With the geometric growth of socially responsible investment dollars entering the market, corporations are increasingly expected to assess and publicly disclose their sustainability, based on their economic, environmental and social performance. Although we have a clear idea of what “doing good” looks like from an economic and environmental perspective, social sustainability is a much more challenging metric. Research shows that companies lack a clear, consistent definition of social impact. They also lack a universal suite of quantitative metrics to assess social impact in a way that is comparable at the company level and across industries.

Ford Motor Company is experiencing this challenge firsthand. According to Mary Wroten, Ford’s Global Director of Sustainability,

“Ford believes that the freedom of movement drives human progress, but we are often asked: What is human progress, and how is it measured? This project is an opportunity to answer these questions in a way that can benefit not just Ford but all companies struggling with this question.”

An Academic-Industry Partnership

Ford partnered with the University of Michigan’s Erb Institute on a two-year collaborative research study, known as the Social Impact Project. The aim was to map the company’s social impacts and to recommend a set of metrics to track progress. The ultimate goal was to create a new standard for measuring and comparing social sustainability impacts across industries. We followed a structured decision-making approach and qualitative coding method, and we interviewed a total of 166 individual company stakeholders and content experts within and outside Ford.

Two teams conducted the project. On the academic side, Merriam Haffar led the project under the supervision and direction of Joe Árvai, the Erb Institute’s former faculty director. The Ford team was led by Wroten, along with Senior Social Sustainability Manager Rebecca Shelby and Sustainability Specialist (and Erb ’13 graduate) Deb Heed, under the direction of Cynthia Williams, Ford’s Global Director of Sustainability, Homologation and Compliance. The team worked together to develop the central research question and project scope. Click here for more information on the collaboration and to view the report.

This type of collaborative (also known as “participatory” or “action”) research differs from a typical academic study in that it requires both the academic and industry partners to participate in the inquiry process. Ideally, it involves co-creating knowledge that is relevant to both sides and that is immediately applicable.

Lessons Learned

Although academic-industry collaboration holds great promise, it is not yet commonly practiced. We believe challenges exist in undertaking this type of collaboration, due to very different cultures. In academia, the goals of research are to create knowledge that can contribute to the literature and theory, and then disseminate it through peer-reviewed journals. In industry, the goals are typically to drive organizational action on the ground—in the form of innovation, organizational growth or improved effectiveness. Charting a middle ground (a “win-win”) between these two divergent goals requires managing multiple tensions, including the collaboration process and project outputs.

Action researchers have no single, universal template to follow in pursuit of this win-win. But here are three lessons learned for academic-industry research:

Balance divergent academic and corporate timelines.

Corporate timelines, operating on a quarterly basis, tend to be much shorter and more rigid than academic timelines. (For example, publishing a peer-reviewed article typically takes up to a year.) Furthermore, the collaboration process itself is time-consuming. Additional work may be required early in the project planning process to secure the necessary approvals and agreements. During the data collection, analysis and validation phases, additional work and time are needed to facilitate regular discussions of project findings with team members on both sides. We recommend factoring these considerations into the project timeline at the start.

Know thy audience.

The collaborative research process necessarily involves in-depth and continuous dialogue. We exchange valuable insights (such as the company partner sharing the company’s unique values), identify gaps, test out ideas, problem-solve and validate our findings. But this requires tailoring the data communication to each side in a way that focuses on what is most valuable for the target audience. For example, when communicating to company team members, including discussions about topics such as forecasted trends might be helpful.

Maximize impact.

Along with communicating the findings to an academic audience, consider outreach to other corporate practitioners in the field. Brainstorm ways to communicate your project findings in practitioner-facing publications, blog articles and industry conferences. Explore opportunities to further integrate (or “socialize”) the project findings into other areas of the company.

As more and more corporations build their strategies around sustainable solutions, many opportunities exist for academia to support these industry goals. Although we found this work to be challenging, the reward is in knowing that we have contributed to a new way of thinking about measuring corporations’ social impact.