This Stuff Matters

Office Bookshelf: Nikon D3s

Office Bookshelf: Nikon D3s

"You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one."

(John Lennon)


I've been giving 'academia' a hard time recently and, as I'm the director of a doctorate in organisational change, you'll appreciate the irony and, possibly, the risk in 'coming out' like that.

Yet I'm not the only one. 

It's a fairly well-worn story. Way back, Harvard Business Review set the ball rolling saying that business schools had 'lost their way' and this week, an article in the Guardian said that PhDs should be about improving society, not chasing academic kudos.  The author, Julian Kirchherr, a researcher at Utrecht University says, "Most academic work is shared only with a particular scientific community, rather than policymakers or businesses, which makes it entirely disconnected from practice."

Back in 2009, academic articles were being published at the the rate of one every 22 seconds as academics chased 'output', now it would seem we are approaching 6 articles per second.

But around 50% of these articles have a readership of only the author and their editors...

So what's the point?  What is meaningful work?

I'm not a career academic but my experience of recent years tells me that if we are to hold to a sense of meaningful purpose, in academia and life, we need to consider things differently.

This is (some of) the suff that matters:

Responsiveness:  Rather than work to an prescriptive theory of what should happen, it's important to listen, to sense into shifts and appreciate with them.  Don't dismiss faint signals of difference as outliers.  Genuine change is delicate, complex and emergent so our work as 'change practitioners' needs to respond appropriately. Rigorously, determinedly, seek to understand what is happening now.  Abstract theories or descriptions about what worked a while ago somewhere else probably won't help anyone.

Reflexivity:  A technical label for thinking about how we think. This is more than reflection, rather we are trying to get inside our patterns of thought.  Otherwise, to coin a phrase, we'll get what we've always got. It is a way of generating real transformation and some of the key skills include  widening our choices about 'data'; paying attention to gut feel, half-held hunches and intuitions. Work artfully, journaling, drawing, photographing, whatever... develop as many perceptual and expressive ways of working as you can. You know more than you can say.  Especially if it is presented an 'academic' or 'business' report.

Relationship:  Honestly? If you're going to actually change anything, an ivory tower and isolation isn't going to help. From Day One (or even before), get out and speak to people and work with them to actually change the world.  Convene groups and communities, work together, struggle, figure it out, share the successes and failures. We live, learn and change together.

Finally, I believe that meaningful 'output' from our work isn't found in journals, papers or articles but rather in the ongoing quality of our lives.

As an academic, that's what matters for me. 

Yes, you may say I'm a dreamer... 



I genuinely believe we are doing something different at Ashridge on our Executive Doctorate in Organisational Change. You'll find that we work with action as much as research, and treat the idea of a sustainable, ethical community of change practitioners very seriously.

Have a look at 'Return to Meaning: A social science with something to say' by Alvesson, Gabriel and Paulsen who have plenty to say about meaningless research and how we can work differently.



Steve MarshallComment