Bridge the Academic Practice Gap with Partnerships

Two people shaking hands. We see only the hands with wrists covered by suit jackets.

In June I gave a keynote at the Academia Meets Practice (AMP) conference in Tampa. This hybrid conference is organized by the alumni of our USF Executive Doctor of Business Administration program. Given the theme of the conference, I decided to talk about the academic practice divide that so many in the business world are talking about. One of the points I made was that we could bridge the academic practice gap with partnerships between academics and practitioners.

The Nature of the Gap

In my field of industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology, people often talk about the disconnect between the work of academics and that of practitioners. The academics note that practitioners do not spend enough time keeping up with the academic literature. The practitioners say that there is little in that literature that is relevant to practice. As someone who has lived in both worlds and currently inhabits both, my perspective is that “the gap” is due to incompatibility between the work of academics and demands of practice. I see little in contemporary academic literature that is actionable. Rather than providing insights about organizational phenomena that practitioners could apply to their problems, academic papers deal with abstract theoretical ideas in a way that is just not helpful. For example, we know that job dissatisfaction drives employee turnover. Useful research would help us understand how best to maximize satisfaction in a way that results in greater retention. A study that provides a test of a model that in theory might explain why satisfaction is linked to turnover is interesting from an academic perspective but is not going to help a practicing manager solve a turnover problem. For that we need a different kind of research that is focused on organizational problems rather than academic theories. The ultimate in actionable research is the intervention study that demonstrates the effectiveness of a solution to a practical problem.

Seeking Practitioner Benefactors

Over my career I have been involved in many projects that were conducted in organizations. One of the most difficult problems is finding a field site to conduct the study. Generally, we academics, many of whom are doctoral students, would design a study to address our theoretical issues. We would then shop a site by asking practitioners to provide access to their people, often to complete surveys. We would offer the practitioner a report of the results as an inducement.

I call this academic-practice connection the benefactor approach. The academic designs a study and seeks a practitioner willing to allow access to their organization. The practitioner is a passive participant in the project, allowing access and receiving a report of results. In some cases, the practitioner will review the procedure and make some changes, e.g., vetoing some questions on a survey, but in most cases input is limited. Needless to say, it can be difficult to find a benefactor, and even when you do, there are severe restrictions on what you can accomplish. Perhaps this is one reason so much research in IO psychology and management relies on one-shot surveys.

Bridge the Academic Practice Gap with Partnerships

If the goal is to produce actionable research to bridge the academic practice gap, better is the partner approach. In this case the academic would seek a practitioner-partner who has a similar interest in a problem. An academic interested in turnover, for example, should seek practitioners who are struggling with a retention problem. The ideal partner is someone who values evidence-based approaches and is open to conducting research to find solutions. A team is formed that includes academics and practitioners to co-design and co-conduct research that has the potential to solve a practical problem and produce a publication.

For the academic the advantages of partnerships include:

  • Access. The practitioner-partner holds the key to field settings to conduct research. They sometimes provide internal data, even sensitive data, that academics rarely see, such as financials.
  • Practitioner expertise. We as academics do not know what we do not know. Our ideas and theories about how things operate are not always correct. We benefit from having a practitioner’s fresh perspectives on issues as they ask questions we never thought of. They understand the context in which our phenomena occur, and have a broad perspective about unintended consequences. They also know what is feasible and what is not realistic.
  • Resources to conduct the study. When the project is addressing an important internal problem, resources will be provided by the organization. In one of my intervention projects, we got assistance from a curriculum specialist, event planner, organizational development director, and videographer to create professional videos.

For the practitioner the advantages include:

  • Access to a leading expert on a problem. Academics spend a career studying and thinking about problems. They know the research literature and the current state of knowledge of a problem.
  • Methodological expertise. Academics know how to conduct research, including how to design studies, how to measure things, and how to analyze data.
  • Publication. Many practitioners would love to be coauthors on publications, but the demands of work leave little time. The academic partner lives in the publish-or-perish world where this is a major part of their job.

Since retiring from a full-time academic job, most of my research projects are partnerships. My partners have been high level executives who are fully involved in our projects. What I learn goes far beyond our research data, as I get to interact with the experts who live with the issues we study. I have seen the products of our research get rolled out and become part of an organization. Research partnerships do not only produce better research, but they expand what it means for that research to have impact.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto at Pexels

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