Crossing the research–practice divide

How does research really make a difference to society and the economy? Is it the same as the ‘impact’measured by the UK’s Research Excellence Framework? And how can academics justify spending time with practitioners when they are under constant pressure to publish in 4* journals?

These were among many questions raised by Professor Laura Empson in her presentation during a sub-plenary session on Doing meaningful organizational research for a broader audience at EGOS (European Group for Organizational Studies) 2017. The presentation introduced some themes explored in a forthcoming paper, ‘My Liminal Life: Intellectual Journeys Across the Research-Practice Divide’, in Academic-Practitioner Research Partnerships: Developments, Complexities and Opportunities, J. Bartunek, & J. McKenzie (Eds): Routledge.

Drawing on her own experience as founder and director of the Cass Centre for Professional Service Firms, Empson discussed the benefits derived from Centre meetings by senior practitioners, PhD students, and fellow academics. Senior practitioners say they ‘love the exposure to new ideas and new ways of looking at things provided by academics who are actually keen to be challenged by non-academics’. PhD students ‘treasure the opportunity to meet with practitioners who have been exposed to different experiences than the academics we doctoral students interact with on a daily basis’. And academics are ‘attracted by the chance to hear practitioners speak about that which is “unsayable in public”’. She also described the direct impact of advisory work: as a client told her, ‘With your assistance I think we have changed the firm for the better forever and you have been a critical part of that process’.

However, there are also a range of potential pitfalls and caveats associated with practitioner engagement, not least sudden changes in institutional priorities. There can be identity conflicts. And Empson identified four types of ‘problem practitioners’.

Empson described how she managed these problems by developing her own ‘rules of engagement’, and urged other academics to do the same. Above all, she concluded, it was important to ‘keep focused on learning and publishing’.