The Researcher’s Relationship with the Non-Academic World

In 1991, Fortune published a three-page article on the ‘third generation idiot’. By this provocative term, the review described a 28-year-old MBA student reporting to a 30-year-old assistant professor, himself supervised by a 35-year- old associate professor. None of the three had ever worked outside the academic world, or only for a very short period of time. Beyond the obvious provocation, this picture revealed a serious problem.

How can one teach enterprise management, let alone initiate research pro­jects of interest to anyone outside the academic microcosm, without having any experience of working within a company? How could one link together theo­ries, concepts and models to real organizational problems, without having any kind of professional relationships outside the academic world?

All researchers must work on finding a solution to this problem, and build networks that enable them to maintain strong academic links to their field of expertise without losing contact with the corporate world. An individual bal­ance should be established between different possible means of contact with organizational reality. Here are some examples.

Internships This is probably the most effective way to experience the non­academic world. The researcher works full-time inside an organization, and for a period long enough to become fully integrated. Many academics take a sabbatical year or unpaid leave to broaden their knowledge with such hands-on experience.

Consulting When a researcher is taken on by an organization as a consultant, he or she is contracted to solve a particular, predefined, problem. However, in focusing on one single question, the global view and directions of the organi­zation may be lost. The consultant often remains an outsider.

Fieldwork and case studies Based on observation, interviews, or historical analysis, fieldwork and case studies force researchers out of the academic cocoon and confronts them with real organizational problems. There is, however, a risk that the researcher may have preconceived notions of the phenomenon that is to be studied, which can influence the process of data collection and the accu­racy of the study.

Continuing education Teaching an audience of organizational executives obliges a researcher to take a fresh look at the theories and concepts covered in the class. In such a case, the researcher-teacher will benefit greatly from the comments and hands-on experience of his or her executive students.

If researchers in strategic management neglect to use one or more of the methods cited above to maintain contact with the organizational world, they quickly become isolated in an ‘ivory tower’. Their research then only rarely has any impact outside academia. If they are ever obliged to leave the academic world, such researchers will find it extremely difficult to integrate into a corporate world of which they have no practical knowledge.

The problem of academic alienation from the day to day reality of working within a company is often expressed in social small-talk. The following situa­tions will be familiar to all professor-researchers:

‘So, what do you do for a living?’

‘I’m a professor and a researcher, in management.’

‘Oh really? What sort of research is there to do in management?’


‘So, what do you do for a living?’

‘I’m a professor-researcher in management.’

‘What exactly does that mean?’

‘There are two parts to it: I teach at the university and I’m writing my dissertation.’

‘Oh, I see, so you’re a student.’

‘Yes and no, because I’m already working.’

‘So, what are you going to do when you’ve finished?’

‘Same thing.’

‘Yes, but I mean, when you start working in a company.’

‘No, I’m planning to stay at the university.’

‘So you’ll be a student forever?’

‘No, I’m getting paid, it’s a job.’

‘What? I’ve never heard of students being paid!’

Whereas a negative response to such an attitude will only reinforce the walls of the ‘ivory tower’, these remarks could lead a researcher to question the role a professor-researcher should have in society. Research, methodology, episte­mology and theory are seen by many as esoteric concepts that are of no utility in dealing with actual everyday problems that arise within an organization. Consequently, researchers may decide that only research that is relevant to the academic and to the non-academic world will justify their social utility. Such pertinent research can only result from the researcher maintaining a real knowl­edge of professional reality by developing frequent and fruitful contacts with the non-academic environment.

In considering the relationship between academia and the outside world, we do not mean to establish an opposition between fieldwork and theoretic research. Retaining close ties to organizational reality is no guarantee for a suc­cessful research project, or for a successful research career. In some cases, a lack of distance may even present an obstacle to critical or conceptual reasoning, by influencing the perception of the researcher. On the other hand, a purely theo­retical work can very well prove to be a fertile source of practical applications for organizations, and stimulate invaluable reflection.

If we are to assess the social utility of professor-researchers we must consider two separate domains, and it is up to each teacher-researcher to find his or her own balance between them. The first is the academic, where ‘usefulness’ is mea­sured in terms of academic value: of the material taught and any publications and other research work carried out. The second domain is the non-academic, where ‘usefulness’ is measured by the relevance of the professor-researcher’s work to the corporate world – by the actual impact the material taught and the research undertaken has on everyday life within organizations.

Source: Thietart Raymond-Alain et al. (2001), Doing Management Research: A Comprehensive Guide, SAGE Publications Ltd; 1 edition.

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