Sunday, 8 August 2010

Engaging Encounters at the AOM on Talent Management and Engagement

I'm posting from the annual conference of the Academy of Management in Montreal, where I took part in a workshop organized by a close colleagues of mine, Kerry Grigg from Australia, who has recently crossed the academic-practitioner divide.  Kerry's intention in this workshop was facilitate a discussion on the problems that many academics have in engaging with practitioners by bringing together four practically-oriented academics and forty plus practitioners, practitioner/academics and academics new to the profession.  My thanks go to her for the excellent facilitation and thought that went into this engaging encounter, which provoked some excellent interaction with the audience and allowed me to work (again) with Paul Sparrow from Lancaster and Elaine Farndale from Penn State  and Tilberg, and to work with for the first time with  John Boudreau from the University of Southern California, whose books have also featured on this blog.

Although this divide has been explored a number of times in the past, we don't seem to be much closer to a resolution.  The increasingly dominant publish or perish culture that dominates the lives of academics working in business schools in the USA and UK has had the paradoxical effect of creating disincentives for academics to get too close to practice.  For example, it is difficult to get published in top journals using (a) the research methods most valued by practitioners, i.e., single case studies, qualitative research, action research etc., on (b) the topics of the day of most interest to practitioners, talent management and engagement being such two examples.   Practitioners, on their part are usually looking for results that are 'roughly right but fast' and wish to use these results to secure some kind of competitive advantage, either for their organizations or in career terms.  At minimum they do not want to be disadvantaged as a result of their links with academics, which can be the case when results are unearthed that show these practitioners, or more likely their senior managers, to be part of the problem rather than the solution.

What came through strongly in terms of advice was the need for younger academics to do a major risk assessment before tying their careers to research that can go dangerously wrong, so preventing them from publishing.   They need to recognise that they are entering into an exchange relationship, in which both parties have to gain for the relationship to flourish.  This means that the 'terms of trade' have to be made explicit at the beginning of the relationship, and the lines in the sand clearly delineated.  What happens if the results of the research show that organization or key individuals in a bad light - which is often the case in engagement research?  Typically this exchange is best approached in a gradual manner, perhaps through pilot studies that allow both parties to learn about each other and about the benefits of working together.  

What has also to be made clear is the distinction between a consulting and a research relationship.  At their best, academics can produce consulting advice to organizations on par or better than anything produced by the major consultants  - for example, providing insights into the nature and factors influencing employee engagement, or the alignment between HR and strategic advantage.  Consulting (and executive educations) can also lead to follow up projects with major academic spin-offs. Consulting, however, is based on a different kind of relationship, which places academics in a role of service providers and that needs to be recognised by unwary scholarly entrepreneurs.  The advice from the panel for less experienced academics was to ensure they and the service commissioners understood the distinction and for both parties to be ready to walk away if the terms of engagement didn't feel or look right.

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