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theme2004

Creating Actionable Knowledge 

“Truth in our ideas means their power to work.” -- William James 

The Academy of Management is dedicated to creating and disseminating knowledge about management and organizations. A key part of this mission requires that our science-based knowledge be relevant, responsible, and make a valuable contribution to society and its institutions. To accomplish this, our knowledge must be actionable. It must transcend purely scientific concerns and enable organizational members to make informed choices about important practical problems and to implement solutions to them effectively.

Academy members have done a credible job of creating knowledge that is scientifically sound and rigorous. Indeed, we have generated an impressive body of management/organization theory and findings. We have been far less successful, however, in making sure that our knowledge is applied. Much of our knowledge fails to cross the gap between research and practice; it stays on the academic side of the chasm, stated frequently in esoteric terms. Consequently, few practitioners read our research or appreciate its practical value; they draw on materials published in more readable and popular forms as well as their own experience to guide their actions.

Facing these unintended consequences, Academy members have long been concerned about the influence and meaning of our research on management and organizations. Several Academy presidents have called attention to the issue in their luncheon addresses. The recent strategic plan of the Academy advocates greater attention to the relevance and applicability of our research. There have been frequent appeals for more action research where theories are tested and refined by applying them in organizations and assessing the results. There is growing awareness that applied knowledge is not only explicit but includes a significant tacit dimension that exists only in practice. The application problem has also been discussed in our journals, articulated at annual meetings, and mulled over in numerous informal conversations.

Nevertheless, while we have been actively generating dialogue, we remain lax on producing results. Our research is often conducted separate from organizations or at a great distance. Our journals are written more in a language idiosyncratic to academics and not readily comprehensible to practitioners. Our research questions tend to be guided by prior research and theory, and not sufficiently driven by current issues being faced in today's organizations. Our university reward systems are oriented to recognizing research publications, and not adequately acknowledging applied work with organizations.

Sometimes, the application problem is stated in terms of knowledge transfer, where researchers create scientific knowledge and practitioners apply it. In this view, some argue that it is not the responsibility of researchers to consider practical applications. Still others contend that solutions lie in how existing theories and findings are disseminated, requiring more practitioner friendly ways to communicate our research findings. Another view of the application problem lies in knowledge creation, which primarily concerns how we conduct our research. Attention is directed at the relationship between researchers and practitioners, with calls for more collaborative, action-oriented approaches to generating knowledge that is relevant, timely, and substantial to practice. Finally, others point to the training and socialization of academics, which is often lacking in applied skills and experience in organizations.

We invite papers and symposia that address the theme of “Creating Actionable Knowledge” in a variety of ways. Just a few of the topics that submissions might address include:

•  What is actionable knowledge? What are its key attributes? How can knowledge be both scientifically rigorous and practically useful?

•  One aspect of actionable knowledge involves disseminating our research to practitioners so they understand it and are willing to act on it. What forms of diffusion are most effective for this purpose? What kinds of communication and messages gain practitioners' attention and understanding? What are the mechanisms for translating research into practice?

•  What larger forces contribute to the likelihood that research will be actionable in organizations? National culture? Universities? Professional organizations? Economy? Political systems? Industry?

•  Some have argued for an active role of social science in society. Engaged scholarship is seen as a strategy for both advancing the base of fundamental knowledge and contributing to the important practical affairs of management and organizations. Action researchers, among others, have long advocated this active role, which today tends to be far more popular in Europe and Scandinavia than in other parts of the world. Does this engaged scholarship make sense for Academy members? If so, what does it entail? What problems does it create for us and how might we address them?

•  Many of us work in professional business schools where we must both conduct research and educate individuals in the practice of management. There is a strong tendency to divide into two camps, those doing mainly basic research grounded in the disciplines and those emphasizing applied research linked closely to the business world. At the extremes, this division can lead to intolerance and conflict among us. It can produce knowledge that either is divorced from the profession or contributes little to fundamental understanding. How might we better balance these two sides of the profession? How might they be integrated into a true professional science?

•  What can our scholarly journals do to close the gap between research and practice? Should authors be held accountable for reflecting on the action possibilities of their findings? Should the “implications for practice” section of articles be more than an afterthought?

•  In educating future generations of scholars, our doctoral programs place heavy emphasis on scientific skills and disciplinary knowledge. Students often graduate with little understanding of the practice of management or the reality of organizational life. How might doctoral education better integrate knowledge about practice with scientific learning?

•  In later career stages, the scholarly interests of many of us turn to more applied issues and to solving real world problems. What new skills and expertise do we need to learn to become more actionable scholars? How can we learn to reinvent ourselves in actionable ways?

•  How can we gain feedback on the key issues facing organizations today? How can we learn if our research findings are being applied?

•  What research methods are likely to contribute to actionable knowledge? How open are we to different research methods? How can research questions be formulated and examined so the subsequent findings are likely to be implemented?

•  A good deal of actionable knowledge is tacit and exists only in practice. How do we capture and make sense of such knowledge? How do we study it scientifically?

•  Generating actionable knowledge involves an inherent tension between two radically different cultures: science that seeks knowledge that is internally valid and generalizable, and practice that asks for useful answers to situation-specific problems. How might these competing demands be managed so there is greater appreciation and dialogue between the two cultures? What does each culture stand to gain and lose from interacting with the other? What should be the relationship between practitioners and researchers?

•  How can practitioners help researchers formulate, conduct, and disseminate their research in more actionable ways? How can they inform researchers about the tacit dimensions of their practice? What valuable lessons can practitioners teach researchers, and how can this be done so researchers will listen?

•  How can we help practitioners become better consumers of knowledge about management? Can they be inoculated against fads?

•  Most of us educate students and professionals in management and organizations. How can our teaching promote more actionable skills and knowledge? What pedagogy works best for such learning? How can actionable knowledge be embedded in instructional design?

The 2004 Academy conference in New Orleans is an excellent opportunity for us to take stock of what we have been doing to make our research more relevant to organizations, and to generate new approaches to developing useful knowledge. The conference theme, “Creating Actionable Knowledge,” provides a broad platform for addressing the practical relevance of our research and how it can be made more applicable to management and organizations.

Thomas G. Cummings & Yolanda Jones

2004 Program Chair & 2004 Program Coordinator

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