Ideas: Where do they come from?

An academician’s currency is ideas. As social scientists, we are supposed to come up with new ideas, new theories, new insights about our world. We are supposed to continuously strive to uncover the next big idea. Every conference you go to, every interaction you have with a fellow researcher, every paper you write, one question stays common: what is the idea you are working on and what is new in it?

So, where do ideas come from? Reflecting on my journey as a research for last 12 years or so, and the interactions I have had with scholars from different parts of the world, I thought I must pen down some of the things that highly innovative researchers do in order to come up with new ideas. I list them below in no specific order.

1. Observations and experience: The first source for good ideas is observation and experience. Not many of us know that Charles Darwin, the author of the famous ‘theory of evolution and natural selection’ spent five-years on a ship names HMS Beagle where he took exhaustive notes about his observations and theoretical speculations. Puzzled by the geographical distribution of wildlife and fossils he collected on the voyage, Darwin began detailed investigations, and in 1838 conceived his theory of natural selection.

As a researcher, we must remain open to experiences and observations. It is our experiences that will give us useful and relevant ideas for research. Ideas that originate from our personal experiences and observations are the ones that sustain our motivation to work on them over time. A good social researcher must observe important developments in individuals, organisations or societies (depending upon the area of work) and must try to address the associated challenges and problems. Sherlock Holmes once very rightly said, “How much an observant man might learn by an accurate and systematic examination of all that came his way”.

2. Interactions with professionals: It is very easy to close oneself in your room/office, become armchair thinkers, and be cut-off from reality. Instead, researchers must find ways to talk to professionals, listen to their concerns and experiences. I have found it extremely stimulating to hear from professionals their experiences of running their teams and organisations, and the challenges they face. Talking to professionals is a great source of getting new and fresh ideas.

I recommend that whenever it is possible, try to attend talks/conferences organised by industry bodies such as the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM), etc.

Also, always be on the lookout for consulting or training opportunities. Such opportunities provide a very good platform to interact and build relationships with practitioners. Lastly, whenever possible, invite a practitioner to give a guest talk at your college or invite them to co-teach some course with you. Such initiatives can provide opportunities to interact and learn from the world of practice.

3. Reading literature: When I started out in my PhD, I was told that I must read literature to understand about the research gaps and the areas in which I must work. I often advise PhD students to do the same. However, I would like to mention that when we think of literature, we must focus on two kinds of literature:

a. Practitioner literature: Reading practitioner literature is a good place to understand the issues that practitioners face in their professional life. You must plan to read one or two business magazines and a business newspaper on a regular basis in order to understand what practitioners and professionals say, feel and believe about important aspects in management.

The problem of basing your research on academic literature alone is that every paper would give you a research topic to study. You will find research gaps but will not be able to figure out which ones are really relevant and important to focus upon.

b. Academic literature: Once you have a good sense of your research context and possible research question(s) through your interactions with professionals and reading practitioner literature, you should next read academic literature and understand what is known about the research question(s) you have identified and what is still unknown. Reading the academic literature really helps in clearly stating your research gaps. Also, when you read academic literature, try to read only good journals (that have high ranking on journal quality lists).

Practitioner literature helps you find relevant research questions and academic literature helps you narrow down to one or two specific research questions. Reading the two kinds of literature in tandem can help you clearly understand what is it that has been done in your area of interest.

4. Be a part of research group: Lastly, become a member of a research group or network where you can share your views, your queries and seek help and support from community members. We, at Skillsedge, are trying to set up one such community. Research needs support and help. Reach out and seek help from others. Form a group at your college and also outside. Discuss ideas, critique ideas and celebrate good ideas. Discussion and collaboration are essential for good research.

One of the problems of management research is that we lack in relevance of our research. Management scholars must make use of every opportunity to bridge the divide between academia and the world of practice. It is only when we research out to practitioners, hear their experiences, observe and learn from our own experiences, will we get a better understanding of the relevant and useful ideas to pursue in our own research.

Remember, robust ideas lay the foundation of a good research.

Prof. Vishal Gupta

PS: See these videos (1, 2) where I speak about these ideas.