Practitioners have a lot to teach academics – and vice-versa

Gavin Reddin’s long business career allows him to supplement academic models with myriad real-life exceptions to the rules

October 18, 2021
Business people in a seminar
Source: iStock

More than 40 years ago, as a young undergraduate, I harboured designs on an academic career. But my fascination with my lecturers’ tidy offices and leather elbow patches was ultimately swept away by a heady mix of late 1970s student politics and a lack of application and intellect on my part.

Even as my business career flourished, however, I remained affected by my time as a student representative on the University of Warwick senate and the presence of that great champion of continuing education, the recently departed Bob Fryer. Inspired by Bob’s vision, I used The Open University to great effect, taking a multitude of certificates and diplomas, eventually culminating in a master’s or two.

When Covid’s impact on my business volumes created new spare time, I decided to rekindle my old ambition by taking a postgraduate certificate in higher education (PGCHE) online at Falmouth University – which included a module on the online delivery of education. Combined with my MBA and a business background that I like to consider successful meant this seemed to make me a suitable candidate for a part-time, visiting or associate lectureship. And the teaching experience I have since gained at four UK universities (Portsmouth, Falmouth, UCL and The Open University) has been fascinating and rewarding even as my day job has returned to near full-time.

My subject, strategic management, is the ideal blend of theory and practice. It gets to the very heart of what businesses do. In the heat of battle, decisions in business are often taken on instinct – and things often don’t go to plan. My longevity allows me to share many such real-world stories with my students, giving new energy and impetus to dry academic models by supplementing them with the caveat that, whatever the theory, flexibility in business is a key skill.

Career academics, on the other hand, bring a deep knowledge of the subject, invaluable research, cross-disciplinary skills and, of course, the vital ability to teach, honed over many years. So practitioners and academics complement each other perfectly. Yet while the cross-fertilisation of ideas between the academic and business worlds is often touted, it rarely operates at a micro level.

It isn’t just that practitioners have a thing or two to teach academics. The business world also has a lot to learn from academia. For instance, in my experience, at least – and notwithstanding The Chair – universities are supportive, sharing environments, where collaboration is held in higher regard than competition. And it gets better results that way.

The education world also teaches industry much about diversity and inclusion, going well beyond the box-ticking of business that I have often come across. I once spent four years with one of the UK’s leading companies enmeshed in a world of policies and certification only to realise that no one really cared about the outcomes – only their ability to tell customers that they were accredited in some area or other. I have spent many years attending corporate board meetings with people just like me; university departments on the other hand are populated by a much broader range of people.

Perhaps though, the greatest surprise of my late career switch has been the excitement of working with young undergraduates. In business, the young and talented often have the energy and drive sucked from them by the need to conform to the existing power structures. One lasting memory of my teaching practice at Falmouth was when I helped on the complex problem-solving module. The task was to solve the housing crisis in Cornwall. Of course, the students couldn’t solve it, but the energy and creativity with which they set about the task would put grizzled business executives to shame.

The question was not framed around what they couldn’t do but what they could do. They enthusiastically approached farmers, housing associations, councils and builders without fear, bombarding me with questions and plans. It is their generation that will eventually solve or mitigate the problem, and business would do well to harness this energy rather than suppress it.

For all their difference, though, most academics and businesspeople are cut from the same cloth. They are both professional and generous in sharing their views, experiences and knowledge. If more older candidates from outside universities went into teaching, and if more older academics went into business, both worlds would be enriched.

I’ve even taken to reading Times Higher Education. And my old teacher Lincoln Allison’s recent review of David Runciman’s Confronting Leviathan: A History of Ideas has got me trying to apply Hobbes and Marx in analysing my business. I’m not sure how my fellow directors will take it but I, for one, am at last able to stop laughing at that old joke. The teacher asks his millionaire retired student, “Why are you studying an MBA? You have run a business all your life and have now sold it for millions of pounds.

“Yes”, answers the student, “But I want to find out how I did it.”

Gavin Reddin is a managing director and a part-time lecturer.

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