The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Looking for Honey Bees

Honey Bees are the individuals who straddle the academic/commercial research divide. Professor Clive Nancarrow and Dr Julie Tinson review past attempts to bring the two worlds together and put the case for a bit of ‘speed dating’

Every so often, practitioners and academics wonder how the applied and academic communities might work together more closely. A paper given seven years ago at an AQRP meeting in London, for instance, focused on how the qualitative practitioner and academic communities could live symbiotically and so ‘nurture each other’ (1). The symbiotic relationship of the bee and a flower was presented as a useful analogy — a relationship between two species for mutual benefit.

To understand how symbiosis might be achieved, we need to understand the mindsets of the two communities and what might be of mutual interest and value. We will also take the opportunity to reflect on a case study and learn from the IPA initiative that attempted to bring academics and practitioners together.

Mindsets

Inevitably by attempting to describe the mindsets of academics and practitioners we oversimplify and ignore the variety within each community. For instance, academics of particular relevance to the industry come from many disciplines such as business studies, cultural studies and the social sciences. The exercise is nonetheless a useful starting point from which to build understanding of respective pressures and preoccupations.

Academics are often preoccupied with research that helps to build theory or develop research approaches. The Government’s Research Assessment Exercise means the benchmark of ‘good research’ is significantly based on the unpublished and so ‘secret’ ratings of journals in which academics publish.

Many universities ‘encourage’ their academics to publish in the ‘best’ journals. In business studies, these are American journals that few practitioners come across, such as the Journal of Consumer Research, the Journal of Marketing Research and the Journal of Marketing.

Many of the papers reflect a strongly positivist orientation (deductive and quantitative). There are, however, some non-positivist, qualitative research ones. The relevance of many papers to practitioners is often far from clear. They may seem obscure — with ‘ologies’ (ontology, epistemology and ideologies) and “isms’ (positivism, interpretivism, structuralism, postmodernism etc.) making them impenetrable and/or irrelevant to many applied researchers (and quite a few academics).

‘Critical Theory’ is the current buzz. The discussion of ’logies’ and ‘isms’ is meant to clarify how the academic researcher sees reality and guides how best to access or research the particular type of human experience under study. Hence the interest in research method within this context among academics is strong.

Qualitative researchers, of course, are geared to providing information that will help clients make a better decision (often ‘measured’ in terms of ROI). They, too, build models or theories but perhaps the latter are less formal and often relatively specific to a narrow piece of transient consumer behaviour.

Likewise, they have a viewpoint on reality and epistemology but this is less often articulated. Qualitative researchers are driven by mainstream commercial reality — a need to attract and retain clients. So recommendations based on intelligent and innovative research that gives the client a competitive edge are rewarded by more business. Academics, too, look for innovation in theory and research methodology as this helps them get published. So innovation is a shared aspiration.

Flow of ideas

Relatively few academics attend practitioner conferences and events. Similarly very few practitioners attend academic conferences or seminars such those organised by the Academy of Marketing. So how does ‘good thinking’ cross the divide? A survey (1) carried out in 1997 indicated that of the more serious journals, qualitative researchers tend to read the MRS’ International Journal of Marketing Research and Admap. Books by Gordon, Langmaid and Robson are more practitioner-oriented while many books by the publisher Sage give the flavour of academic thinking. Overall, there is little crossover. The same survey revealed that only a handful of researchers read any relevant business or social science academic journals from a long list they were shown.

We’ve observed, however, that ideas do migrate due to a small number of individuals who cross the divide. These are the Honey Bees. They may work for both a university and a practitioner outfit, or make the effort to participate in both communities, or perhaps just read eclectically. The issue is: how can such potentially symbiotic relationships and practices be fostered?

The AQR is setting up a sub-committee to examine the issue. Academics and practitioners have been selected to serve on this committee and may consider issues such as:

  • Benefits of sharing knowledge and experiences to the activities of each community
  • What knowledge and experiences might be of greatest interest
  • Barriers to relationships
  • How to foster relationships and disseminate more widely
  • How else to communicate wisdom
  • Resource implications

At this point it is worth examining the 1996 IPA initiative that was set up to bring two communities together - ad agencies and business schools.

The IPA Case Study

The IPA Twinning Initiative was launched in 1996 with 16 ad agencies twinned with 16 academic institutions across the UK. Its guidelines indicated that there might be a number of symbiotic benefits to the paired organisations. These included work placements for students, agency visits for selected students, the agency/client providing case material for classroom use, agency/client presentations to students, students to be made available for research projects for the agency, university providing speakers for agency training and the university providing information regarding current academic research and literature.

The ‘twins’ were largely expected to engage in as many activities as they thought appropriate and the IPA ran a series of workshops/presentations/events throughout the following year to encourage, enhance and develop these budding relationships.

The Twinning Anniversary Reception had three key topics for presentation and discussion: ‘Are we talking to one another?’, ‘What we have learnt about each other?’ and ‘What’s next?’. In short, the initial reports were positive with nearly half of the ‘twins’ meeting more than three times in the first year. Placements had been secured, visits by students had been made to agencies, and case studies and presentations from advertising agencies were adding value to academia and the student experience.

There was, however, minimal progress on the students available for research, tutors assisting with agency training or academic literature and research being provided by the academic institutions. Even though many twins felt positive at the prospect of a long term relationship, once the IPA stopped running events to encourage meetings between the both parties, behaviorally the ‘courting’ became less energetic. Geographical distance between agencies and academic institutions hampered relationships, with resources — both financial and time — featuring in the reasons for ‘twins’ faltering or wavering in their long-term commitment

Of course as with all relationships, personal chemistry appears to be significant as a determining factor for one of the more successful ‘twinnings’. One such ‘twin’, eight years after meeting and having chalked up six career moves between them, still continues and flourishes both socially and by adhering to the initial twinning guidelines.

Even though the initial ‘twinned’ organisations have been left behind, the ‘twins’ maintain and develop their relationship regardless of distance, time or organisation affiliation. Ensuring personal chemistry at the outset may provide a foundation for longevity within the ‘twinned’ relationship and may provide more positive and longer-term benefits for both the organisations that employ ‘twins’ and the academic institutions involved in such schemes.

The Qualitative World

As to how to facilitate the right chemistry in the world of qualitative research, perhaps a shared website with a chat-room might be an idea. This could be followed by a series of mini-teleconferences with something on the lines of ‘speed dating’ involving, say, ten academics and ten practitioners. The speed-dating concept could also be applied to regional meetings to check working and social chemistry.

Conclusions

It is rumoured that the winds of change are blowing through business academia (2). As well as researching and publishing to high academic standards, academics might be expected to have a more applied focus. This would suggest that this community might become more receptive to the idea of sharing and the AQR initiative. There may be Honey Bees buzzing around the practitioner flowers.

This being the case, researchers might be interested in meeting these academics. However, there will be barriers and suspicions to overcome. Personal chemistry will be a major factor and so the ‘speed dating’ concept to set up a ‘buddy’ system might be useful.

References

1) Nancarrow, C. (1997) Living symbiotically? How academics and commercial practitioners can nurture each other. AQRP Meeting October 23rd (London).

2) Tapp, A., 2004, A call to arms for marketing academics, Marketing Intelligence and Planning, Special Issue.

Tapp, A. 2004 “The changing face of marketing academia: what can we learn from commercial market research and practitioners?” European Journal of Marketing, Volume 38 issue 5/6, pp 492-499.

Tapp, A. 2003 “Linking business schools and practice in direct marketing: are we missing an opportunity?” Journal of Database Marketing and Customer Strategy Management, vol 11, no 2, 107-113.

Tapp, A., 2004, Why practitioners don’t read our articles and what we should do about it, Academy of Marketing Conference, Cheltenham, July.

Tapp, A., 2003, “Practising what we preach: an examination of academic-practitioner relationships”, Relationship Marketing Colloquium, University of Gloucestershire, Sept.

 

Julie Tinson
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2005