Oh, the Academics & the Managers Should be Friends

If I gave you the choice between two training courses – How to Use Twitter for Business or Principles of Social Media, which would you rather take?

Now, let’s say it is 2004, and your choices are How to Use Friendster for Business or Principles of Social Media – which of those would you rather take?

In case you don’t remember, Friendster was the first big social network. In 2004 was about where twitter was in late 2008 in terms of the number of users, and it was the dominant social media site of the day. Now it is the subject of The Onion’s Archaeological expeditions:

Internet Archaeologists Find Ruins Of ‘Friendster’ Civilization

One of the issues that I run into when I’m teaching MBA and Executive Education classes is that people want things that are practical – things they can go out and apply right away. They want things like How to Use Friendster. Well, now, they want How to Use Twitter. But if academics are doing their job well, they should be able to teach general principles that apply across similar situations. If you had taken a Friendster class in 2004, what you learned in it now wouldn’t be doing you much good. On the other hand, if you had taken a Principles of Social Media class in 2004, you should have learned things that will still be helping you on Twitter, or LinkedIn, or on whatever comes next. This is one of the fundamental tensions that we face – trying to balance the teaching of general principles with the teaching of specific useful tools.


I’ve been told a couple of times recently that I’ve been being ‘too academic’, which is part of what prompted this thinking. I think that being ‘too academic’ can mean a few different things:

  • Academics tend to think in terms of general principles and theories, but people learn best from stories. A lot of academics think that telling stories is somehow inappropriate, or beneath them. So being ‘too academic’ can mean talking only in theory, with no stories.
  • Closely related to that, many people in business don’t value academic ideas because the people spouting them don’t have business experience. Sometimes this is a valid criticism, but sometimes it means that the academic is telling them something they don’t want to hear. In the latter case, discounting the discussion as being too academic is a defensive posture to avoid having to do something that they don’t want to do.
  • Often, academic research uses specific words to mean specific things. This usage is different from field to field, and if you are not trained in the field, it just sounds like jargon. If academics are using too much jargon, whatever they’re saying simply won’t make sense to a non-academic audience. Sometimes you need to understand the jargon to understand the concepts, so you have to do a little work to learn about the topic. Other times, the jargon is simply a smokescreen used to hide the fact that the academic doesn’t really understand the topic well enough to explain it simply. There’s an irony in this one too – academics often think that if they simplify their ideas too much, people will assume that they don’t know what they’re talking about, when in fact the opposite is nearly always the case.

So where does this leave us? The point that I’m trying to make is that sometimes the accusation of being too academic is a valid one to which professors and lecturers really need to pay attention. If we’re not telling enough stories, or if we’re using too much jargon, we’re not communicating in a way that will help our audience. On the other hand, sometimes the accusation of being too academic is being used to avoid having to think about what is being said, or to avoid having to act on it. Good research often discovers things that contradict common sense. Good researchers can explain why this is the case, and what people should do about it (Bob Sutton is an absolute master at doing this – his blog, books and talks are all good examples of excellent communication of academic results).

A good academic can tell you a story, then use it to illustrate a general point, and talk about the situations in which that general point is true and false. The last point is critical – many of the people that are popular business gurus can do the first two, but not the last, because they haven’t done any actual research. And it is the last bit that is critical. Just because Bill Gates has done something and it has worked for him, it doesn’t mean that it will work for everyone. Or, in particular, it doesn’t mean that it will work for you.

We need to stop saying that things are ‘too academic’, and get better at specifying what we really mean by it. Don’t let your desire for hearing stories lead you to learn about Friendster or other ephemeral things when you have a chance to learn something of more lasting value. And I’ll do my best to get better at saying what I’m trying to say more clearly. How does that sound?

(And, if you can figure out what the blog title is referencing, I’ll buy you a drink next time I see you)

Photo by Phil Long (still not quite sure how he managed to catch me when I wasn’t waving my hands wildly…)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

8 thoughts on “Oh, the Academics & the Managers Should be Friends

  1. how true!

    i would suggest one more interpretation of “being too academic”, which is when academics are too arrogant to want to get themselves dirty with real-world problems.

    this behaviour is widespread here in germany, at least, where it known as “living in a ivory tower”.

    i was once invited to a talk in our maths department on how to most efficiently pack eight-dimensional hyperspheres. when i asked what the applications of this research were, i was told that this was not an appropriate question.

  2. I run into that too Graham – it’s frustrating. I can kind of understand it in mathematics, but it’s pretty close to unforgivable in a business school.

  3. It’s the song from Oklahoma, which is what the bookshelf guy is referencing as well! That’s a very cool shelf…

  4. Ah, another chord struck from an earlier career lifetime–where the wind comes sweeping down the plain!
    I think “academics” just get caught more often than some of us for temptations we all fall prey to, that is, drawing conclusions from conclusions one level too far removed from “raw data.” This is also what happens with the jargon or short-hand of any profession or social culture, for that matter.
    But to further reinforce your point “through the back door,” it is ultimately impossible to teach either the practical application or the general principle without significant reference to the other. You can’t teach Twitter without the additional reflection about “what’s going on here.” And you can’t teach social media principles apart from the trials and tribulations of concrete application.
    You can read every book on the principles of Tai Chi and still have virtually no genuine understanding without the actual practice of repeatedly moving this arm just so and directly experiencing the flow of energy.
    Oops, what was the question again?? I think I wandered off again…

  5. Two great points Ken! I fully agree about theorising too far away from data – it is too common, but rarely good. A point I keep making with my PhD students…

    And the second point is definitely correct. The two approaches must work together. I’ve been getting slowly better at doing that recently, and the feedback from students has gotten correspondingly better. Probably more importantly, the quality of their work has improved greatly as well, which suggests to me that they’re actually learning things, which is great!

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