eden & Huxham, 1996) and
engaged scholarship (Van de Ven, 2007).
The lab participants come from various sectors forming a system of actors and issues within the
lab. Specifically, there are three main categories of participants involved in the lab: 1) managers,
2) researchers, and 3) students. The managers involve two people each from 25 participating
organizations. At least one of the managers must be a senior executive who handles the
innovation budget to ensure that the insights from the lab are mobilized within the participating
organization. We intentionally invited managers from a diverse group of cross-sectoral (for-
profits, non-profits, and government), non-competitive organizations to foster an open, sharing
environment and build a network of organizations that can change systems within Canada. The
researchers are faculty members interested in innovation and systems change. A regular group of
five faculty members participate in the lab, along with a small group of postdoctoral fellows,
doctoral students, and 'visiting' faculty members. In addition, we invite two to three
undergraduate students to join each session so that they can share some of their key insights
more broadly.
The lab sessions are held quarterly. The first two sessions in October 2019 and January 2020
were held in person in Toronto. Subsequent sessions transitioned online because of the COVID-
19 pandemic. Each session is animated by a keynote provocateur, who has a faculty appointment,
has demonstrated thought leadership, and can speak to managers. The keynote provocateurs have
included Peter Senge (MIT), Otto Scharmer (MIT), Terry Irwin (Carnegie Mellon), Kristel van
Ael (Antwerp), Jorrit de Jong (Harvard), and Melanie Goodchild (Waterloo). The lab organizers
are from the Ivey Business School and MaRS, a social innovation lab in Toronto. They design
each lab session as a unique event, addressing a topic chosen by participants. Depending on the
keynote provocateur's skills, the session may involve short lectures with breakout groups, case
studies, or the application of innovation design tools. The researchers facilitate the breakout
groups, while also studying the interactions among participants. In some cases, the lab organizers
are deeply involved in designing the lab session; in others, the keynote prefers to guide the
Sample Lab Session
On July 30, 2020, Kristel van Ael, an assistant professor at the University of Antwerp and a
Partner at the design agency, Namahn, presented two tools from her Systemic Design Toolkit
( Van Ael had applied the toolkit to societal challenges
that require systems solutions, such as helping an NGO address discrimination and racism in
Brussels. She had limited experience applying these tools to business, who care more about
firm-level value than systems-level challenges. A priori, the researchers and managers did not
have experience with the tools, nor did they know how to use them in a corporate context.
Working with van Ael in the months leading up to the session, Bansal and postdoctoral fellow,
Angela Greco, developed an exercise that offered participants an opportunity to apply two of the
tools to a specific challenge confronting one of the lab participants, and relevant to others. The
lab was designed to build a community of learners who could help solve each other's innovation
challenges, while building knowledge together. The exercise required lab participants to take the
role of a CEO tasked to build a robot by integrating technologies from various providers
(sensors, cloud computing, mechanical aspects). The solution would require collaboration among
different actors within the industrial ecosystem.
The first tool asked participants to map the flows among five different 'actants', which can
include human and non-human actors, in the system. These actants included the company
wanting to find a robotic solution, an auto manufacturer that would buy the technology, a
technology company that would provide sensors, an academic with specific knowledge, and an
employee. The material flows helped to show interdependencies and opportunities.
Once the participants identified actants' interests and the respective material flows, the
participants applied a second tool that asked them to analyze the paradox between cooperation
and competition. If the participants were too collaborative, then it was likely that one actant was
making too quick a compromise and offering too many resources to the other. Yet, if participants
were too competitive, the collaboration would fail, making them all worse off. By putting the
collaborative-competitive paradox in full view, participants could zoom out to see the whole
system and the total resources that could be generated through the collaboration and then
determine how to distribute the resources equitably. In that way, all actants were better off.
Bansal and Greco adapted the tools by drawing upon their academic knowledge of systems,
innovation, and paradox. As well, the participating managers provided the details for Bansal and
Greco to adapt the tools. In juxtaposing their academic knowledge with the participating
organization's concrete problem details, Bansal and Greco adapted the tools by focusing on what
is useful for a community of inquirers, rather than privileging academic knowledge.
The participants engaged in "pragmatic experimentation" (Wicks & Freeman, 1998), by applying
the tools to understand how business can innovate through collaboration. By applying the tools
in small groups, and then debriefing together, participants took away relevant insights for
systemic innovation, which they expressed would be relevant in changing their organization's
innovation process. In subsequent interviews with the lab participants, researchers explored
what was useful about these tools and what could be improved, drawing on the participants'
experience to refine the tools for a broader community beyond the lab participants.
The larger group of researchers observing the lab session made a number of important
observations, such as the importance of including civil society and the natural environment as
actants. They also observed how difficult it was for managers to see a systems solution, until
they started to talk explicitly about paradoxes. The researchers used these insights to improve the
lab design further. The researchers are also using these insights as prospective data for building a
theory of systems change and innovation. Further, Bansal, Greco, and another lab researcher
(Mazi Raz) applied the tool to a classroom setting and adapted it further, so the tools could be
shared with other business school professors who seek to apply paradox thinking to tackle the
challenges in fostering collaboration. The materials are distributed through Ivey Publishing.
The Pragmatic Foundations of Innovation North
The lab draws upon the principles of American pragmatism (Dewey, 1910; James, 1907), which
is particularly suited for systems-based global crises. A science-based paradigm seeks to model
the environment, but such modeling is difficult for complex socio-technical systems that are
being disrupted. Several scholars have distilled and applied pragmatic principles to
organizational studies (e.g., Evans, 2000; Farjoun et al., 2015; Martela, 2015; Simpson & den
Hond, 2021). These principles shape the epistemological foundations of the lab. We describe the
two main principles we draw from, and their applications to the lab.
First, pragmatism presumes that reality cannot be fully known, and the process of learning,
within a community of inquirers, shapes what is known (Dewey, 1908). Reality is particularly
difficult to model in complex dynamic systems and the outcomes are particularly difficult to
predict. Pragmatism, especially from Dewey's perspective, is unabashedly about social change
(Martela, 2015). It focuses on experimentation for figuring out 'what is useful', as defined by the
community, rather than researchers independently and objectively developing models, that are
carefully tested for their efficacy, but may not speak directly to managers' realities (Wicks &
Freeman, 1998).
As a result, learning and insights through a pragmatic lens do not lie solely in the analysis of
historical data, but rather in narratives of what can or will be. Pragmatism focuses both on
retrospective knowledge as well as prospective knowledge (Weick, 1999). Dewey called this a
shift from "antecedently real" to knowledge needed to "deal with problems as they arise"
(Dewey, 1988: 14). From this paradigm, the knower, context, and knowledge are deeply
entangled. One begets the other, so that knowledge is constantly being shaped and reshaped
through practice. A pragmatic approach to knowledge, then, relies not only on scientific concepts
and models, but also on the tools and frameworks, such as Porter's Five Forces or Design
Thinking, that are tools for solving problems by evoking reflection and action (Evans, 2000).
We drew on these ideas to design Innovation North into a space for prospective solution making.
Instead of providing the answers from existing concepts and knowledge, the lab introduces the
participants to tools and frameworks that foster knowing by doing. Further, these tools are ideas
in the making. They are presumed to be always incomplete, rather than static bearers of 'truth'.
Dewey describes such an approach as one in which knowledge is the "settled outcome of
inquiry" (Dewey, 1941: 175) for a community of inquirers, rather than a thing that exists with a
priori certainty and can be discovered.
A second important principle of pragmatism is that it values both experiential, concrete
knowledge and theoretical, abstract knowledge. It challenges the pursuit of rationality if it is at
the expense of imagination (Alexander, 1990), which is why assembling practitioners with
researchers in the lab offers a powerful mix of cocreating knowledge that imbricates the concrete
with the abstract, the experiential with the theoretical, and rationality with imagination.
Practitioners seek ideas or concepts that can help them solve problems, and address perplexities,
such as those related to global systems-based crises. At the same time, practitioners' experiences
can provide "organizational scientists with grist for the theoretical mill" (Astley & Zammuto,
1992: 454), such that researcher can build new "skyhooks" (Ohmann, 1955 cited by Astley &
Zammuto, 1992) to help practitioners climb to the other side of organizational challenges.
James (1907: 9) combines the two worlds of research and practice to conceive of collective
inquiry as, "[y]ou want a system that will combine both things, the scientific loyalty to facts and
willingness to take account of them, the spirit of adaptation and accommodation, in short, but
also the old confidence in human values and the resultant spontaneity." By cocreating
knowledge, researchers can generate new questions and expand their theoretical enterprises
(Schulz & Nicolai, 2015), and managers can see beyond the immediate crisis to not only learn
from previous crises but also prevent future ones.
The lab fosters such cocreation in a few ways. In applying the tools and frameworks introduced
in the lab, participants experience what Dewey describes as doubts or breakdowns (Van de Ven,
2007) when their lived experience may not match their experiences in applying the tools. This
breakdown is followed by a process of abduction, in which the community of inquirers, the lab
participants in our case, generate possible options to address the breakdown, i.e., "new
hypotheses are generated to combine the nonroutine with existing knowledge, which can lead to
new beliefs and habits as well as imaginative leaps" (Farjoun et al., 2015: 5). Such a process
fosters revision in the tools to make them useful for other 'communities of inquirers' beyond the
lab, helping us pursue "practical and local solutions rather than grand theoretical agendas"
(Simpson & den Hond, 2021: 11). As well, researchers, as part of the lab, study the lab processes
and continuously refine the processes, generating knowledge that combines facts, human values,
and spontaneity.
Researchers and Managers Collaborating to De!ect
Systems-Based Global Crises
Innovation North illustrates a new way in which researchers and managers can come together to
cocreate knowledge. Our goal is to help managers see the system, use tools based on rigor and
relevance, and develop managers' capacity for systems thinking that they can apply to their
innovation processes, so they solve not only their own organizational challenges, but also
societal challenges.
What Innovation North also shows is that knowledge cocreation happens in many ways. It is not
just about imbricating academic and practical knowledge but also integrating complementary
skills, such as the academic skills of critiquing assumptions and seeing narrative arcs with the
practitioners' skills of application and thought experimentation. Specifically, the lab sessions
permit the keynote provocateur, researchers, and managers to dialogue around abstract ideas to
make them concrete. Managers make these abstract ideas relevant to their own work (Astley &
Zammuto, 1992), in turn providing insights to the academics for improving the tools and
synthesizing the concepts.
We believe that this process of cocreating knowledge lies uniquely in the domain of management
researchers. This 'research' process can address the significant global crises that threaten society.
This approach to knowledge cocreation should be recognized not only as a legitimate, but also a
necessary approach to management research.
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  • Article
    In 1843, Søren Kierkegaard said, “ It is perfectly true, as philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards.” Management researchers are often attracted to the business and society domain because of a desire to impact management practice to create a better world. However, they often do not have the impact that they hope, because researchers tend to rely on historical data, but managers seek insights that inform future actions. In this commentary, we describe our impact journey in three distinct moments in time. In the last one, both researchers and managers live forward.
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