Important information hidden in academic gabble

Knowledge needs to be shared and communicated but sometimes academic researchers make it very difficult to do so.  Below is the abstract from a recent research paper called “Risk, uncertainty and governance in megaprojects: A critical discussion of alternative explanations” (not readily available on-line):

“This article critically discusses different explanations for the performance problems exhibited by many megaprojects, and examines the proposed governance solutions. It proposes a three-fold typology of explanations and solutions by examining authors’ epistemological assumptions about decision-maker cognition and about decision-maker views on the nature of the future. It argues that despite important differences in their epistemological orientation, these explanations share an acceptance of the notion of actor farsightedness. It concludes that this encourages them to focus on governance in megaprojects, made forms of organization designed ex ante, and to ignore governing in megaprojects, spontaneous micro-processes of organizing emerging ex post. Identification of this gap adds support to calls by projects-as-practice researchers for a broadening of research to encompass the actuality of projects. A new line of enquiry within this broad projects-as-practice agenda is suggested.”

Such an abstract actively discourages the reading of such reports.  It could be said that a safety professional and blogger in Australia is not the audience for such a paper and if that is the case it is extremely shortsighted.  Many academics need to publish in order to achieve job security but if the publication is not readily understood by people who are in a position to act on the research, why write the research up in the first place?

The potential of the research topic could be seen by this one example of a possible solution to megaproject management problems:

“One such solution is identified in a series of articles reporting research on a project to build a 20 kilometre long tunnel under the north of Sydney Harbour in the run up to the Olympic Games in 2000… These authors link the broadly successful delivery of this project – on time and only slightly over budget – to the decision at the beginning of the process to create ‘a project culture that was explicitly designed and crafted to encourage shared behaviours, decision-making, and values…”

Establishing a positive culture for the project from the conceptual stage.  Hmmm!  Safe Design , anyone?  Practical guidance on procurement strategies, anyone?

The research’s conclusion lists three distinct explanations:

“…pre-planned opportunistic behaviours be key vested interests leading to the regular approval of non-viable projects”.

“…misaligned or underdeveloped governance mechanisms…”

“…performance problems are an almost inevitable result of the organisational complexity, ambiguity and conflict facing project actors on a day-to-day basis.”

There is clearly information of potential importance to project managers and those of us advocating for safety planning in the earliest stages of a project, but it is buried in un-Plain English.

The paper advocates a “projects-as-practice approach…. focused upon ‘organizing rather than organization, on becoming rather than being'”.  It seems that the researcher, Joe Sanderson, is talking about having research grounded in the practical application of the knowledge, a perspective that would be widely supported in the OHS sector but he makes it so hard to understand his point.

This is a problem in academia that is recognized by progressive academics who understand that new knowledge must be communicated effectively.  This stance is partly behind the very important article in The Economist earlier this year.  In that article, “The Price of Information“, it was reported that academics are boycotting some academic journals because the journals charge too much and that the distribution is too narrow.

A terrific initiative in Australia is the website The Conversation. It’s charter establishes it as an important source of evidence-based opinion (unless that is a tautology).  It has articles on workplace safety and wellness issues.

Sadly not all safety or information organisations are that visionary, or perhaps not visionary, but simply aware of the information needs of their readers and members.

Joe Sanderson is a researcher who has produced a lot of important research, some that is directly relevant to safety management but if all his writings are like the example above,  he needs a translator, someone who can interpret the research and bring its significance to the wider community; because his research is significant, at least I think it is, from what I can translate. I think Joe is in good academic company.

Kevin Jones

Categories communication, evidence, OHS, research, safetyTags , , ,

4 thoughts on “Important information hidden in academic gabble”

  1. I think Marilyn’s point about it being the role of others to provide the “bridge of understanding” is a core issue, right through the communication maze that weaves its way in OHS-World. It’s that tricky thing of being on top of what academics are digging up and how to turn that into something practical at the coal-face; for mine, smack on what an OHS advisor should be about.

    The double tricky bit is working out how to couch the “pragmatic paraphrasing” without losing the important bits. The comfy cut-and-paste is just not going to cut it (pun intended). And that opens up the point ya make KJ, the scope for online forums to be venue for the conversation that has to be had to make the academic stuff practical. T’would be nice to see more of those forums.

  2. Marilyn, it’s good to hear from a PhD student as I have never understood why all of the work that is done for such a qualification sits on a shelf in a university.

    During my researching days often the best, freshest and most challenging perspectives are found in theses but, unless there is that rare opportunity of a theses being commercially (or academically) published. the knowledge does not flow beyond the student and the supervising academic. It seems a waste to me.

    On your point about meeting in the middle, I think The Conversation is a great start. But I also have to say that the new (social) media options have a role in the communication of knowledge. On a simpler scale most OHS regulators understand that there is a “middle” media that spreads the regulator’s information to the professional networks, but usually at their own cost. In some ways this can be seen as exploitation.

    You mention the possible role of a “professional facilitator”. Professional implies a high quality but also someone who earns a living from their profession. In writing about OHS, one can achieve quality but Australia has no opportunities to deprive a living from it. I believe that this is even the case overseas where editors of OHS magazines are not given sufficient credit or even the economic capacity to use a credit card.

    Writing about safety remains an impoverished activity that is not self-sustaining. More’s the pity.

  3. Kevin, You highlight the fact that researchers need to provide information at a level that can be used by practitioners, however – as I’m just now finding out as I begin my journey into Academia via a PhD in Perceptions of Safety Training, the universities also cannot cope with language that is practical and seemingly without theoritical grounding. I propose that it’s the job of both the universities and the practitioners to meet in the middle with language, theory and practice. Perhaps it will become (or is it already) the job of the professional facilitator (in RTO’s or Universities) to provide the bridge of understanding.

  4. If the report/document does not directly address the stated aim it is no better than white noise.

    Example: Reduce work place injuries
    Question: How?
    Answer: Provide clear and unequivocal advice e.g. Do this, alter that, comply with, educate, and so on.

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