Academics vs. Practitioners

by Ghani Kunto

I saw an advertising for yet another seminar with “[name of a persons] representing the academics and [name of persons] representing practitioners.”

Is there really a need for such a dichotomy?

I understand from a marketing perspective, it has practical uses.  It’s a bit like the way the music industry labels musicians.  We have rock here, hip hop here, R&B here, adult contemporary here, etc.  It makes it easier to arrange the CD rack display in the stores, I guess.  However, such categorizations are insufficient to really describe the thoughts and emotions that will be evoked when you listen to a piece of music, let alone to describe the range that a musician would cover in a whole album.  With such crude labeling efforts, the record industry end up with a set of descriptive terms that misses the whole essence of music.

The same thing is happening in the expertise industry—I’m having trouble finding a term to describe the whole professional speakers/writer/guru/expert industry, and no, the irony is not lost to me.

One of my talkshow guests said, “The academic world is not for me.  I’m not interested in becoming an academician.  I’m a practitioner.”

That was his response when I asked him whether he has plans to taking a doctorate degree.

I thought it was an interesting response, coming from a man who makes his living from writing books and telling people and companies how to do things better.  So I asked him on his view of how a practitioner differs from an academician.

“An academician is concerned with concepts and models,” he responded, before adding, “sometimes very abstract concepts and models.”

“A practitioner is only concerned with what works.”

He continued to describe in further details of how the two differ, and—though not in so many words—how a practitioner’s focus on the applicability of theories makes practitioners (and by extension, himself) better than academician.

Interestingly, I have yet to this day met a self-proclaimed academician who has an air of insecurity about him.  I have yet to meet someone who apologetically says, “Oh, but I only have a PhD.  I’m only concerned with abstract concepts and models.  So, if you have a super hard question, you better go to the practitioners because they’re waaay better than me.”

I don’t think anyone would dedicate so many years of his/her life for the pursuit of anything s/he considers second rate.

I don’t think the dichotomy is real.

Anyone in pursuit of academic advancements would consider the practical applications of his/her theories sooner or later.  At the lowest level of motivation, one would need to consider the practical applications because it makes it easier to get funding.  At a higher level, one would consider them, because the essence of science, art, philosophy, or anything intellectual or spiritual is about the betterment of humankind.  And how can we come close to that essence with we don’t consider how our theories would be applied?

Consider also the other side: how anyone who calls him/herself an expert practitioner would need to be adept in creating abstractions such as models and theories out what s/he observes in his/her experiences.  Any practitioner worth his salt would know that the only way to survive is to be adept at adapting to changes, and the best way to do that is by preemptively creating abstract models to anticipate upcoming changes in the industry.  If we don’t create predictive abstractions, then we’d be forced to always react to existing conditions instead of being able to be the first to act swiftly on opportunities.

Academician.  Practitioner.  Same dif.  If you’re good, you’re good at being both.

On a personal note, if an event organizer wanted to categorize me as one or the other, I’d probably chose “practitioner” simply because I don’t have the credentials to call myself an academician.  Not yet anyway 😀