Scholar-Practitioners: The Evolution of Leaders

images (3)Scholar-Practitioners.  That’s what we’re producing at Edgewood College.  And quite honestly, it’s one of the aspects of our Master of Science in Organizational Development program that sets us apart from many other graduate-level programs.  We’re in what I would refer to as a slowly growing minority of programs that are both recognizing the benefits of this balanced approach to graduate learning and leveraging it to the benefit of our students and their work organizations.

You see, there are lots of high-quality graduate degree programs out there.  MBAs. MPA. Leadership Studies. Strategic Management. Organizational Development.  You name a subset of any organizational, business, or leadership focus, and you can find plenty of top-notch programs, led and taught by high-quality faculty, producing some great minds!

Many of these programs are practitioner-based learning models.  MBA programs have tended to fall into this category traditionally.  And most are excellent at producing broad-minded business administration experts.  MPA (Master in Public Administration) programs are similar.  Their focus is on developing the next generation of public-sector leaders and managers, often along a parallel track to MBA programs.

SocialScientistOn the opposite end of the spectrum are more academically-minded programs, by which I mean those who instill a deep understanding of research and theory in their graduate learners.  These students produce some of the best theoretically-based empirical research each year, and the results of that research educates new tools, techniques and understanding in various industries and sectors.

In many cases, these two camps (the practitioner-based and the scholar-based) are two siloed, with the existing bridge between them being maintain primarily by college faculty.  It’s this group of educators who monitor the research journals and slowly teach new cohorts of graduate learners about the changing trends and tools in their particular fields.

But is that such a bad thing, you might ask?

I’d argue no, it’s not inherently a bad thing.  But it’s not particularly efficient, neither from a theoretical standpoint nor from a process perspective.  To rely on faculty to be driving innovation in organizations is like trying to battle the obesity epidemic by focusing only on kindergarteners.  It may be successful in the long run (I’m not claiming it will be, by the way, but just as an example), but even if it is, it’s going to take a long time to make such a societal shift.

So, what’s a solution (not THE solution, but certainly a part of it)?  Well, instead of having faculty teaching new graduate students about emerging research trends and hoping that teaching translates to the adoption of new techniques and approaches in the working world, why not simply teach graduate students how to evaluate the emerging research themselves and to conduct applied research in a scientifically valid, reliable, and credible fashion?

There’s two keys in this question….

1)   Teach them to fish – Yes, you’ve heard it before….this isn’t really a new concept.  Don’t just tell them what the emerging research shows.  Actually teach them to understand and recognize those trends for themselves.  Teach them to be scholars.

2)   Teach Applied Research – Teaching graduate students the principles of scientific inquiry and the application of those efforts to the real world is critical.  It’s through the application of their research findings that we….Teach them to be practitioners, not in the stale, traditional way, but now in a manner that allows them to better wade through the marketing and hype around new techniques and approaches in their industry, understanding where new tools are empirically sound or merely “well-sold” by those hoping to make a buck off others’ scientific ignorance.

business_school_472605Like I stated earlier, Edgewood College isn’t the only institution taking this approach.  There are a growing number of institutions that have embraced the scholar-practitioner approach to graduate education.  But it’s still a minority in a vast sea of institutions.

As I begin guiding a new cohort of graduate learners through their final Capstone Project research sequence (consisting of three courses and culminating in an independent, applied research project), I’ve been coaching and mentoring students as they select topics and begin developing research questions.  First, I’m spending considerable time talking them “off the ledge,” empathizing with their discomfort to having moved into the uncomfortable realm of first-time researchers.  Any of us who have been through that process ourselves can understand their anxiety.  And second, I’m emphasizing the somewhat unique (and competitively advantageous) expertise that they will be developing as they eventually leave this program with what few others in the workplace have, a graduate-level understanding not just of practical application, but of scientific inquiry and evaluation.

And as someone who spent two decades in the “real world,” being a scholar-practitioner DOES set one apart from the crowd.  Make no mistake about it.  It’s a set of skills much needed in an ever-changing workplace.  It’s leaders with this combination of skills that will help our organizations stay relevant and always evolving.  Now, who wouldn’t want that?!?!?

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