ISSN 1175-5407

Editor's Notes

Editorial: The Great Divide in New Zealand

A Happy New Year to all our readers. I thought we would start 2002 with an editorial to encourage some commentary from you regarding a topic that is of great significance to the building and dissemination of body of knowledge of human resource management. In HRM, as in all disciplines where there are separate groups of researchers and practitioners, there is a divide between academics and practitioners. On the one hand academics and researchers are often unaware of and do not explore the issues of real concern to practitioners. While on the other, practitioners are often unaware of and pay scant attention to the work of academics and researchers as they do their work. Both groups have much to offer the other and much to lose by maintaining the divide. In this editorial I explore the dimensions of the problem, consider why it occurs, and invite you to consider ways in which the divide might be bridged.

The theme of a recent Special Research Forum on the transfer of research knowledge between the academic and practitioner communities, published in the April issue of the Academy of Management Journal, has been coined the great divide. In other words there is a substantial body of evidence that supports the perception that when practitioners develop management policies and practices they are disinclined to the use the findings of academic researchers. In the same way academics are unlikely to seek inspiration for new research ideas from practitioners. Further, the increased sophistication in the technology of research methods has resulted in less utility for practical problem solving in organizations (Rynes, Bartunek, and Daft, 2001).

The practitioner research divide is not only restricted to the management sciences like our own, but is also found in all fields where there are research and practitioner communities. While the issues related to this gap have been the subjects of various debates over a long time period, one of the core conclusions has been that academics and practitioners operate from fundamentally different frames of reference with very different values and ideologies. Consequently there are notable differences in the goals sought by each community, which impede any serious utilisation of relevant research (Campbell, Daft, and Hulin, 1982, as cited in Rynes, Bartunek, and Daft, 2001).

While there is nothing particularly new in all this, Rynes, Bartunek, and Daft (2001) suggest that it is now timely to re-examine the issue. The changes in economic conditions and political agendas have resulted in an environment where both communities will now be potentially more receptive to a closer interface. Intensified global competition has increased the pressure to improve organisational performance, so there is now a much greater motivation on the part of the practitioner communities to be more receptive to any ideas that may help to increase the effectiveness of their organizations. In addition, the downsizing of corporate research and development activities has created a void that is increasingly filled by academic and government researchers. Governments are now encouraging the funding of research that is going to have some "public benefit" to society. In New Zealand most large scale funding applications require some sort of statement about how the project will be of benefit to the economy and society. Also as government reduces the level of funding from the public purse, and is making research funding more contestable, competition has intensified for these funds. Higher educational institutions, like universities, are becoming increasingly more dependent on the private sector for both research and teaching support. So the climate is right for more interaction between academics and practitioners.

Rynes, Bartunek, and Daft (2001) suggest that the many existing claims about this great divide are based on anecdotal rather than on empirical evidence. Academics often seem to be deeply split about the value of research collaboration with practitioners with respect to the advancement of science. For instance many academics worry that the collaboration with practitioners will mean that only narrow, short term, or commercially profitable projects will be supported. Also information sharing which is an essential part of academic research may be restricted in terms of "commercial sensitivity". However much of the evidence about these claims is limited by the paucity of empirical evidence and also conflicting results that are reported from the existing studies.

If we look beyond the management sciences to the biological sciences, the most successful academic biological researchers tend to have the highest interaction levels with practitioners (Louis, Blumenthal, Gluck, & Soto, 1989; Cohen et al, 1998, as cited in Rynes, Bartunek, and Daft, 2001). Rynes, McNatt, and Bretz (1999) found little evidence of practitioners placing limits on scientific enquiry or dissemination of knowledge among organizational scientists. However their sample was restricted to those publications that had successfully traversed through the top-tier journal review process.

So what are some of the themes for successful knowledge transfer between the practitioner and research communities? Mohrman, Gibson, and Mohrman (2001) tested a model for conducting useful research to practitioners, using ten different companies. They reported strong evidence to suggest that strong collaborative processes in research between researchers and practitioners enhance the perceived usefulness of the results.

Offerman and Spiros (2001) reported differences in value placed on empirical knowledge sources between academics and practitioners in the area of team development. Practitioners suggested that the best way researchers could improve practice of team development was to include more of an applied practice focus in their research, because many practitioners noted that most of the published research on teams remains unread, unappreciated, and not used to guide organisations.

Amabile, Nasco, Mueller, Wojcik, Odomirok, Marsh, and Cramer (2001), conducted a single case study of an innovation research group comprised of practitioners and academic researchers. They found that incompatible problem-solving styles tended to lead to unproductive conflict in the research group, and these different styles were underlayed by cultural differences between the academics and practitioners. The use of well-planned and frequent meetings helped the collaborative processes and the success of project. The most significant impact on success was the conflict resolution processes in the research group.

Spencer (2001) explored the relative contributions of academic and corporate research to subsequent research and development activities in one industry in both Japan and the United States. In Japan university research was much less influential than corporate research. However in the United States difference in relevance between university and corporate research was not significant. One of the conclusions from her study is that academics that strive to make their research relevant to firms should target journals that frequently publish advances in corporate research.

So what is the situation in New Zealand with respect to our own discipline of human resource management? I suggest that we are no different from the academic and practitioner communities alluded to in the recent research forum discussed above. Academic researchers in human resource management tend to try to publish their research results in learned journals that are refereed internationally. Indeed this is what they are expected to do by their employers. They tend to prefer to attend academic conferences to present their research results rather than practitioner conferences, because the research outputs from the attendance of these carry more weight in the academic community. Practitioners on the other hand tend to find academic conferences somewhat tedious and less energizing than their own practitioner conferences, and much of what is presented at academic conferences is often not seen as of immediate relevance to the practitioner. The evidence here, anecdotal as it is, is that the great divide is alive and well in our discipline. Let's just take one area of human resource management by way of example and that is in the whole area of recruitment and selection. Here the fact that many organizations consistently use selection devices that are not particularly valid and the lack of dissemination of research information is well documented in New Zealand (Dakin and Armstrong, 1989; Taylor, Mills, & O'Driscoll, 1993; Harris, Toulson, and Livingston, 1996). Personnel selection has been one of the most researched areas of organizational psychology and human resource management, and the evidence is still that practitioners do not use much of the research information. Practitioners are more likely to seek guidance from the consultant community.

So what can be done to reduce this gap? One of the key aspects here is to try to identify research projects that will be of benefit to the practitioner community, while at the same time be of potential benefit to academics in the international arena. One theme that has come out of the research forum discussed above is that if academic researchers can focus on the applied aspects/benefits in collaboration with the practitioner community then it is more likely the research results will be disseminated and used by practitioners. In other words part of the problem that is fuelling the great divide is simply the fact that both academic and practitioner communities seldom come together in open collaboration. In this sense they each do their "own things".

There is no doubt that the practitioner community perceives that there are a number of issues that are ripe for research in this country. A recent informal survey conducted by the Human Resources Institute of New Zealand (not published!!) of 25 members of their senior practitioners forum revealed some very interesting issues/problems that could be the basis of applied academic research in this country. This was undertaken because of the realization by New Zealand's professional practitioner association that New Zealand clearly has its own dimension on HR issues and should not regard Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States as the only major sources of knowledge, data, and innovation. Over the period June 2000 to June 2001, a brief summary of enquiries received by the HRINZ research and development officer suggested a list of issues, which were largely of an operational and compliance nature. The Institute therefore contacted members of the Institute's Senior Forum to ask them to identify any areas of research that they perceived should be carried out but are not being carried out. The objective of this was to encourage universities to undertake research that HR practitioners need and is relevant to New Zealand. 21 replies were received (a response rate of 42 percent), and each respondent identified more than one particular area of need, as they saw it. The key areas that were identified included: recruitment and selection, workforce demographics, performance management, retention of staff, remuneration, and training and development. While there is nothing particularly new about these general areas, some of the specific type of projects suggested within these broad bands are interesting.

For example in the group of topics relating to recruitment and selection, the emphasis was placed on e-recruiting, the use on-line selection devices, recruitment and selection costs, the recruitment relationship with tertiary educational institutes, and the impact of career development on recruitment and retention. The impact of information technology was also stressed in the group of suggestions that dealt with performance management. Career development also was stressed as an issue in the whole business of retention of staff in organizations, as well as strategies for the retention of the overseas experience age group. In the area of remuneration the point was made that much of the remuneration survey information has now been "captured" by large consulting organizations. Now there is a need for relevant research about remuneration policy and the relative significance of market versus performance based payment. With training and development the suggestions for research focused primarily on research into practices that have been developed in New Zealand organizations, and also the measurement of training and development effectiveness.

There was little said about the employment relations' area, with the exception of the impact of the Employment Relations Act, and the impact of multiple unions in some workplaces. One suggestion was the need for some research into the time involved in collective bargaining. There were several suggestions for research on "strategic HR", some of which have already been investigated overseas, including the strategic relationship between HR practices and organizational success, and how managers use HR to achieve commercial business objectives. Also there was interest in measuring the effectiveness of HR in New Zealand organizations, including such approaches as the balanced scorecard, the costs and benefits of intranet usage.

Not surprisingly a recurring theme that appeared in most of the suggestions was that of information technology and HR. Suggestions in this area included e-work, telecommuting, and knowledge management practices. Research is also needed on work force demographics including the issues of multi-cultural diversity and ethnic groups, aging, and the employability of immigrants.

One of the immediate impressions from the variety of suggestions from the practitioner community as briefly summarized above is that there is already research activity in some of these areas within the academic community in New Zealand, of which these senior practitioners appear unaware. This reinforces the perception that much of the information is still not reaching the practitioners.

In doing this informal survey the Institute has presented the academic community with a challenge. As we enter a period when there is much greater awareness of the significance of HR matters in our national competitiveness, it is imperative that we bridge the divide between the academic and practitioner communities, but there is much work to be done if we are to succeed. . The purpose of this editorial has been not to present a particular strategy to reduce the divide but to stimulate some debate on the issues that I have raised.

I invite readers to send their views on the issues raised and consider what can be done to address the problem. How can we promote greater collaboration and interaction in HRM between the academic and practitioner communities in New Zealand? The editor and associate editors, with a view to publishing in the journal, will briefly review all commentaries submitted.

Paul Toulson
Former Editor


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Spencer, J.W. (2001). How relevant is university-based scientific research to private high technology firms? A United States-Japan comparison. The Academy of Management Journal, 44(2), 432-440.

Taylor, P., Mills, A., & O'Driscoll, M. (1993). Personnel selection methods used by New Zealand organizations and personnel consulting firms. New Zealand Journal of Psychology, 22(1), 19-31.


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