Jean Bartunek: How to Maintain Productive Tensions

How can researchers co-create knowledge with practitioners? Jean Bartunek describes how different perspectives can spark learning.
Garima Sharma September 25, 2017
NBS regularly explores how researchers can co-create knowledge with practitioners. Help shape our resources.

Here, we draw on an interview by NBS’s Garima Sharma with Jean Bartunek (Boston College), a leader in the field of academic-practitioner collaboration. Watch the video for highlights.

When academics and practitioners work together, tensions arise. “[If] I am collaborating with the practitioner,” says Bartunek, “s/he will be holding a fundamentally different assumption about how the world works than I am.”

That tension sparks analysis. “I think virtually all research questions start with tensions,” says Bartunek. “They all start with something that isn’t quite working. And what the researchers are trying to do is figure out how to resolve this tension.

Why Not to Resolve Tensions

But letting the tension continue — without resolving it — can be valuable. “Most theories actually are set up to resolve tensions,” says Bartunek. She proposes a different approach: “What if people thought about theorizing in a way that wasn’t aimed at resolving tensions, but maintaining them productively? The question [would become]: ‘How do we set [a situation] up so that we maintain the tension that we could work with productively?’ And I think that potentially that some of the tensions between academics and practitioners could be formulated that way.”

Researchers and managers each have valuable knowledge. “What that means in practice is that instead of saying to each other “you, stupid idiot,” we say “this difference is meaningful in itself. Let’s pay attention to the polarities going on here and try to see what we can learn from them.”

Bartunek has proposed innovative research approaches such as relational scholarship of integration and insider-outsider research. Relational scholarship of integration is about researchers and managers entering each other’s worlds with genuine interest in understanding those worlds’ complexity and their counterparts’ ways of knowing. Bartunek suggests advancing such scholarship by inviting managers to flesh out journal articles’ implications for practice and creating researcher-manager dialogue around common interests such as measures of organizational success.

With insider-outsider research, academics and members of the organization under study work as co-researchers.  Collaboration occurs at all stages of the research process—defining the question, designing the study, and collecting and analyzing the data.

Recommendations for Collaborating with Practitioners

Bartunek offers these recommendations  for effectively collaborating with practitioners:
See the full interview and video, from the Paradox Blog, for more insights on the notion of academic-practitioner paradox, and how researchers and managers can productively collaborate for generating new knowledge.
Share your perspectives below, and help shape future NBS resources.

Related Resources

Article

NBS seeks to bridge the gap between research and business practice by providing researchers with resources on how to co-create knowledge with practitioners.

Garima Sharma
Article

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

Garima Sharma
Chelsea Hicks-Webster
Research Insight

New research places business leaders at the centre of management innovation, providing inspiration for researchers and leadership for fellow practitioners.

Kevin Hurren
Success Story

Applied research is an uneasy topic in academia. Cornell’s Erik Simanis provides advice for academics and centres considering pursing it.

Chelsea Hicks-Webster