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Mar 26, 2009: Bringing academics and practitioners together

At last week's IA Summit, I was talking with the wonderful Gary Marchionini, who helped program the first two Summits and who is now ASIS&T President. (It was a wonderful surprise to run into him in Memphis; eight years is way too long!)

We were discussing a question that comes up just about any time I talk with an ASIS&T person: how could we bring together IA practitioners with old guard ASIS&T folks, many of whom are academics. This question was at the genesis of the first IA Summit, back in 2000. At that first event, there was some electricity between the groups, but by 2001 it had petered out, and we've been trying to recapture it ever since.

Gary and I shot some ideas around, and I suggested one that I wanted to share here. I'm wondering if 1) it makes any sense and 2) if so, whether there are some useful models that you might suggest.

There are brilliant ideas buried in the information science community's research. But like many other academic communities, those folks haven't been especially effective at communicating the value of their ideas to practitioners. And it's not entirely their fault: academics are rewarded mostly for their impact on other academics. (See "citation analysis". See also: "research grants").

Can we use the nuggets buried in research to generate interaction between academics and practitioners? Here's an idea: at the next IA Summit, perhaps we could dedicate a half day or full day precon to workshopping the ideas in ASIS&T's top research papers from the preceding year. The workshoppers would be teams of practitioners working with each paper's author. Each team's goal would be to generate a plan to productize the research, whether as a stand-alone product or service, or incorporated into an existing offering.

The IA Slam (where were you this year, IA Slam?) might be a good model: make it a fun contest. Have a panel of judges award a prize to the best one. But we should also have some product managers and venture capitalists participating on either the teams or the panel of judges.

Can research be fun for non-researchers? I dunno, I bailed on my own doctoral program after two years. But I think this could be a blast.

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Comment: Peter Morville (Mar 26, 2009)

I've been thinking along similar lines...

"We could establish an annual review of research relevant to IA practice. A small team of researchers and practitioners could collaborate to produce a session for the IA Summit and a paper for submission to an academic journal (e.g., JASIST, Journal of Information Architecture)."

...so, yes, I think it's a great idea :-)

More notes from the IA Summit discussion we had about research and practice are available here: http://tiny.cc/mimad

Comment: Gary Marchionini (Mar 26, 2009)

This is a terrific way to address the classic theory/practice divide that we struggle with at the ASIST annual meeting (and every other conference I'm famliar with---CHI, SIGIR, JCDL etc.). After our conversation on Saturday, I have also been thinking about what we might do at the AM along these lines....suppose we identify a set of key papers from the past 5 or so years (JASIST award winners, even some from other conferences or journals) and do the SLAM-type design competition at both the IA Summit and the AM? We could have the 'winners' from the Summit present at the AM and defend their title perhaps? (part of the prize could be some travel support i suppose--and of course all the fame of winning ;-)
working out what papers and how judging takes place are no small details, but this might be a tangible bridge not only between theory and practice but also the two meetings and their communities.

Comment: Brenda (Mar 26, 2009)

Very interesting idea, Lou. As a very practical person, I've had some "electric" moments of my own when talking with academic researchers, mostly at the IEEE/PCS conferences. A couple of points:
--How do you determine the "top" research papers from the prior year? If ASIS&T is choosing them, they may look for different criteria than would be effective for this competition.
--Completely agree you need to have more than just a prize - i.e., VC folks on hand, or a formal way to implement whatever comes out of this. For example, look at the SXSWi "Accelerator" program.
--Rather than devote time at the event, consider building the teams and letting them do the workshop work in advance. Then using the IA Summit event for presentation of ideas & awarding of prizes. This gives teh teams a better chance at digging out those nuggets and also gives the IA Summit extra opportunities to promote the competition and attendance at the event.
I hope you have success with it - it looks like it could be fun to me!

Comment: Dan Willis (Mar 26, 2009)

I like it, but if you want it to be fun, I think you'll want to give participants the chance to go pretty far off-map from the original research. The research could be a great starting point and a great source for real data, but not a control point. This might change the approach from "top" research to "interesting research from an academic who doesn't freak out when things change in mid-stride."

Comment: Lou (Mar 26, 2009)

Great ideas folks! Dan, I agree: it'd have to be flexible, just like in real life. Most businesses float away from whatever their original seed idea is to some degree. Brenda, good suggestion about doing something in advance, though getting people together is could be difficult...

Comment: Jennifer Bohmbach (Mar 26, 2009)

Thanks for starting this discussion Lou. I think we have amazing opportunities for the event next year and beyond-when there is passion in a community it thrives. Livia and I are excited-only good things are coming because people care and are invested. Thanks!

Comment: Keith Instone (Mar 27, 2009)

As far as getting people together before the conference to focus on IA research, then I have to put in a plug for the CONSORTIUM.

We tried it for the first time this year at the Summit, and it worked very well (so far).

The idea is simple: find a group of people who are passionate about a specific aspect of IA or a closely related topic. Give them a pre-conference day to gather as a group (of about 20), meet each other, talk about their topic, and plan next steps as a group. Have them share their early findings later at the conference and keep them involved over time (such as giving them a track at the next conference).

"Content strategy" was our first consortium. "IA research and practice" could be the next one!

If folks are serious about this, we should not wait until December to start planning it.

Comment: Andrea Resmini (Mar 29, 2009)

Lou, I think the idea has great potentials.

More than that, it seems like that old electricity you mention is coming around, as a number of initiatives that try to bridge academia and practice for the greater good of the community at large are already out there. I'm not sure how (or if) REG-iA or even the Journal might help along, but I have an idea we could think of ways to do so.

And as far as REG-iA, the Research & Education Group in IA, is concerned, as soon as Issue #1 of the Journal is out we are going to get a little more public and share some of what is going on with the survey (http://is.gd/hERj). REG-iA is an open group and anyone interested is welcome, but we had little time to plan for being open and welcoming. We are going to amend that and also work on our connection with WaSP.

I say keep rolling and thanks for sharing.

Comment: Karl Fast (Mar 31, 2009)

Some thoughts:

1.This is a big issue in most fields (not just ours) and has been for a long time (decades at least) and there is no silver bullet (but lots of little things will work).

2. Academics think about research and practitioners think about design. In ASIST and many or LIS or IS areas, the concept of design doesn't exist in a meaningful way. Not the way that practitioners use that phrase.

3. Few researchers think about productizing anything. They don't frame their research in those terms. And doing so, at least in some circles, is considered selling out and antithetical to the values of the academic life. Now there are academic circles where patents and creating products is a major part of the way things happen, but not so much in this area (not that I've seen, at least).

4. This needs a champion. For the research component of the Summit to really work it needs someone, especially on the academic side, who deeply cares about this and is able to think strategically about this, willing to put in the time, and is persistent enough to keep at it. This is a long term problem. For junior faculty like me it's not just that I'm too busy, it's also that there is no reward structure for this. Nobody will give me tenure for this. And in the academic game, everything is about getting tenure.

5. The academic and practitioner distinction is part of the problem. I just wrote a bunch of points reinforcing that problem. My analogy here is communication technologies. Over time we have been filling in the
spectrum from face-to-face to smoke signals, telegraph, phone, email, im, cell, twitter, etc. Yet we still talk about research and practice. There are spaces in between. We haven't identified them. And we haven't consciously thought about mechanisms for making this richer and more complex. Our language seeks to simplify and that, I suspect, is part of the issue.

In sum, I don't know if your proposed model could work or not. To echo Clay Shirky's recent and excellent analysis of the challenges facing newspapers and journalism... nothing will work, but everything might. That is, doing nothing won't help and yet we're not quite sure what
model will work and our best strategy is to come up with a list of possible models and try those that seem most promising.

Comment: Scott Rummler (Apr 9, 2009)

This is the goal of my book on collaboration and social networking (below). The two camps initially had such divergent viewpoints that the project seemed hopeless.

But by noodging the authors involved, and making the editorial case for congruence, everything worked out perfectly in the last second, and that synergy is the strength of the book. No need to separate the camps if you have a reasonable facility with the concepts IMO.

Perhaps look at models of technology transfer - going from the research labs to business, for example at the University of Rochester medical center.

Comment: Dale Mead (Apr 10, 2009)

The problem is certainly not unique to the IA/UX culture, but with our profession's natural hatred of information silos (especially when they are built around information production processes), it is probably at bit more troubling.

The challenge, both in our field and others, is that the economic structure of both traditional education and traditional business are affirmatively designed to discourage information interaction. The real way that most academic information flows into the workplace is that we hire recent graduates who know the theory and we thrust real world problems at them to force them to synthesize. We can get about 5 years of useful life out of their education.

"Lifelong learning" has been a buzzword for a long time, but there is little economic incentive for serious academics to break out of the model of K12/undergrad/grad and out. And there is very little education that is structured to be sufficiently economically valuable to corporate America to cause them to pay for real ongoing academic interaction (as opposed to "training").

I am not sure that the traditional conference is well structured to fill that need either. While conferences can have value, they really give little 45 - 90 minute tastes of what is out there.

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