Dr Fotis Pavlou, HR expert and established CIM researcher and lecturer, debates the merits of combining theory and practice in academia.
Debates regarding the gap that exists between academic theories and real business practices have been at the centre of attention in both academia and the industry. Why? Simply because collaboration based on the right foundations between these two worlds bears many benefits for both these worlds.
The inconvenient truth is that students, during their tenure at universities, and especially during their undergraduate studies, are bombarded with theories, conceptual models and philosophical debates as a means to gain academic knowledge and solid understanding for their chosen pathway. Of course, this is expected, desired and should be the central focus in syllabi. But it should not be thought of as sufficient. An integrated part should be exposure to the real world, pragmatic practices, and grounded business realities.
At Cypriot educational institutions, increasingly during the past few years, initiatives designed to bridge the gap between academia and business can be observed. Such initiatives offer significant benefits to students who get the chance to gain some basic experience and build professional networks and who can assess how theories learned in the classroom function in reality. Perhaps more important, they offer students the chance to re-evaluate from a holistic perspective their understanding of the conceptual models they read about in books.
Internships have been the main way through which universities have sought to offer their students industry insight. Yet it is not all roses and there are some concerns that need to be addressed. Doubts exist regarding the extent to which students engaged in internships can indeed gain pragmatic experience, as their exposure to real business issues is short and most of the times ‘controlled’. Among others, the main problem lies in the fact that organisations, although embracing internship schemes, do not show trust to the interns, and therefore allow interns only limited access to their resources. ‘Donkey work’ or administrative tasks tend to be the main responsibility for young interns. Further, students offer find themselves ‘acquiring’ experience in organisations they did not choose, at positions they did not want, doing things they find boring.
Cultural barriers exist and organisations’ mindsets still need fine tuning for securing a fruitful collaboration between the academic and business worlds. Of course, a question arises: ‘why should organisations bother?’ On the romantic side, organisations can promote these initiatives under their Corporate Social Responsibility agenda and claim contribution towards the communal good. On the business side, internship schemes are always valuable for building good employer reputation; they help organizations identify future talented employees and offer the chance to create multidimensional collaborations with Universities, which, in turn, can support business development at various levels. Employers also stand to benefit from the presence of young ambitious interns, since their contribution to organisational activities and their contemporary ideas and modus operandi can have a positive impact on the business.
To breach the gap between academic theories and industrial realities, beyond students’ placements in organizations, an alternative action could be the placement of competent individuals from the industry in universities. This would allow a blend of professionals and academics in the classroom. Moreover, the value of visiting speakers should not be undermined as expert lecturers can provide real insights on business matters, giving the opportunity to professionals to share their experiences. Other successful practices adopted by universities include the use and analysis of real case studies, on-site visits, practical workshops, and simulation.