What If Research Was Like the Restaurant Industry?

A model for research?

Spend some time engaging with the service industry reveals a stark gap between what they do to deliver a product that satisfies and what research does and maybe there are lessons to learned for those of us in the scientific world. 

I’ve recently had the privilege to spend a week in the Sonoma and Napa Valley areas of Northern California. If there ever was a place devoted to food and drink, it is this part of the world.

Spending time sampling wine and exotic locally produced, handcrafted foods, beyond being enjoyable, also raises awareness of the craftsmanship that goes into a good drink or meal. From the way a food is grown or raised, prepared, delivered and consumed, it is hard not to appreciate the amount of effort that goes into making that meal a good one. Add in the restaurant, its ambiance, design, and the people there to serve the food to you and soon you are prepared to say “thanks” before every meal whether you are religious or not.

Sitting at a table looking at all that was around me, I couldn’t help but notice the finer details of my experience and wonder about why we have no equivalent in research. Whether it was the texture of the linen table cloth, the arrangement of flowers on the table across from me, the blown-glass lantern and flickering light it produced on my table, to the smell of the food, its temperature, its presentation and, of course, the taste. What about the cadence of the service? How about the way that the server introduced the menu and commented on the options for pairing a wine with each course? Restauranteurs create experiences and products and work to make sure that they are matched to what I want and how I want it now.

In research, we spend at least as much time thinking about how to produce a product that is worthwhile as farmers, ranchers, and vintners do, yet once created we do comparatively little to further develop a worthwhile experience for our end user — if we think about them at all. When was the last time a researcher — or knowledge producer (it could be a clinican sharing their knowledge — helped you to gain a deep appreciation of what they had to offer by working with where you were and what you kind of experience you were looking for?

I can say confidently that this has never happened to me. And why shouldn’t it have? Or better yet: why haven’t I done it for my audiences?

Anticipating some answers that others might give, I offer a back and forth / Q & A:

1. Position: That is not a researcher’s job. We are trained to do research, not sell ideas.

Response: Times change. I can’t think of another role, job or position that doesn’t have to adapt to changing times and where there is no accountability for the outcomes of that job to someone else. I am not suggesting that a researcher, particularly those doing more basic/foundational research, will, can or should know the myriad possible applications of that research, but the idea that they ought not have thought of some possible, eventual application is problematic. I have heard time and again that such applied thinking undermines discovery, but there is no evidence that this is the case, nor does it seem reasonable when those who pay the bills are the public. Even a discovery that makes it easier to make further discoveries is an application of translational thinking and it is time to change.

2. Position: Others don’t understand my research; it’s too complicated to explain.

Response: Any service organization that is unable to explain its purpose goes out of business. There are a lot of ideas that seemed complicated at first, but became easier to grasp once those offering such services reached out. Investing and mutual funds are two examples of complicated business models that have gained widespread purchase. Nearly every concept can be broken into pieces that can be understood by someone else. For a great example, look at the Academic Minute program on WAMC Radio where academics take one minute to share their research with the world. It can be done.

3. Position: The time I spend selling my ideas takes away from generating knowledge. I will be far less effective if I have to do one more thing.

Response: This might be true, but that is only if a researcher does all her or his own knowledge translation and communication. The service industry uses many models. Great chefs aren’t always out on the street wearing a sandwich board trying to convince you to eat at their restaurant, or romancing a dish at your table, there are specific roles that do that. But a great chef is always prepared to play that role if needed and at many great restaurants, the manager or chef surveys what is going on in the front and back of the house to make sure things are going well. In research, we don’t do this much at all. We produce knowledge and maybe share it with other producers, spending little time with other audiences and even less wondering whether we produced the right kind of research for the.  There are some models that are promising, like the knowledge broker , who can play the role of the sommelier for research , but like restaurants that have a role like this for wine, they only work when the system is in place to use those talents well. The analogy here is that there needs to be the right stock of research, the right options for using it, and a mechanism to connect the knowledge broker to the audience.

4. Position: Selling research cheapens it and makes it like a commodity and it is so much more than that.

Response: If you don’t think that there isn’t some commodification of knowledge, then maybe you need to consider what is happening to academia and the trends in research, education and publishing.  Louis Menand‘s great historical review of the North American university views the battle for ideas as a marketplace shows that this isn’t even a new phenomenon, rather its just looking different than it did before.  He has gone further to discuss the problem with PhD’s, echoing recent work published in the Economist on the disposable academic,  pointing to the commodification and professionalization of academia. Researchers may like to imagine that their ideas and work are pure, but the reason we get funding is that someone is interested in what we do for reasons that go beyond reason and science and into passion and some acknowledgement that something will be better because we ask the question. Yes, knowledge is greater than just its application, but we must acknowledge than we compete for attention and that when people pay attention to what we do, we have greater impact than if they don’t.

5. Position: There is no support for this kind of selling of research.

Response: Have you looked at the Internet? Walked into a bookstore? Perhaps turned on the TV? There is research being used all the time. Do the major grant councils pay for this? Not always. But times change (see point #1). The idea that knowledge translation should be funded by grantors is new in itself and will evolve. We need to evolve with it and, if it is not supported, do it anyway. Tweet, blog, share. There is too much information available out there to not be active in its promotion or use, otherwise our intended audiences will choose to use something else.

Restauranteurs know this. They know that no matter how good they are, there are hungry (literally!) customers and competitors who will walk down the street to another place. A Michelin star or Zagat rating this year doesn’t mean that you’ll be successful next year.

Take a moment and envision what research could look like if we handcrafted it to meet the needs of our audience, still taking the time to create art like great chefs, warm our day like a host, and treat us like royalty like a great server. What might that look like and why should we not take some queues from the diners we visit and the restaurants we visit as models for a tasty future for knowledge generation and translation.

Making our customers feel good about our product

** Photo Waitress at Il Folletto by boocal used under Creative Commons License from Flickr

** Photo Sandwich Board by zappowbang used under Creative Commons License from Flickr

3 thoughts on “What If Research Was Like the Restaurant Industry?”

  1. Cameron:

    Great, great post! I’ll be stealing almost all of it for a blog entry in the next day or two.

    If I can strain your food service analogy to the breaking point, the sommelier, when presenting a wine to the customer, focuses on the clarity, the bouquet, the mouth feel, the finish, and how it will complement the food. He doesn’t go off on a technical disquisition about the intricacies of the fermentation process or the effects of a particular vineyard’s clay soil on their 2009 Syrah harvest. Nobody cares but him.

    Similarly, the researcher or his knowledge broker have to think about the impact of the research on the end user, who is thinking, “What does this mean to me?

    1. Thanks for your comment and wonderful addition to the sommelier example! As funny as that is, there is nothing like someone with passion and care to bring something as common as wine into something almost mystical. We can learn so much from what the service industries do to make the normal so much more. By all means use, borrow, adapt and share anything that inspired you from this post!

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