Academics Are Important. Seriously!

Driving to Starbucks for my desperately needed Americano, I ended up stopping behind a bus. I have become so accustomed to the ubiquity of advertisements that I was surprised when I noted the bright red banner splayed on the bus’s rear. The big, bold, white letters read, “SR-22’s.” I presume somewhere beneath those letters was a telephone number one could cal to take advantage of said service, but I stopped reading (sorry, marketing people). I was lost in thought about the irony of advertizing a service that allows people to drive legally when they might otherwise be relegated to using mass transit (and reducing usage of mass transit, for that matter). At east, I think that’s what distracted me. I can’t say for certain, as the thought was pretty fleeting. I ended up thinking about the potential injustice of a system of governance that imposes a myriad of expenses on individuals and families that can least afford them. Fees associated with driving are pretty regressive in nature when you think about it. I could almost see the face of my old political science professor from my undergraduate days.

I sat in his class for a semester. Well, I was in the class for a semester technically; I could seldom be bothered to show up for class in those days. It’s a damned same too. I can think of few professors that influenced me more than he did. I think his name was Dr. Boquina. I never thanked him and I feel bad about that. Perhaps I can still correct that, but atonement is not the topic of this post. It is about the role academics can play in informing the institutions that shape our lives, especially our places of work.

You see, when Dr. Boquina wasn’t teaching young minds that would rather be hanging with their fraternity brothers (or sisters), or dealing with hangovers in the privacy of their own little apartments, he was writing about the role that opera played in political science. Or maybe his research was about the way political institutions influenced their operas. I’m not sure; I wasn’t a very engaged undergrad. Quite frankly, I didn’t care. I did not see how his research had any impact on the world in which we all struggled. Pure science absolutely had some intrinsic value to me even then, but until recently I believed that the real value could only be realized until that pure science was applied to the real world. I think I may have been at least partially mistaken.

Academics are valuable to organizations because they have the time to really think about issues organizations face. It may not seem like a whole lot, but taking time to think an issue all the way through is too often a luxury in the field.  In practice, we often seek answers that are palatable and digestible by client organizations. Similarly, conducting appropriate research for a particular solution requires more time than many are willing to spend, so we turn to self-appointed experts that speak with confidence born of insufficient insight. Before any plan is approved, it must travel through various stakeholders, decision-makers, committees and focus groups, most of which lack the expertise to make positive contributions to the solution at hand. Yet, they make “contributions” anyway. What results are programs and interventions that may or may not work, but have sufficient buy-in. In other words, we offer solutions with potentially no value other than that they are found acceptable by a bunch of non-experts.

This is why we must take some time to listen to academics. Believe it or not, practitioners and academics share many of the same goals. We all seek to understand organizations, and develop interventions to make them work better for everyone involved.  It is premature to dismiss their knowledge as impractical or out of touch. In my experience, we dismiss this research out of hand, without actually reading it. Remember, academics can examine the same challenges we do, but they do so within different constraints. Academics can seek “optimum” solutions. They can examine a problem in its entirety, where practitioners can’t.  Academics have something of remarkable value to offer, in most cases at no cost to us. So why do we insist in ignoring their knowledge?

We must look within our own organizations and accept the idea that we may not have all the answers. We have to acknowledge the scary fact that experience is not the only answer. Experience helps us with situations we have encountered before, but it can lead us astray in novel situations. Continuing with business as usual serves no one’s interest.

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~ by George Guajardo on October 6, 2009.

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