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Cranfield research into organisational outcomes of executive development wins award for impact

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The research underpinning Cranfield School of Management’s work to positively affect organisations through developing their talent at all levels has been recognised with a prestigious award that speaks to the depth and breadth of its impact.

Design for Impact™ was conceived by Dr Wendy Shepherd, Director of Individual and Organisational Impact within Cranfield Executive Development (CED), during her DBA studies in the School of Management as a way to understand, monitor and measure impact of executive learning at the organisational level, thus allowing for better business outcomes.

Five years on, its principles are an underpinning philosophy that informs all of CED’s work, allowing its leaders to create learning interventions that deliver tangible value for clients and enable understanding of why and how these outcomes were created.

Its extensive impact has also been recognised by the Association of MBAs (AMBA) and the Business Graduates Association (BGA), who together have awarded Dr Shepherd’s thesis their DBA Impact Prize for 2021.

Mark Threlfall, Director of Cranfield Executive Development, said:

“For us, it has always been a real positive to know that the processes we are using are built on doctoral research output, meaning that they have been peer-reviewed and rigorously assessed by academics outside of Cranfield.

“This award speaks to not only the quality of Wendy’s thesis itself, but also to the quality of the practical application of that learning within our organisation.”

Joining Cranfield from industry, where she had spent a lot of time looking at her organisation’s value proposition, Dr Shepherd reports being surprised by what she discovered.

She said: “People were relatively comfortable talking about the impact on individuals who go through development, but were less comfortable when it came to the organisational value proposition. There would be this kind of tumbleweed moment, and they would end up just saying: ‘It’s complicated’. I thought that was a real missed opportunity.

“So, the objective for me was to help us develop the value proposition around the organisational case for executive development. I wanted to peer inside the black box and start to pull apart some of that complexity and extract those common things that we know from our experience that organisations gain when they have people go on our programmes, then work out how we can track those things.”

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The outcome was a practice called Design for Impact™, where – rather than viewing impact as an issue of measurement – it is seen as an issue of the design and good management of programmes. The impact process is then monitored and managed on an ongoing basis, allowing for the programme leader to address any issues during its running and therefore maximise outcomes.

Dr Shepherd continued:

“I’m very grateful to CED for sponsoring my research in the first place, and then for taking a real interest in doing something with the findings. It is very rewarding to be able to offer insights that have been missing within a practice for a long time.

“Since completing the DBA, we’ve continued to look at how that understanding of impact can inform our practices going forwards. There’s a lot of work that goes into completing a doctorate and what CED has done and is doing as a result of my work makes it all worthwhile.”

Professor Richard Kwiatkowski was one of Dr Shepherd’s DBA supervisors.

He said: “We are sometimes asked what the difference is between doing a DBA and a PhD. On the academic side, the rigor and contribution to new thinking and knowledge are similar, but a DBA also requires you to demonstrably and deliberately inform real world practice as a result of your work.  This is exactly what Cranfield stands for – ‘Knowledge into Action’ – and this award-winning application of design thinking is contributing to the upskilling agenda at senior levels with significant employers across the world.

“The quality of Wendy’s thesis, and the resulting impact it has had across executive education, is testament to the quality and rigour of our DBA programme.  It was a pleasure to supervise Dr Shepherd, and I’m delighted that her excellent work has been recognised externally in this way.”

Dr Nicky Yates, Director of Doctoral Programmes at Cranfield School of Management, added:

“We are exceptionally proud of Wendy and the research she produced. She is an outstanding example of exactly what we would like our DBA graduates and their research to be: academically rigorous and practically impactful. Her research applied academic rigour and theory to an important practical problem, producing a thesis of an exceptionally high standard academically. The results of the research have now gone on and will continue to make a significant impact to the work done in CED here at Cranfield, and in the sector more widely. Congratulations on your award Wendy!”

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