Involving Practitioners as Knowledge Partners


Hear directly from four scholars who have worked with practitioners to co-create knowledge. They share benefits, challenges, and practical tips.

Bridging research and practice is an exciting frontier of management research. It offers tremendous potential — but it’s not always easy.

NBS recently interviewed four researchers who’ve made such bridging a priority. These scholars attended a recent Academy of Management Journal workshop on “New Ways of Seeing.” They described different ways of engaging practitioners, the benefits, and the challenges.

Here are some highlights from the video.

Opportunities from working with practitioners

In collaborating with practitioners, researchers developed new methodologies, gained unique insights, and found research questions relevant to practice.

Angela Passarelli (College of Charleston) studies how to improve coaching in organizations. In her recent research, practitioners — management/leadership coaches — “actually coached for us in the study,” explains Passarelli. Involving the coaches provided validity to the study’s findings. Passarelli also worked with practitioners to make sense of the results. “We find it’s really interesting to understand what [practitioners] find interesting… Those interpretations… help us adjust what our interpretations are.”

Sometimes, the benefits are more personal. Chang Lu (University of Alberta) worked with a prominent Indigenous (First Nations) scholar for his research on how Indigenous populations effect change. His colleague works on Indigenous empowerment as a researcher and community leader; she was able to share both academic and practitioner perspectives. Lu now considers her to be his “Indigenous mother” and she considers him to be her “Chinese son.”

Why don’t all researchers partner with practitioners?

The researchers identified a number of challenges. For example:

Researchers and practitioners speak different languages. Passarelli’s research involved neuroscience; this meant that those involved in the study had to be tri-lingual in the languages of neuroscience, organizational behavior, and practice.

Communication styles may be different. Robin Schnider (University of Zurich) described needing to make best use of practitioners’ time. “You have to make sure that you … get feedback on the stuff you really want to because [practitioners] have really limited time. Time is running out really fast.”

Goal alignment can be challenging. As Lu worked with his Indigenous colleague, he found that she and her family focused on making tangible change in the community while his initial goal was to make theoretical contributions.

How can we tackle the challenges?

Amanda Williams (Erasmus University) recommended overcoming challenges by working with practitioners from the very beginning. She explained: “If I were to do it again, I would start … co-creating the research with practitioners…from the research question, trying to get alignment about what the outcome of the research should be.”

Several researchers advocated creating democratic spaces for dialogue. “I think exposure is key,” says Passarelli. Such spaces support two-way conversation and are neutral for both parties.

Lu recommends entering into the world of the practitioners:

“I had to involve myself more deeply in the discussions around First Nations. I went to the communities more often and also I went to the conferences and discussions between Indigenous scholars. Over time, I learned their language and I found that actually when they talk about practical implications, when they talk about how we can actually affect real change, they actually borrow some insights from the work I do. And then over time I learned how to translate my work into language that they could understand and comment on.”

Lu, Passarelli, Williams and Schnider agree: working at the intersection of research and practice is rewarding. Challenges arise, but can be addressed.

What has been your experience in projects that involve researchers and practitioners? Share your perspectives in the comments section.

NBS provides resources that support co-creation. Stay up-to-date by subscribing to our regularly released Researcher Updates. Find several recent products below.

NBS’s Co-Creation Initiative

NBS seeks to help researchers navigate the path of co-creation with practitioners: integrating academic and practitioner knowledge for unique insights. Review our many existing resources and subscribe to our academic newsletter for new co-creation guidance.

We also hope you’ll contribute your own insights. Please share your interest by emailing Garima Sharma.

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  • Garima Sharma

    Garima Sharma is an Assistant Professor at Kogod School of Business, American University. Her research focuses on sustainability, social entrepreneurship and related tensions of purpose and profits. She is also interested in understanding how research impacts practice, and has created many resources on co-creation for NBS, available here: Garima has published in many journals and is on the editorial review boards of Academy of Management Journal, and Organization & Environment. Garima received her PhD from Case Western Reserve University, after which she was a postdoctoral fellow at NBS and Ivey Business School, Western University.

  • Chelsea Hicks-Webster

    Chelsea spent her master’s degree studying ecosystem health in Kenya and is the former Operations Manager for The Network for Business Sustainability. She’s also a certified life coach. Chelsea now splits her time between her two passion projects; sustainability writing and editing, and helping over-stressed mothers improve their mental health and find more joy in life.

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