Friday, May 25

My conversation with academics

Phd: I heard you think you have a great program.

Me: I do. I have this great program to develop people.

PhD: Why is it so good?

Me: Because it makes people more productive in the workplace.

PhD: So it's vocational? That's not really my thing.

Me: No, it's around leadership.

PhD.: If it is about doing anything work-related, it is by definition vocational.

Me: Well, you could use it to lead in a non-profit organization. Or a lab. Or run a university.

PhD: Well, I guess THAT wouldn't be vocational. What theories of leadership and education are you using?

Me: I can dig some up, but more importantly, I have stacks of results.

PhD: I like theories a lot more. Besides, why should I trust your results? You are a vendor.

Me: Because all of the research was done by third parties.

PhD: Sure, but the research was done by someone.

Me: Ah, yes.

PhD: And that person was no doubt proud of their results.

Me: I guess.

PhD: Well, those people were all bias towards success. Research invalid. QED.

Me: Ah, okay.

PhD: You are thinking about this all wrong. What you need is a firm foundation of theory. Either use an existing theory, or pose a question, and then find the evidence to support it or refute it.

Me: Why?

PhD: That will increase your chances of success.

Me: But I already have success!

PhD: But not repeatable success. Your type of success requires people who care about the results. Your programs require ownership.

Me: I guess...

Phd: But if you build an academic case, then the results just happen, even if no one cares. It's like physcis.

Me: Do your projects work?

PhD: Hardly ever. But that's the best part. First, it's not my fault, it's the theories'. Second, obviously, we feedback that knowledge of failure into the process, and refine our knowledge base. We end up with better theories, not just one off successes.

Me: Hmmm.

PhD: You just don't get it, do you? Where's another PhD? They get it.


Donald Clark said...

Stupid Einstein, he should have rode the beam of light rather than imagining what would happen. . .

Dave Lee said...

Interesting post Clark. You're professor's correct in that a results based course design does need ownership. Or as the change management world refers to it, executive sponsorship.

But it also is beneficial to have a theoretical foundation for course design. While the candidates for executive sponsorship of learning that I'm advocating may not want to hear chapter and verse about educational methodology or what leadership scholarship has to say about building leadership competency, they tend to like things that logically hold together and evidence that what is proposed has worked. A research-based theory provided both of these benefits.

I'm not advocating for academic journal level research, but some quantitative needs analysis would beneficial. As well as some time spent learning some of the basics of the content.

And as to Einstein, I'm sure, having read the recent biography of his life, he would have climbed on that beam of light if he could have figured out how to do it!

Unknown said...

I should begin by noting that I have a doctorate.. in Adult Education.. so I may be bias.. or confused depending on how you take this. But yes.. I also teach, do T&D, and consult in the real world.. so you could say I walk in both worlds.

I think your post does not serve the industry well. The implication is that results based approaches are all we should focus on.. I may see it wrong since I am new to your blog, but I hope you have more appreciation for theory than it appears. I am also rather tired of academic bashing.. which is something you sometimes hear in the walls at ASTD. It would take a long time to discuss this fully, but I have to point out that results only approaches work well with simple learning tasks, low complexity, and known behaviors.. teaching some one a task or skill based training is a good example.

Humans are complex and learning is not always black and white. In leadership development, we can not always measure the results in a short term period.. strong theory is what grounds leadership development and keeps it from being just feel good work. There are models and theories we draw on that we have proven to work. Much of it is ground in adult learning theory, but others draw from the basic sciences of pyschology and the social sciences.

Effective work is always blended.. theory and application.. That has been my experience..

Clark Aldrich said...

Hi Mitch,

I hope I am an equal opportunity basher, given my last post! I would also push back at least slightly with your statement that "results only approaches work well with simple learning tasks, low complexity, and known behaviors.. " as I think we can measure some changes in behavior using six-month out 360's, for example.

But I guess at the core, I talk to a lot of people who a) use academic citations as blunt weapons, and b) don't produce formal learning programs that are very good, either in academic or corporate settings.

Having said that, Mitch, I really appreciate your comments, and I agree completely that I am not serving this community well if all I am doing is reinforcing an anti-academic tendency.

Unknown said...

Clark, as a practitioner and an academic, I am insulted by your post. There may be some truth to the character you portray, but that truth is as prevalent as the clients who think 'book lernin is fer sissies'.

The point of journal-level research is that it has been acknowledge through blind peer review to be adequate and appropriate for the purpose of supporting a conclusion. The critique you place in your argument is valid, if by "And that person was no doubt proud of their results" you mean that the 'researchers' were clients who were evaluating the success of a program/product that they purchased. Confirmatory bias and poor operationalization are both common in research done within organizations. You should be able to produce great research with all of the results that you have. All it would take is a little work that , my guess, is not interesting or useful to you. So why go back and forth with MR PhD there? Frankly, your characterization of that part of the argument smells of over-simplification and personal frustration.

The point about theory that you finish up with is reminiscent of your comments about dealing with academics in Simulation and Future of Learning. There you said (I paraphrase) that academics were too attached to their theories and didn't take your input, so you went on your own. The fact of the matter is that you built a theory into your sim, it just wasn't articulated by someone beforehand. My guess is that if you had built it with an expert in leadership , you would have an even better product, because the underlying model would reflect an even more effective leadership model.

This post reflects more upon your relationship with academia than on the academic world to me. I know a large number of PhD's and EdD's who are amazing at business and corporate education. They understand the most current theories in their domain and they know how to connect with participants in a way that stimulates learning. I don't know why you are not meeting these folks, maybe it is a sampling error or maybe something about your way of approaching conversations with academics.


Clark Aldrich said...

Hi Joe,

I don't mean to insult you, and that along with oversimplification, I fear, is the downside of writing in a glib style. Could you reply to this comment with one link to an example of your work that you think represents a great blending of your academic and practitioner side?

Much obliged,


P.S. Thanks for reading SATFOL. I really do appreciate it. Given that the average book is only read for less than 20 pages, whenever anyone gets through the whole thing, even if they are critical, I smile.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the reply Clark. It was well toned to a heated comment.

I am just finishing up an article that builds a theoretical argument for a practice-devised educational model. The article was inspired by research I did when I started wondering why this method we were using worked so well. It was a good example of practice informing academics. I will hear back from the editors in the next week or so, and when I do (either yay or nay), I can send you a copy. Until then, I want to keep it under wraps.

I can point you to an organization I work with that does a great job of bridging academic and practical realms - Duke Corporate Education. They use traditional education, informal learning strategy, simulation, experiential activities and elearning in tremendous ways. The organization prides itself on bridging academia and business.

Funny note on your book. The sad part about your experience in there and in this post, is that it is believable. For all the academic professionals I know who get learning, there are 3x as many I have met who have no clue, but feel they are the ones who should dictate how learning and education are framed. I guess I focus on and try to work with the exceptional members of the group, and you have the misfortune of running into the 'owners of wisdom'


Karl Kapp said...

Hey Clark,

No offense taken by this academic, I live in that world and also, you and I have had a few laughs about this issue at conferences. So…I was just going to lurk on this post and chuckle to myself.

However, when you threw down the gauntlet to JOE about naming a work that walks the academic/corporate line, I had to step in with one. (warning unabashed self promotion ahead).

Check out: Gadgets, Games and Gizmos for Learning: Tools for Transferring Know How from the Boomers to the Gamers

But don't take my word that it bridges the academic/corporate gap...Take Mark Oehlert's word when he says at Amazon. "I think this book nicely walks the thin line between academic coverage and pragmatic usefulness and comes away with a good bit of both."

Plus I even had some help from one particular practitioner who added his own case study about a certain leadership simulation to the book:)… as I recall. He even provided some academic research results from studies done on the aforementioned leadership simulation…Thanks for crossing the academic/corporate line in that instance. (end of unabashed self promotion)

I think the line is probably crossed more than we realize especially in this field which, of course, is a really good thing.

We need the ying and yang of academic and practitioner interfaces…we also need to discuss it from time to time as well. Keeps the field on its toes.

Clark Aldrich said...

Hey Karl, and hi Joe,

Two things. First, I want a link to a course from JOE, not a paper, if possible!

Second, Karl, yours' was the voice in my head all along rebutting my characterization of "academics." I have for years appreciated your approach to material.

Unknown said...

Clark - I am not sure that I can really give a link to an example of my education (rather than research) work that would do it justice. I find that much of what I do.

I just went to look for a good description on my website and found it had been hijacked. When it is up, I'll send you something.


Unknown said...


Upon further thought, I don't get why a paper would not be a good example of bridging practice and research to you. Is there something about the medium that doesn't work for you? The article is about work that I have done. It links the work with the learning theory that supports it.

Part of my point earlier was that theory underlies and explains practice. For educators like ourselves, it informs both the content of what we teach (leadership, strategy, etc.) and the way that we choose to educate (adult learning theory, communication theory, cognitive psychology). The article I described is a discussion of theory I embed in work that I do. If that doesn't explain it to you, than I don't know what, short of participating in a program, would be a way for you to get an idea of what I am talking about.

Clark Aldrich said...

Hi Joe,

If you had started your original post with, "As an academic..." then a great paper would be perfect. But as you started your post with "As a practitioner and an academic," you whet my appetite for what a practioner with a strong academic background would produce, as it presumably better than what a practioner without a strong academic background would produce.

Unknown said...


I checked back to see if there was further dialog and I must say.. the dialog of comments brought a smile to my face. I mean this with the greatest degree of respect.. "You don't know what you don't know.." If you can not appreciate theory and principles of science.. If you can not understand that every successful strategy in practice today is built on a foundation of theory... it is futile for us to try and explain this to you on this blog. I only wish you and I could connect here at ASTD, so you and I could discuss this over a nice beverage of your choice.

Clark Aldrich said...

Hey Mitch,

I do appreciate the theory and principles of science generically. But I also believe in the need for people, like Lovelock, to come up with reframing models, like Gaea.

I do not believe that every successful strategy in practice today is built on a foundation of theory. That would be like saying that every successful strategy for rock and roll music or of television in the year 1930 will be built on a foundation of theory. Around any innovation, theory (hopefully) follows and codifies best practices. We selectively build on the past, but take risks on the future.