I was recently at the Performance Measurement Association conference, where with colleagues we presented three papers – I was involved in one of them. It was a predominantly academic conference, with a sprinkling of practitioners, and it seemed to exhibit the worst and best of academia.
One of my colleagues came out of a workshop presented by a leading academic, and told me that business had solved the problems presented by the academic ten years ago. I heard that comment more than once – tellingly, by people who had not been in academia for some time. Nothing seems to have changed as the world around them has evolved. One of the papers my colleagues presented was a deep dive on an intervention they have done for a whole city administration, being one of a dataset of 102 interventions, so there was a lot of data. The comment that stuck in my mind, again from an academic, was that he would not consider the techniques used until there had been a longitudinal study. He was missing the point. No one was going to wait for that. Business and practitioners like me want results now. Typically for academia, it needs testing and testing again. Typically for business, they will sacrifice the best solution later for a better solution now.
This accurately mirrored a recent email discussion with a distinguished Professor in the USA. I have done some work on business and had some results based on 30 years empirical research. He commented that there hadn’t been any academic work in this area. I wondered if this was a problem at all, and if it was, I didn’t think it was mine. For me, all I want is something that will help business to move forward. Longitudinal studies and the like have their place, but I wonder if, in this fast paced agile world, there isn’t another method of producing the academic rigour required.
The best of academia was also on show at the conference. A keynote speaker described how they had a theory, untested, went to a company, and the theory evolved as they worked with the company but the company got results immediately and those results improved as the theory became refined. The company was happy to be used as a guinea pig, as it got more and more benefit for the time and effort it was expending, and the University got a faster, more refined result from its research.
We constantly hear that we live in a VUCA world – where the pace is ever-increasing, and volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguities abound. Business cannot wait for longitudinal studies and won’t wait. Universities are producing the entrepreneurs and managers of tomorrow – people who need to be equipped to deal with today’s world. If academia wants to remain relevant, it can’t use methodologies that worked when there was more time. It needs to adopt methodologies which match the current world.