Perspectives: Bridging the Research-Practice Gap

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by Dr. David R. Kravitz and Dr. Renee Yuengling

There is a cultural divide between diversity practitioners and academic researchers—ironic, given our professional focus on cultural divides. This is unfortunate. It decreases the usefulness of research and the effectiveness of practice. The purpose of this column will be to bridge the gap between diversity researchers (especially academics) and practitioners. While the research-practice gap is real and is substantial, we hasten to add that it is not universal. Some researchers also consult and some practitioners have relevant academic training. Unfortunately, these are the exceptions.

To bridge the research-practice gap, practitioners and academics must talk to one another. So that’s what we’ll be doing in this column. David [Kravitz] is the academic, with a doctorate in social psychology and postdoctoral training in industrial-organizational psychology. He is a professor of management at George Mason University, where he teaches courses on organizational diversity. David is a nationally recognized figure, with more than three dozen published articles and 60 conference presentations under his belt. He is also the 2010-2011 chairman of the 1,200-member Gender and Diversity in Organizations division of the Academy of Management.

Renée [Yuengling], holding an MBA in international finance and a doctorate in organizational development, is primarily a practitioner. She worked for 17 years as an international banker and in 1996 was detailed to Bank of America’s diversity office. She launched Bank of America’s international diversity efforts in the late 1990s. Her focus on the linkage between leadership, diversity and performance has led her to do consulting work with both the private and public sectors. She currently consults primarily with the military and intelligence communities as well as other federal agencies and private-sector companies.

So there we are. Two different people. Two very different life paths, but one goal—to find commonalities. But before we can recognize those commonalities, we have to understand the differences between academics and practitioners. Here are four major ones:

Different Education: Academics are educated in doctoral programs that emphasize theory and research. The training of practitioners is much more diverse—some receive doctoral training while others have no research background. Some have never even been exposed to diversity studies. Honestly, anyone can hang out their shingle as a diversity professional because there are neither standard qualifications nor any requirement that a practitioner understand the current body of knowledge. The lack of credentialing makes it easy for those who do not value diversity to criticize and dismiss the field. This difference in education (and socialization) feeds into many other important differences.

Different Definitions of “Research”: Academic research deals with the relations between variables, such as the relation between workforce diversity and financial performance. Practitioner research is often descriptive rather than relational, focusing on facts such as the percent of Fortune 500 firms that offer diversity training. To draw conclusions about the reality (truth) of a relationship (e.g., Does establishment of a mentoring program increase the number of female managers?), academic researchers require statistically significant results. Practitioners are more likely to trust their own observations or the testimony of others they trust, whether based on research, folklore, personal experience, intuition or something else.

Different Motivations: Academics’ primary motivation is to understand and explain phenomena. They are rewarded by others for publishing articles in peer-reviewed journals. Practitioners are motivated to have an immediate positive impact on organizations and individuals and they are rewarded by others for doing so.

Different Time Perspectives: Academics can devote years guiding a single study from conceptualization through publication. Practitioners, in contrast, must set up programs and practices in weeks or months.

While these are among the biggest differences between academics and practitioners, they certainly aren’t the only ones. We will explore more of these in future columns. However, our primary focus will be on reviewing academic research and elucidating its relevance for diversity practitioners. In addition, we will offer suggestions to academics about research that would be of value to practitioners.

We welcome your reactions to this and future columns and your suggestions for specific topics. Together, we hope to build a bridge across the research-practice divide.

Dr. David A. Kravitz is a professor of management at George Mason University. Dr. Renée Yuengling is a workplace diversity consultant in Washington, D.C.

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