Enhancing research ideas: a new approach for young scholars

In the realm of academia, the pursuit of groundbreaking research ideas remains crucial yet challenging. Stefan Stremersch, renowned for his pioneering work as Professor of Marketing at Erasmus School of Economics, emphasises the need for unconventional thinking. His latest publication in the International Journal of Research in Marketing - "How can academics generate great research ideas? Inspiration from ideation practice" - introduces a transformative approach. 

Stremersch's method not only fosters originality but also enhances research effectiveness. For young researchers, embracing this approach promises to invigorate scholarly pursuits and contribute significantly to advancing scientific frontiers. This article is essential reading for those eager to propel their research beyond conventional boundaries and make a lasting impact in their fields. Read on for an interview with Stefan Stremersch about his research or read his article "How can academics generate great research ideas? Inspiration from ideation practice".

You are a staunch proponent of conceptual research, yet many young researchers are hesitant to embark on such projects. What would you say to them?

In 2010 Yadav wrote in the Journal of Marketing how conceptual articles had come to be increasingly rare. Sadly, that is still true. Reluctance by young scholars is caused by several factors: they avoid risk, their skill set becomes increasingly narrow, and many universities are not set up to incentivise such work. 

Still, these studies can have immense paybacks to individual careers and research fields. By their very nature, conceptual articles can have a broader scope because unlike empirical papers they are not limited to the possibilities offered by a dataset. They shift minds and are important for theory development because they can take more degrees of freedom in their theoretical elaboration. The paper I published in 2002 with Gerard Tellis on the concept of strategic bundling of products and prices remains my most cited paper to this day. It was voted as that year’s best paper in the Journal of Marketing by its editorial review board. All scholars who researched bundling afterwards see it as a groundbreaking paper. Thus, we need to incentivise people better to write such papers and coach them better while they do so. 

‘Conceptual articles shift minds and are important for theory development’

More and more, minds (also at Erasmus School of Economics) are maturing to stop just counting publications or citations — as recommended in a lead article Nuno Camacho and I wrote for the Journal of Marketing (published in 2021) —  as opposed to actually read papers of colleagues that are up for promotion and judge them on their qualitative merits. Why not address the higher risk of such papers? Why not give colleagues credit for rejected papers that we feel got inappropriately rejected for publication? A lot of frame-breaking work is initially rejected. For example, consider how long it took George Ackerlof to publish his groundbreaking Lemons paper. And this won him the Nobel Prize in Economics!

What inspired you to get into the topic of idea generation and design?

My expertise brings me into contact with many sophisticated companies. Over the years I have come to realise that scholars in research institutions can learn a lot from the way companies innovate. Applying those practices to ideation can increase the originality and effectiveness of the way scholars come up with research ideas. We need more research about research.

What can researchers learn from how companies come up with ideas?

Inspired by practice, I have developed solutions that can be applied in an academic context. I divided the process into three phases: domain exploration, domain immersion, and research project design. 

For example, companies increase their chances of original ideas by ideating across domains. Involving people from diverse backgrounds further enhances this. In my experience, many marketing academics are at risk of focusing on areas where they have done work before instead of looking broader and spanning boundaries. I would like to encourage them to do something strange for a change.

‘Sometimes the wildest ideas that at first didn’t seem feasible later concur with the market’

Companies have also left behind the isolated “lab” model and increasingly immerse themselves in the customer and stakeholder context in ideation processes, thereby opening up a rich variety of sources for inspiration. In my view, immersion in customer contexts is also pivotal for research success by marketing academics and other scholars. Therefore, I advocate learning from other parties outside the university. As such, obtained ideas can be worked on in isolation with focus and sufficient rigor.

Lastly, companies possess the “skill to kill” their bad research ideas. Traditionally, academics were taught to persist with a research idea. Companies are much bolder in deciding that scarce resources should not be allocated to projects that turn out to be suboptimal. They have developed structured processes for triaging good from bad ideas. For example, they use pitch templates that ensure bad ideas that are pitched well do not push out good ideas that are pitched badly. They also use scoring templates for picking out the best ideas.

What other advice do you have for researchers to avoid habitual thinking?

They can use dark horsing, a concept derived from horse races. White horses are considered most likely to win, while dark horses often get overlooked as potential race winners. In ideation, we should not limit ourselves to well-known and safe ideas. We know from the literature that more ideas ultimately result in better ideas. But also that sometimes the wildest ideas that at first didn’t seem feasible later concur with the market. Nobody believed in Lithium batteries for automotive purposes, until Elon Musk (Tesla) showed everyone was wrong. Therefore, companies use dark horsing to give people a license to go out on a limb and generate ideas that seem at first crazy but some of those may land after all.

Additionally, researchers should feel more inclined to share their ideas in early stages of their research process. The academic publication process in marketing is a long one, so scholars fear their ideas may be stolen if they are shared early on. However, seeing or hearing other’s ideas can inspire and help overcome mental barriers. Nowadays there is a range of options that can facilitate sharing in an academic context. In my paper, I outline various ways that not only help to discuss ideas safely but may also force scholars to come up with more of them, rather than just stopping at the fine-tuning of a single one.

Would you recommend your ideation approach for all scholars regardless of their field or the stage in their career?

The approach is meant to be quite universal. We have deployed it in doctoral seminars in 12 different institutions including a pure science setting with chemistry PhD students. However, the way it is applied will be different for a PhD student compared to a more experienced scholar.

What role could Artificial Intelligence (AI) play in all of this?

Depending on the topic, AI could help to analyse trends and how they relate to each other. In the future, AI may well monitor trends of interest for the researcher and suggest new ones. Unsurprisingly, studies on idea generation show that AI comes up with a higher volume of ideas compared to humans. As a result of the sheer amount, it will also deliver high-quality ideas. However, AI seems particularly suited to incremental work and inventories of existing research. Humans come up with more radical ideas. The aforementioned dark horsing can help scholars to capitalise on this comparative advantage.

Stefan Stremersch, Professor of Marketing at Erasmus School of Economics
More information

For more in-dept knowledge on how to do research, please take a look at Stefan Stremersch' latest article "How can academics generate great research ideas? Inspiration from ideation practice". 

For more information, please contact Ronald de Groot, Media & Public Relations Officer at Erasmus School of Economics: rdegroot@ese.eur.nl, +31 6 53 641 846.

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