Commentary on the “Great Divide”
By Richard Rudman
Under the statement of intent for the New Zealand Journal of Human Resources Management we stated that a number of genres will be accepted for publication including commentaries. This is the first commentary that has been received and is in response to my invitation to readers to send their views on the issues raised in the most recent editorial on the “The great Divide in New Zealand”.
Dr Toulson raises important questions in his editorial discussion of the divide between human resources researchers and practitioners. There are many reasons why research and practice diverge, and no need to rehearse them in this brief comment.
What we need to acknowledge, perhaps, is an inevitable gap between “management” - which is what mainly interests researchers and what is usually written up and taught - and “managing” - which is what people actually do. This gap exists in human resources management as much as any other management field.
A few academics - Rosemary Stewart was the first whose work I remember - have recognised and researched this dichotomy. In my experience, many managers have been greatly relieved to learn that it is normal and predictable that their days and jobs should bear little resemblance to the contents of the text books they studied while gaining their management qualifications.
For most people, however, the gap between research and practice seems to be an excuse to fire off criticisms and allocate fault. With so much evidence, it should be straightforward to accept that knowledge and skills are inevitably different – and not try to construct an argument that one is better or more relevant than the other. Surely both researchers and practitioners can agree that informed practice is more reliable than intuitive behaviour.
There is, of course, a challenge to get practitioners to recognise that research and theory can contribute to better practice. Equally, there is a challenge to get researchers to understand that much of their research is too narrowly focused, too ethereal and (too often, dare one say) too self-evident for practitioners to see it as a source of inspiration and direction.
There are obvious exceptions. One example is enough to make the point I want to stress. Over recent years, Professor David Guest and others have conducted a series of research studies in the United Kingdom, seeking to establish the causal relationship – the “missing link” perhaps – between HR practice and organisational performance. There has been similar work in the United States by Mark Huselid and others. Much of that work, I fear, is rather too “metrically-orientated” for many practitioners.
Significantly, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has taken a leadership role in suggesting, sponsoring, guiding and publishing much of the United Kingdom research. And much of it gets early and easily accessible exposure in the Institute's People Management magazine - so that it is available to practitioners. They don't have to fossick through the learned journals in search of nuggets of usefulness!
I quickly acknowledge the vast difference in available resources between CIPD and the Human Resources Institute of New Zealand. Yet, there could be a role for HRINZ in helping to bridge the gap between researchers and practitioners. Here are three ideas:
- Would it be possible for HRINZ, perhaps with assistance from its Research and Publications Fund, to set up a register of research? This could be a list of current research projects, thesis work, etc accompanied by brief abstracts. It could be posted on the HRINZ website, perhaps with “click-through” links to the authors of the research (for requests for copies or further information) and to the sites of the educational institutions concerned. It shouldn't be too difficult to set up and maintain such a list.
- Following the example of People Management magazine in the UK, perhaps the Institute’s magazine could be encouraged to seek out and report local research findings. Except for the purpose of gaining academic qualification, there’s not much point in carrying out research that is never used to inform practice simply because practitioners are unaware of the research. Exposure in the Institute’s publications might subject some research to more extensive and rigorous application: it might also encourage practitioners to come forward with research proposals for academics to take up.
- Some years ago, there was a proposal to replicate one of David Guest's research projects in New Zealand. For various reasons, that didn't happen. Perhaps it is time for the Institute to look once again at the possibility of picking up on the themes of some of the current British research?
Richard Rudman, LFHRINZ
1 July 2002