The Practitioner Scholar

Doctor of Management Blog

In Praise of Practioner Scholars

April 17, 2010 ·

Practitioner scholars in the Doctor of Management program at Weatherhead are doing some of the most exciting research in the social sciences. There are many reasons that contribute to the importance of their research, and I will present just two of them here. Others will no doubt have different reasons for supporting practitioner scholarship, especially as it is found at Weatherhead, and I hope they will share them with us.

First, practitioner scholars at Weatherhead have a passion for their research topic that is rooted in their lived experience. It is one thing for a non-practitioner scholar to become engaged with a research topic, but something very different for a practitioner to do so. Non-practitioners develop an interest in a research topic as a way of applying and testing theories they are immersed in. There is a pragmatic bent to their interest, but it relates to their inner life-of-the-mind, not their lived experience, and in that sense can verge on being narcissistic.

Practitioner scholars, on the other hand, become interested in a research topic because of their personal experience of having been immersed in the flow of organizational action - struggling with a difficulty that borders on a dilemma and touches an ethical nerve. Our practitioner scholars begin with a deeply human concern, arm themselves with a range of potentially relevant theories, collect and interpret raw data on the phenomenon, and are then in a position to make original and important contributions. Non-practitioner scholars, in contrast, are lucky if they can get beyond their theoretical framework to collect genuinely relevant data, and seldom produce truly interesting findings.

Second, practitioner scholars at Weatherhead are openly committed to changing the world. Non-practitioner scholars see themselves as disinterested observers and carefully avoid contaminating the objectivity of their research with a personal desire to shape the world in a particular way. Our practitioner scholars know first-hand the folly of trying to be disinterested, since they have experienced over and over the impossibility of acting as a manager without creating change. They have a heightened sense of the ethical responsibility each manager has for using organizational power to make the world a better place. They are pragmatists in the best sense of John Dewey, and engage in inquiry with the highest human motive. They seek knowledge to enable action that transforms some aspect of the world toward a more desirable state of affairs.

It is often said that non-practitioner scholars live in something like an ivory tower and seek truth with a capital T about aspects of managing and organizations that they assume to be a stable essence. But, as Chris Argyris argues, by not taking a critical stance aimed at changing the status quo, they are implicitly taking a normative position in favor of maintaining it. Ironically, this implicit commitment to maintaining the status quo contradicts their espoused position of being a disinterested observer.

Richard J. Boland is a Professor of Information Systems and Cognitive Science at the Weatherhead Shool of Management, and has been involved with the DM program since its inception.

Tags: Faculty Perspectives

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