• The Academic Practitioner Divide

    Hello, everyone:

    Stephanie, thank you for the concise summary of how politics can be characterized in organizations in your post. I'm looking forward to studying that later in Organizational Change, and your post and references provide a useful heads-up.

    Anyone: Speaking of Organizational Change, I'd like to return to the issue of the academic-practitioner divide. I still hope to discuss this in light of career theory eventually, but perhaps some of the takeaways from the post below can also be applied to the way academics and practitioners might advance method versus outcome approaches to studying organizational change.

    Method vs. Outcome Approaches to Organizational Change: Academic and Practitioner Perspectives

    The idea that organizations exist for a purpose – i.e. to accomplish certain goals and/or objectives is fundamental to the most basic definitions of “organization” (Hucynski, 1991, Statt, 1991, Daft, 1991; in Davey, 2003). It follows, then, that when organizations seek to change, then the implicit need is for approaches that specify how change “should” be brought about rather than how change “was” brought about.” This the essential distinction between normative versus descriptive approaches, respectively (Legge, 1984). Normative (method) approaches ask “how should” and can also be characterized as prescriptive or process.

    So then, if organizations require prescriptive approaches in order to pursue their goals and objectives, what does this mean for academia? Allyn & Bacon (2000) point out that social theory exists to help us visualize complexity and explain “why” things happen. This is what academic researchers – i.e. “theorists” do. In pursuing and utilizing theory, organizational theorists must explain “how” theory ties variables or constructs together, that is, “why” things happen; and this view is consistent with Legge’s (1984) descriptive approach (outcome). (Weick, 1989; in Sutton & Staw, 1995). (Just as an aside, it’s worth mentioning here that Van Maanen’s (1989; in Sutton & Staw, 1995) call for a 10-year moratorium on theoretical papers was motivated by a desire to create a foundation for arriving at better theory – not doing away with theory itself.)

    While the desire to elucidate “why” is at the heart of what academics do, academics who rest on that lofty idea may be doing so at their own peril. They have at least a couple good reasons not to be so ready to dismiss practitioners’ need for prescriptive work. One of those reasons is funding. Susman & Evered (1978; in Rynes, Bartunek & Daft, 2003) say that as academic research methods have become increasingly more sophisticated, they have also become increasingly less useful to practitioners. Abrahamson (1996; in Rynes, Bartunek & Daft, 2003) are among those who believe that this disconnect is one reason that practitioners may be turning to private consulting firms, which limits the funding available to academics. In colloquial terms, this could be compared to cutting off ones nose to spite one’s face. But the issue goes even beyond funding – to the generation of knowledge itself, which is where academics have vested interest. Amabile et al., (2001; in Rynes, Bartunek and Daft, 2003) suggest that practitioner involvement fast-tracks and enhances the quality of research. In fact, Bartunek (1988; in Rynes et al, 2003) says that practitioners’ alternative-view insights often lead to new theoretical breakthroughs. Rynes et al (2003) also suggest the “creative tension” between differing perspectives speeds the creation of knowledge.

    If academics might benefit from acknowledging practitioners’ needs for prescriptive approaches to change, then we must also ask whether practitioners’ have some ownership in not paying enough attention to the academic perspective – i.e. the value of descriptive approaches to change – i.e. understanding what “did” happen instead of trying to figure out what “should” happen. Referring again to “peril,” Macchiavelli (1532; in Bartlett, 1992) pointed out that there is always a great deal of it in trying to introduce a new order of change. To this, we might add a couple of other popular colloquialisms: “The past is prologue” and “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” If practitioners are not relying on evidence-based research, which can only come from studying “why” and “how” outcomes occurred, then are they not at risk to repeat the mistakes of the past? Abrahamson (1996; in Rynes et al) is among those who say that practitioners seeking to develop management strategies and practices do not typically consult researchers. This sounds like an invitation for at least a measure of peril.

    Finally, we can go beyond the question of what the two perspectives have to offer one another and question whether it’s really an artificial distinction to separate method and outcome at all. Here, we find support in characterizations of organizational change that seem to blend method (process) and outcome. Lewin’s (1947) well-known three-stage theory of change – unfreeze, stabilize, refreeze – prescribes a process and implies that it pauses at a place where outcome must be recognized. Etzioni (1961; in Zaltman & Duncan, 1997; in Davey, 2003) built upon that by introducing ideas of equilibrium and force, solidifying the presence of both process and outcome in approaches to change.

    And so, the conclusion here is that academics and practitioners need one another – not only for the greater good of knowledge creation and transfer – but also in service of meeting their own needs.

    Primary References
    Allyn & Bacon. (2000). Science and Research. In W.L. Neuman (ed), Social Research Methods: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches. Needham Heights, MA.

    Davey, K. (2003). Organizational change subject guide. The University of London Press: London.

    Rynes, S, Bartunek, J, Daft, R. (2003). Across the great divide: Knowledge creation and transfer between practitioners and academics. Academy of Management Journal, 44: 340-355.

    Sutton, R. & Staw, B. (1995). What theory is not. Administrative Science Quarterly, 40: 371-384.

    Secondary References
    Abrahamson, E. (1996). Management fashion. Academy of Management Review, 21: 254-285.

    Macchavelli. M. (1532). The Prince. Remainder of reference unavailable.
    Amabile, T, Patterson, C, Mueller, J. Wojcik, T, Odomirok, P, Marsh, M, Kramer, S. (2001). Academic-practitioner collaboration in management research: A case of cross-profession collaboration. Academy of Management Journal, 44: 418-431.

    Bartunek, J. (1988). The dynamics of personal and organizational reframing. In R.E. Quinn & K.S. Cameron (Eds.), Paradox and transformation: Toward a theory of change in organization and management: 137-162. Cambridge, MA: Ballinger.

    Bartlett, J. (1992). Kaplan J (ed). Familiar Quotations. Little, Brown and company: Boston, Toronto, London.

    Daft, R. (1987). Organization theory and design. St. Paul: West Publishing.

    Etzioni, A. (1961). A comparative analysis of complex organizations. New York: Free Press of Glencoe.

    Huczynski, A & Buchanan, D. (1991). Organizational Behavior: An Introductory Text (2nd ed). Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall.

    Legge, K. (1984). Evaluating Planned Organizational Change. London: Academic Press.

    Lewin, K. (1947). Frontiers in group dynamics. In D. Cartwright (ed.), (1952) Field theory in social science. London: Social Science Paperbacks.

    Statt. (1991). Reference unavailable.

    Susman, G, & Evered, R. (1978). An assessment of the scientific merits of action research. Administrative Science Quarterly, 23: 582-603.

    Van Maanen, J. (1989). Some notes on the importance of writing in organization studies. Harvard Business School Research Colloquium: 27-23. Boston: Harvard Business School.

    Weick, K. (1989). Theory construction as disciplined imagination. Academy of Management Review, 14: 516-531.

    Zaltman, G, Duncan, R. (1977). Strategies for planned change. New York: Wiley.
    This article was originally published in forum thread: The Academic Practitioner Divide started by Jan View original post