This article was first published yesterday on the Guardian’s Higher Education Network.
“Let’s get together, yeah yeah yeah. Why don’t you and I combine? Let’s get together, what do you say? We can have a swinging time. We’d be a crazy team. Why don’t we make a scene? Together.”
Hayley Mills didn’t have research in mind when singing this duet in The Parent Trap, but the lyrics echo a longstanding goal of social science research – that of co-production, in other words bridging the gap or fostering greater connectedness between academics and practitioners.
Getting together to foster dialogues of theory and practice is frequently presented as one of the major tasks confronting academia: challenging researchers to translate their bright ideas into pay-offs for non-academic organisations. Such dialogue has been presented variously as a means of generating ‘impact’ or ‘relevance’ or of increasing levels of ‘knowledge utilisation.’
Joint projects promise the elusive goal of research which is simultaneously academically robust and useful to practitioners. ‘Co-pro’ also challenges the traditional customer-contractor convention in which practitioners commission research which is then conducted, packaged and delivered by academics.
In the last few years, as an academic at Hull University Business School, and practitioner leading a public sector professional association (a “pracademic” if you will), we have been working together to generate insight into how local government chief executives think about their leadership roles. This collaborative work has involved bridging across town and gown, academia and practice. We think it’s been worthwhile but we’ve also involved negotiating a number of tricky dilemmas.
All social science research has political dimensions. What we’ve been struck during our joint endeavours is that academic-practitioner research is infused with its own politics, important to appreciate, given the increasing interest in collaboration of this kind. By politics we mean questions about the purpose of scholarship, but also the tricky issues which arise in the accomplishment of research by two people who have, to a certain extent, distinctive interests, expectations and priorities.
One of the reasons why co-production has generated such interest is its promise to facilitate communication between academic and practitioner communities. However, one of the principal challenges facing participants is the distance between the academic and practitioner worlds.
For example, the local government chief executives we interviewed largely perceived academia as an insular profession, requiring modes of thought, analysis and language which are alien to practitioners’ day to day lives. Equally, we can call to mind innumerable examples of academics patronising practitioners. One professor we spoke to described practitioners, casually but with some confidence, as people who earned “elephant salaries” despite having done less well at school.
Co-production may confer practical benefits, including giving academics access to elites and other worlds, and the capacity to build trust quickly, helping to bring stories, experiences and insights into practice. It may also offer the potential to draw practitioners closer to the benefits of academic inquiry and engage with their context from a different perspective.
However, such research takes place within a political environment that requires continual negotiation of different interests, including those of the members of the team, the communities to which they belong, and the structural imperatives at the intersection of universities and, in our case, the public sector.
The dilemmas and choices we face are also intertwined with the way wider traditions, expectations and imperatives play out in our respective sectors. We don’t operate in isolation from career structures, performance management regimes, structures of reward and sanctions, and the expectations of employers and peers.
It is disingenuous to imply through the presentation of social science that research is a clean, objective process carried out by purists who stand above politics, and this picture is further complicated in joint projects, where participants are mindful of a complexity of interacting demands and interests.
It may be tempting to sweep these tensions and dilemmas under the carpet in case they get in the way of greater connectedness, but paying attention to these dynamics is worthwhile if it contributes to a richer understanding of getting together to form “a crazy team” – and the roles, relations and stakes involved.
We’d be interested to know how other experiences of co-production have played out, in particular how those involved have navigated institutional, sectoral and professional norms and interests.
Do academics engaged in this mode ever feel that their licence to ask critical questions or produce awkward findings is constrained? How have practitioners or pracademics experienced the process? What have they gained and what’s been difficult? Have others experienced negative stereotyping of academics and practitioners and with what impact on research practices? We welcome your thoughts below.
Kevin Orr is professor of public sector management at Hull University Business School. Mike Bennett is director of Public Intelligence and a former co-managing director of SOLACE – follow him on Twitter @bennettmike