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“That’s all very well in practice, but it will never work in theory.” The title of The Partnering Initiative’s (TPI) workshop at the recent Cross-Sector Social Interactions (CSSI) conference in Cape Town, South Africa, perfectly encapsulates the disconnect between academics and practitioners working on partnerships for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  

By Dr Priyanka Brunese and James Chapman.

When it comes to tackling complex, multi-sectoral challenges like climate change and inequality, academics and practitioners each bring unique and complementary skills to the table. Academics contribute rigorous research, theoretical frameworks, and a deep understanding of complex social issues. Practitioners, on the other hand, bring on-the-ground experience, practical know-how, and the ability to navigate real-world challenges.  

When these two groups work in isolation, their potential for real-world impact is limited. Academics risk producing knowledge that is disconnected from reality, while practitioners may struggle to scale and sustain their work without the insights of cutting-edge research. However, when academics and practitioners collaborate effectively, they can create powerful synergies. By combining theory and practice, they can generate new insights, develop innovative solutions, and drive transformative change. Bridging the academic-practitioner divide is therefore essential for achieving the SDGs and creating a more just, sustainable world. Conferences like CSSI 2024 play a crucial role in bridging this divide. 

CSSI 2024 brought together a diverse range of scholars, practitioners, and policymakers to exchange knowledge and advance thinking on the topic of power and inclusion in multi-stakeholder partnerships. One of the expressed aims of the conference was to bridge the divide between academics and practitioners. In order to bridge this gap, it is important to understand the fundamental differences which lead to isolation between the two groups [1]:

  • Focus: Academics primarily focus on research and contributing to the body of theoretical knowledge within their field. On the other hand, practitioners focus on designing, facilitating and implementing partnerships among different sectors, often facilitating complex cross-sectoral partnerships. 
  • Approach to knowledge: Academics often take a more theoretical and conceptual approach to cross-sectoral partnerships, building on previous academic conceptual frameworks that are very discipline-focused. This leads to a cycle of increasingly isolated theoretical publications that are inaccessible to practitioners who take a more interdisciplinary approach. Further, academic language is complex and abstract, making it difficult for practitioners to digest.  
  • Method: Academics studying cross-sectoral partnerships are trained to develop frameworks for generalising, decontextualising data in order to apply the framework as broadly as possible.  Although there are general themes for practitioners, there is no one-size fits all approach, and the practitioner sector is built on being able to understand and assist in the formation of context specific cross-sectoral partnerships. 
  • Timelines: Academic research often has longer timelines, with projects spanning months or years. Practitioners usually work on shorter timelines, driven by business needs and deadlines. This misalignment contributes to difficulties in collaborating between the two fields.  
  • Incentives & audience: Academic and practitioner incentives and audiences are misaligned.  Academics are typically rewarded for their research output, with the aim of being published in prestigious journals and cited by other academics. Practitioners are rewarded for their contributions to their stakeholders. This means that they often do not take the time to consolidate or document lessons they are learning along the way. 
  • Collaboration: While both academics and practitioners engage in collaboration, the nature of their collaborations may differ. Academics collaborate with the primary goal of knowledge creation, while practitioners collaborate with colleagues, clients, and stakeholders for policy implementation.  

Misalignments between the academic and practitioner communities lead to isolation and lack of collaboration between the two sectors. Ironically, the very differences that could make collaboration fruitful end up forming barriers that keep the two communities apart. 

Access barriers between academics and practitioners further exacerbate this isolation. Most practitioners, especially in low and middle-income countries, do not have access to expensive academic journals. Financial barriers, combined with the complex language barriers inherent to academia, often result in a lack of accessible knowledge exchange. 

Bridging the gap 

Conferences such as CSSI are essential to bridging the gap between academics and practitioners, providing a platform for meaningful engagement between the two disparate bodies. However, while conferences are incredibly useful, their impact is often short-lived. To create lasting change and further reduce the divide, long-term, sustainable solutions are necessary. 

  • Knowledge exchange platforms: Online forums, databases, and events that facilitate ongoing dialogue and resource-sharing between academics and practitioners. 
  • Accessible publications: Open-access journals, practitioner-focused summaries, paid practitioner reviews of academic articles, and blog posts that distill academic insights into actionable guidance. 
  • Common language: Glossaries, frameworks, and other tools to establish shared terminology and mental models. 
  • Collaborative research: Joint projects, action research, and other co-creation efforts to generate knowledge that is both rigorous and relevant. 

Bridge-builder organisations can play a crucial role in translating academic research into practical guidance. By working closely with academics, they can help distill complex theories and frameworks into actionable insights for practitioners, facilitating the exchange and dissemination of knowledge by connecting practitioners with relevant academic work and vice versa. 

Get involved

Bridging the academic-practitioner gap is crucial for advancing the field of cross-sector partnerships and achieving the SDGs. Whether you’re a researcher, practitioner, or policymaker, there are many ways to break down the academic-practitioner divide: 

  • Attend and promote boundary-spanning events like CSSI 
  • Contribute to accessible knowledge exchange platforms  
  • Support open-access publishing 
  • Participate in collaborative research projects 
  • Advocate for more practice-oriented scholarship and more evidence-based practice 

By fostering collaboration, knowledge exchange, and the creation of accessible platforms, we can break down silos, generate actionable insights, and drive real-world impact through multi-stakeholder collaboration. Let’s put theory into practice – and vice versa. 

 

[1] Brunese, P. et al. (2023) ‘Maximising the potential of academic–practitioner collaborations in International Development’, Journal of International Development, 36(2), pp. 867–894. doi:10.1002/jid.3842.
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James Chapman Communications and Coordination Officer
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