Is there any point listening to academics?

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Recently, we’ve seen harsh words directed at academics and ‘experts’ for failing to predict with any degree of accuracy some of the major political, social and economic shifts of our time, including the election of Donald Trump, the Brexit vote, the 2008 financial crash, or the human and social consequences of mass migration.  So, the question has been, why should people bother to listen to academics?  Can they add any value to society or, closer to home, to organisations?

This is the question that I address in an article recently published in Human Resource Management Review, ‘Employee engagement: do practitioners listen to what academics have to say – and should they?’  Although the article focuses on this divide in the context of engagement, the points made are equally pertinent to meaningfulness.

In writing the article, I spoke to several consultants and policymakers in the field of engagement and asked them what they thought academics had to contribute to organisations. Their answers coalesced around three core themes:

  1. Academic research is often impenetrable to practitioners – it is written in a style and format that does not make for easy reading.
  2. Academic research often does not address current issues or topics that are of importance to practitioners – it seems to focus on very small, incremental additions to knowledge rather than the ‘big issues’ practitioners want answers to.
  3. Despite 1 and 2, academic research has the potential to make a very significant contribution to thinking and practice in organisations, if only academics were willing to step forward and show the practical applications of their research. As academic research has to reach a high quality standard, the findings of such studies are likely to be far more reliable and robust than those from other sources.

Academics are rewarded for publishing their research in scientific journals, a task that seems to get more difficult every year in the face of increasing competition and ever-rising standards.  The incentives for engaging with a practitioner audience are much more patchy, and not all academics have the time, resources or expertise to do so. Having said this, there are some fantastic and inspiring examples of collaborations between academics and practitioners that not only enable the academics to secure the publications they need, but also help and support practitioners in their work. We need much more of this type of collaboration if we are to bridge the academic-practitioner divide.

As more and more organisations and individuals become interested in meaningful work, it seems to me (although perhaps I’m biased!) that there is immense value in academics and practitioners getting together and sharing ideas about what meaningfulness looks like in practice, and how organisations can support their employees in finding meaning in their work.

You might question, though, given all that has been said about academics in the media of late, whether there is any point in practitioners turning to academics for ideas about topics such as meaningfulness. I would say that it definitely is worthwhile for several key reasons:

  • Academics have the time and resources to undertake carefully designed research studies across different organisational settings to an extent that is not possible or viable for practitioners.
  • Academics have access to just about all the previously published research on any given topic through their university libraries and on-line resources and can draw on this body of knowledge in answering questions of key importance to practitioners.
  • Academics have the training and experience to ‘stand back’ from their research and take an objective view on what it means in the context of the wider field.

Of course, there are examples of poor academic research just as there can be poor practice. However, the majority of research that is published in leading journals is the result of painstaking, detailed and methodical attention to every detail of the research process such that it is deemed to be of international relevance and importance. For these reasons, there is much for practitioners to gain by seeking out the findings of academic research. In the words of Emma Bridger, who contributed to the article, academics need to show practitioners that  “they’re not these super intelligent creatures who have no experience of the real world, they are actually normal people … that have got a lot to offer.”

One of the goals of this website is to bring academic research from around the world on meaningful work to a wider audience in order to help generate debate and mutual understanding on the topic.  See for example Mona Florian asks if work can be too meaningful?

Over coming weeks, I will be sharing findings from some other recent research studies that shed light on different aspects of meaningful and meaningless work that are especially valuable or interesting for practitioners.

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