In Search of the Helpful Academic: 10 ways they can support Practitioners

OK, I admit it, I’m sometimes a bit rude to academics, even though I have a foot in both camps (I’m 3 days a week at Oxfam, 2 at LSE). I’ve accused them of treating everyone in the aid business as either stupid, or venal, or both; I’ve complained that they slag off aid practitioners without ever bothering to talk to us or read our stuff; they take down but never feel obliged to offer constructive suggestions.

And then last week at a conference in The Netherlands (more on that tomorrow) an academic – Willem Elbers – called me out. OK, I agree with a lot of your critique, he said, so how, as an academic, can I play a more constructive role for practitioners? He had gently pointed out that I was being a total hypocrite – behaving towards academics exactly as I was accusing them of acting towards practitioners. Oops. So I sat down with Willem and came up with some constructive roles that academics can play, and then continued by email. Here are our initial ten – please add your own.

1. Inspirer. Think Robert Chambers – rather than a detailed take down of existing practice, come up with a visionary alternative, and inspire people to try it out. Robert has been doing this for decades, and I think provides a fantastic role model for a better way of contributing through the power of ideas.

Robert Chambers

2. Critical friend/mentor: Accompany practitioners, really listen to them, then ask intelligent questions. I’m doing this with a few different initiatives and it’s huge fun and, I hope, actually helps people reflect on their work and improve it.

3. Story teller/praise singer: Often practitioners are too busy to stop and reflect, or their brains just aren’t wired that way. Academics can work with them to draw out the origins of success, systematize it and then publicize their work (when they get things right….).

4. Connector: If academics can bridge between different countries or disciplines, they can oxygenate discussions, widening the range of experiences and ideas open to practitioners.

5. Navigator: Rather than slag off the entire aid system, why not try and identify where the wiggle room exists and help practitioners exploit it?

And then there’s one role which I sometimes play, but am having second thoughts about

6. Codifier: take what practitioners are coming up with, look at it, and turn it into A Thing with a conceptual underpinning, that can help good ideas spread. The trouble is, as I am beginning to find with Adaptive Management, codification very quickly becomes isomorphic mimicry, in which everyone adopts the new vocabulary, without necessarily changing much about what they do.

And here’s four additional roles from Willem:

Willem Elbers

‘7. Showing the bigger picture. Practitioners are not always aware that parts of their thinking and practices actually originate from broader paradigms. Take the example of managerialism, which has its own assumptions, norms and values. Academics can show that seemingly ‘neutral’ discussions about enhancing effectiveness, are not so neutral after all. That managerialism does not necessarily sit well with development work that is difficult to plan, predict and quantify (advocacy for example) or with relations based on trust and solidarity.  

8. Asking (really) critical questions. It is not always realistic to expect that practitioners, or the consultants funded by them, ask questions that affect the organization’s own interests. Academics, also due to their independence, or better equipped to do this. To ask uncomfortable questions which need to be asked.

9. Educating and inspiring the change agents of the future. This is about offering (post-) academic education that is (also) relevant from a practitioners point of view. This is not only about choosing relevant topics (and ignoring others), but also about choosing an appropriate didactical approach. It is about making sure that practical experience and realities find their way in the classroom. Here I mainly refer to my experience with the AMID-programme.

10. Making existing knowledge accessible. Practitioners do not always know which information is already out there and have no time to read lengthy reports or papers. Academic jargon is not particularly helpful either. A recent policy brief I wrote, for example, synthesizes 31 academics studies from 7 disciplines (political science, social work, development studies, gender studies etc.) dealing with the relation between advocacy effectiveness and capacity.’

Obviously, some of these overlap, but I’d be interested in hearing back from both practitioners and academics (and fellow hybrids) – what resonates? What’s missing? Over to you

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16 Responses to “In Search of the Helpful Academic: 10 ways they can support Practitioners”
  1. Thanks for this Duncan. There is another role that academics can play and role that Rajesh Tandon, Founder of PRIA in India and myself have been engaged in for 40+ years. That is co-construction of locally contextualized knowledge led by practitioners and community folks supported by activist scholars. Our UNESCO Chair web-site is a good place to explore some of these stories and this work. See our Knowledge for Change Consortium for Training participatory researcher in particular.

  2. John Whittle

    I found this very interesting. As a practitioner I find it very difficult to get access to journals and other academic papers, apart from a few that are open access or do provide limited access through university alumni access. Maybe academics are also disadvantaged in that they cannot easily access the many reports of practitioners because most are not available/accessible. With this lack of cross over it is hard to have practitioners and academics talking a similar language. Moreover, I believe academics sometimes have to discard their theories, frameworks and textbook approaches and look at development situations with more open minds to understand contexts from all aspects. So I would add open-mindedness to your list.

    • Willem Elbers

      John, what you said resonates with my experience! In the example I gave of the 31 studies I reviewed, I also tried to look at advocacy evaluations of (I)NGOs and donor agencies. It was quite disapointed what I could find by spending some time on Google. Maybe there is good material out there, but I could only find little of it. Or many agencies simply do not disclose their reports. Probably both.

  3. Thanks Duncan – very constructive : )

    A couple more that jump out for me (perhaps more from an advocacy perspective):
    – Convener: Academics can play a really useful role in bringing different players together to move debates forward, particularly around polarised or contentious campaigning issues. I’ve seen this work around workers rights in particular.
    – Legitimiser: Academics can play a useful role in legitimising the knowledge and expertise of social movements and community organisations – getting them a hearing with local authorities etc. Academics can also bring activists into teach, which also helps confer authority and legitimacy. There’s more about this in an LSE impact blog we published on co-production with social movements this week:

  4. Very inspiring. Would be great to follow up with a 2nd part to reflect on what practitioners need to do so that academics can actually assume these roles. We usually like to refer to academic research that supports what we’re doing (storyteller, praise singer), but what about when they find that our project’s a total failure? So practitioners must be ready to accept academic criticism, to start a critical joint reflection of existing approaches and practices. A few years ago our organisation commissioned the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology with an external evaluation of a drinking water project in West Africa. The result was quite sobering, as it was found that despite new wells and pipes the water quality had not really changed. We decided to communicate this openly, to talk about failure and what we can learn from it (we changed the project approach quite fundamentally). This was highly appreciated both internally and externally, also by our funding partners.

  5. Chris Roche

    What about recognising that academics and practitioners are both subject to similarly unhelpful accountability regimes ( you have change covered much of this for development practitioners – but also see Dan Honig & Lant Pritchett – for academics see Clearly the relational work they both need to do is undervalued by their institutional arrangements and performance systems. Something feminists have argued for a long time in many other domains. Maybe working together to address the drivers of mutually unhelpful incentives might create new forms of solidarity and engagement? And indeed build bridges to other sectors (health, education etc) subject to similar forces…

  6. Thanks, as always, Duncan for making us reflect. A lot of the comments and resources are resonating. We asked a similar question after reviewing a portfolio of IDRC’s research on women and youth economic empowerment. Echoing a lot of what many of you have written, we found that strategic positioning with the right partners was really important for advocacy, for shining a light on small gains, for leveraging existing networks and movements. As a hybrid myself, I’ve been reflecting on what I need to let go of that I hold dear to align with others in ways forward. For example, a friend who volunteers with me in our neighbourhood took me aside and said –“you need to stop using the word governance.”

  7. Duncan, Willem – this is great, really resonates. What strikes me though is the difficulty of going from naming these various ways of being helpful to concrete ways of guiding or coaching people (academics & practitioners both) on what to actually do. These are hardly static roles, and partnerships evolve to encompass a number of these, and more. This why at MIT GOV/LAB (where I am a “practitioner in residence”) we recently came out with the Guide to difficult conversations – for academics & practitioners entering into a partnership (thanks so much Duncan for your great review of it on this blog!). But a Guide like this is just a starting point; what else might be useful? A collection of case studies comes to mind, but while illustrations are always good, they’re often too idiosyncratic, and moreover, almost always too positive. Perhaps this would need to be matched with a collection of failure stories – not good-vs-evil, but of the kinds of collaborations that genuinely start with best intentions but it all breaks down at some point. I think that it’s easier to identify with similarities of difficult circumstances (why is that I wonder).
    Both of these (success & failure spins) draw on past experiences where we have already in some way sanitized our memory, and have the benefit of hindsight to draw lessons. Which is useful of course – does anyone want to work on this series? But I actually have a hunch that more interesting might be live, prospective experiments in building practitioner-academic collaborations. It would require both parties to be willing to sign up to this, and then have their collaboration “out in the open” where interested parties could observe the ups and downs and the different roles that people take on and discard (and who knows, maybe crowd-source some solutions when problems occur). I haven’t thought about the details of this, not even if it’s viable, but am thinking a lot about ways of learning and building knowledge that are more visceral. If any of this sounds interesting, I’d welcome a dialogue!

    • Hi Varja, interesting post. One thing that immediately comes to mind is that successful collaboration between academics and practitioners requires certain personal competences and attitudes (on both sides) as well as a conducive environment. By figuring out what these are, we can already make this discussion more concrete.

      • Varja Lipovsek

        Yes that’s a good point. Though in my experience the personal competencies and attitudes can vary so greatly… the point I think is in finding sufficient alignment within the partnership. For me, some of the important traits would be curiosity, genuine interest in learning, willingness to take risks and be wrong, commitment to public goods. But another partnership can function perfectly well on a set of totally different attitudes. So the trick I think is more about clarity and honesty about what drives us, what we’re really interested in and what constraints we face. The conducive environment is a whole other story — and here I think it’s possible to talk about more general characteristics (e.g. the extent to which an academic entity encourages or allows junior academics to produce non-academic outputs; or the extent to which a practitioner entity is willing to accept and go public with negative or null results of their intervention).

  8. One ought not consider the issue as “either/or”: both academics and practitioners have mutually essential gifts. From another perspective, neither academics nor practitioners have all the answers. Nor is this a bipolar –academics/practitioners– environment: for better or worse, there is the ineluctable involvement of bureaucrats who may be ever ready to scupper projects based on their particular silo of understanding, befuddling both practitioners and academics.

  9. As a 15 year hybrid and now consultant myself, an *indirect* way in which academics can be more helpful to practitioners is by resisting the academic disciplinary urge to fit their concepts and writings into one academic discipline and into one school of thought. Example: “NGOs are either highly principled actors, or they are opportunistic actors, out for competitive advantage, growth, claiming credit, etc”. Practitioners know they are frequently both, not either/or. If academics acknowledged these ‘grey zone realities’ more in their academic writing, their outputs would be more relevant to practitioners.

  10. Bharati

    Well articulated…the chasm has to be bridged through active engagement from both sides and open minds. We do need CONNECTORS between academics and practitioners; social entrepreneurs do perform this role… the connections need to become more organic and widespread.

  11. As someone who has a foot in both camps, I have found this a very interesting discussion: thank you.
    Varja’s points about clarity, openness and willingness to be wrong (and reflect on failure) seem important. This resonates with findings from work done on organisational learning – that small mistakes have the capacity to generate the most learning. So perhaps we need to look for instances of academic/ practitioner partnerships that weren’t categorically failures, but which could have worked better, and reflect on what happened.

  12. There are lots of ways science and engineering academics can and do help practitioners. Indeed, it is routine and expected. If you are a designer following in the tradition of Victor Papanek’s “Design for the Real World” you need to be in the real world working with the people whose needs you are addressing. If you are doing applied physics of solar energy you have to go somewhere to scope, design, develop and test your solar cookers. The practitioners in Burkina Faso who designed “improved” wood stoves in the absence of any help from academics designed 18 out of 20 stoves that were less efficient than a 3 stone fire managed by an African woman. In Kenya it was physics graduates like Raphael Kapiyo and Beatrice Khamati in Kenyatta University Appropriate Technology Centre who made the Kenya Ceramic Jiko into a successful technology, creating a new industry.

    The disconnect between academics and practitioners is more of a disease of economists and other social scientists. In agriculture, forestry and engineering, knowledge is grounded in on the ground practice. The bad advice comes not from academics but from companies and some consultants, who recommend inappropriate technologies, like the ones criticised by Marsden and Schumacher.

    A second way academics can help by practitioners is in training – specifically in supervising Ph.D. students, provided the research project is relevant to local needs. The physicists who I taught at KUC ATC later did Ph.D.s in Strathcylde and Reading. 30 years later I went back to find them running the centre. That was, of course, in the days before UK universities treating overseas students as cash cows paying high fees.

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