2018 brainfood barrett bridgingtheresearchpracticedivide featured 883x432 1

Bridging the research-practice divide

21 May 2018

The article at a glance

Academics can “talk funny,” according to many practitioners. A four-prong framework proposed in a new paper by Professor Michael Barrett of Cambridge …

Category: Insight

Academics can “talk funny,” according to many practitioners. A four-prong framework proposed in a new paper by Professor Michael Barrett of Cambridge Judge along with co-author Professor Eivor Oborn aim to help academics widen the impact of their research and reach a broader audience.

There is a refrain heard among practitioners that academics “talk funny” in language that obfuscates the real utility of their contribution. An “uncomfortable silence” often descends when practitioners listen to research findings at academic meetings. And a leading management thinker has suggested that ineffective use of theory can distort an original research idea into a “contorted, misshapen, inelegant product.”

Yet it doesn’t have to be this way, according to a new research paper co-authored by Michael Barrett, Professor of Information Systems & Innovation Studies and Director of Research at Cambridge Judge Business School.

“Understand how we develop research contributions which go beyond conversations in the academic field is an enduring challenge,” says the paper published in the journal Information and Organization. “We call for researchers to be reflective as to how different forms of expertise can be drawn on during collaborative relationships to bridge the research-practice divide.”

Specifically, the paper proposes a four-pronged framework to help academics widen the impact of their research and reach a broader audience: maintaining critical distance, promoting deeper engagement, developing prescience, and achieving hybrid practices.

The paper – entitled “Bridging the research-practice divide: harnessing expertise collaboration in making a wider set of contributions” – is co-authored by Michael Barrett of Cambridge Judge Business School and Eivor Oborn of Warwick Business School.

Michael Barrett discusses each of the paper’s four approaches to widen research impact:

1. Maintaining critical distance

While a matter of debate, many academics choose to maintain a critical distance from practice in order to retain control over how investigations are framed or guard against being derailed by trivial problems. Yet there is a structured way to achieve real impact through ongoing dialogue with practitioners – including forums and other workshops that facilitate boundary crossing of research ideas – that don’t compromise academic independence or the ability to offer constructive criticism to practitioners. Maintaining critical distance shouldn’t be confused with remaining distant, and can involve mutual learning across researcher-practitioner communities.

2. Promoting deeper engagement

This strategy involves academics immersing themselves in another domain, perhaps during a sabbatical period, which brings practical experience while allowing an academic to become more fluent in the language of practitioners. At Cambridge Judge Business School, for example, our faculty has been embedded in general hospitals in Britain and a military hospital in Afghanistan, to learn first-hand about healthcare operations and how high-performing teams operate in difficult circumstances. For a researcher, this sort of experience allows the development of innovative approaches that go beyond the “gap spotting” that can often form the basis of purely academic research – and society benefits from this broader approach.

3. Developing prescience

The term “prescience” refers to foresight a researcher may have in anticipating and conceptualising significant problems that might arise in different domains, and this can be useful in the intellectual framing of research. Developing such a practice may enhance the receptivity of the ultimate findings of the research among diverse audiences – and can be an important way to widen the impact of academic research. For academics, one key advantage from such a technique is to anticipate new challenges that a practitioner may face, by being able to approach them from a wider perspective than a traditional academic one. One area that strikes us as particularly ripe for this sort of approach is how academic advances in Big Data can help automobile manufacturing in future development of artificial intelligence, the connected car and the Internet of Things.

4. Achieving hybrid practices

Bridging the academic-practice divide needn’t be limited to researchers and practitioners in the same field, but can benefit from bringing in people from different fields in both practice and academia – which can launch new evaluation techniques and routes of inquiry. Computer-aided building design in a good example of this, while a new field of systems biology has been formed by cancer researchers working with computational computer scientists. As we say in the paper, this approach has “unique potential” for new knowledge to be developed in both domains – and even young academics should explore novel work of high impact early in their careers thereby developing the capability to contribute to both their field and more widely.