Less can be More: Writing for a Practitioner Audience

Less can be More: Writing for a Practitioner Audience

It is an open secret among business academics that “research conducted at business schools often offers no obvious value to people who work in the world of business” (Nobel, 2016). Call it myopia or ivory tower syndrome, the disconnect between practitioners and academics in the business discipline is obvious and pervasive. When business leaders need information on trends in management and innovation, they read reports from market analysis firms, white papers from companies in the same industry, and articles in online trade magazines.  They rarely bother with academic business journals.

Face it, articles in academic business journals are long and are written in jargons that are often incomprehensible. When asked about academic business journals, Neale-May, executive director of the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) Council, commented, “Academic research can be helpful, but it tends to be overly complex, hard to digest, and not backed by real quantitative insights from customer populations or engagements.” CMO Council is a global affinity network of more than 10,000 senior marketing executives based in San Jose, California.

If marketing executives find it difficult to comprehend articles published in marketing academic journals, who then should be reading these articles? It turns out most marketing academic publications are for academics to read and to reference in order for them to continue generating more articles that are relevant to academics but irrelevant to practitioners. This cycle feeds the tenure and promotion process. To keep their tenure-track jobs, scholars prioritize their research output to generate articles, both in quality and in quantity (depends on the school) in academic journals. Business academic journals are notorious in rejecting manuscripts that are ‘too applied.’ No doubt, for most business academics, practitioner relevance is simply not a priority.

At School of Advanced Studies (SAS), our unique Scholar-Practitioner-Leader Model® rigorously assists students to be able to apply their advanced know-how to address practical and real-world challenges. To enable such rigorous assistance, our research thus needs to focus on the applicability in the real world solving real world business problems! Our business academics will need to ‘climb down’ the ivory tower and write articles that practitioners will want to read in industry trade magazines, mainstream business journals, or op-eds for newspapers. Here are a few steps to start this journey:

1. Choose the right research questions relevant to business practitioners. For example, an article that describes various startups in Las Vegas gives no insight to business practitioners. The writing is mere journalism. However, categorizing Las Vegas startups into various industries through a historical lens and exploring why Las Vegas attracts certain kind of startups is a research project relevant to business practitioners guiding them toward the decision to choose a start location (this is actually a personal example from my forthcoming article Sussan, F., Sloboda, B., and Hall, R. [forthcoming, 2018]. Is there a path from Sin City to Tech City? The Case for Las Vegas. In A. O’Connor, E. Stam, F. Sussan, & D. Audrestch (Eds.), Entrepreneurial ecosystems: Place based transformations and transitions. Springer.

2. Select your audience before you start your research. There is no such thing as managers in general. To illustrate this point, I refer to an article my co-author and I recently wrote on the historic triadic relationship among university, industry, and government and the various roles they play in an entrepreneurial ecosystem. In the first draft, we began with the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 which essentially gave away the federal rights to the intellectual property (IP) to universities for almost all federally funded research projects at universities. We then went on and showed that over time universities become more like business with focus on commercial Research and Development (R&D) while not forsaking basic research; businesses become more like universities seeking non-commercial and long-term R&D; governments become more focused on tangible gains for society at large via innovations facilitated by grants and subsidies – thus forming a triadic entrepreneurial ecosystem. 

The reviewers commented that the first draft added no new insights! In retrospect, the first draft was indeed boring and lacked focus on which audience it was trying to reach – university, industry, or government? In the final draft, the article repositioned this triadic relationship in the context of the digital economy and selected ‘university’ as the target audience. Specifically, the article introduced the concept of “Productive Triadic Entrepreneurial Activities in the Digital Economy” in which the university becomes the marketplace for entrepreneurs to find customers (i.e., university students) to test their new products (e.g., Facebook, Yahoo, Ofo). More about this article can be found in Chinta, R., and Sussan, F. (forthcoming, 2018). A triple-helix ecosystem for entrepreneurship: A case review in Entrepreneurship. In A. O’Connor, E. Stam, F. Sussan, & D. Audrestch (Eds.), Entrepreneurial ecosystems: Place based transformations and transitions. Springer.

Ramp Up to Prepare Scholarly Practitioner Targeted Articles:

Write to a specific audience: e.g., policy makers, advertising managers

Does your research target a particular problem business is facing?

Spend time with business practitioners to co-develop research questions

Attend industry conferences, even spend time as a practitioner

The actual practitioner writing, compared to academic scholarly writing (average 4,000 words upwards), is not the same as writing something time-crunched business practitioners want to read (average 1,500 words)!

Write in a language that practitioners understand (e.g., instead of ‘heuristics’, say ‘rule of thumb’)

Instead of saying ‘operationalized’ say ‘defined as’

Use straightforward jargon free language

Focuses on the results that managers can use

Follow the submission guidelines – word count, active/passive voice, reference style

We should know and be comfortable knowing that the practitioner publications, although with less word counts, are often peer reviewed (may not be blind) and just as challenging (e.g., try publishing in Marketing News!) as the longer typical academic journals’ articles.

Finally, less can be more, less removes jargon, less is more of an active voice, and less can account more for immediacy and recency. Less can impact the field and/or discipline for years to come.

References

Chinta, R., & Sussan, F. (2018). "A triple-helix ecosystem for entrepreneurship: A case review in Entrepreneurship." In A. O’Connor, E. Stam, F. Sussan, & D. Audrestch (Eds.), Entrepreneurial ecosystems: Place based transformations and transitions. Springer. http://www.springer.com/us/book/9783319635309

Nobel, M. (2016). "Why isn't business research more relevant to business practitioners?"  Posted on Harvard Business School’s cite Working Knowledge: Business Research for Business Leaders at: https://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/why-isn-t-business-research-more-relevant-to-business-practitioners

Sussan, F., Sloboda, B., & Hall, R. (2018). "Is there a path from Sin City to Tech City? The Case for Las Vegas." In A. O’Connor, E. Stam, F. Sussan, D. Audrestch (Eds.), Entrepreneurial ecosystems: Place based transformations and transitions. Springer. http://www.springer.com/us/book/9783319635309

Note: Thank you to Drs. Erik Bean and Ryan Rominger, Chairs of the Center for Leadership Studies and Educational Research (CLSER) for their feedback in preparing this blog.

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