Blog: A tale of two conferences: Industry vs Academia

Strategic HR

A tale of two conferences: Industry vs Academia

One thing the industry needs to learn from academia and adapt in its day to day function is critical thinking
A tale of two conferences: Industry vs Academia

In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens does a masterful job of the portrayal of pre-revolution France and draws social parallels with London during the same period. The metaphor was stark, albeit in a completely different setting, as I attended two very insightful conferences last month. The first was an academic conference organized by one of the leading management institutes in India. As a consultant, I had the opportunity to present two research papers to faculty and industry experts from across the country. I also had the good fortune to listen to some fantastic round-tables which always ended up in heated debates between members of the audience and the panel of experts. Here is what I took away from this conference:

The ability to question anything: Starting from the keynote speaker, to the industry experts, and the director of the institute himself, everybody questioned each other’s views. The director sparred with the speakers, the audience jumped in, and I witnessed all forms of intellectual tamasha. Everything was questioned, and everyone was allowed to participate in the debates. This atmosphere of open questioning took away the air of hypocrisy from the environment, and there was an honest appraisal done of all issues at stake.

The roast: While it wasn’t as painful as the Comedy Central Roast, there were similarities. All presenters, speakers, dignitaries and scholars were questioned about their work, thoughts and views. This was an immensely humbling experience for me personally. Perhaps this comes from the tradition of Critical Thinking and Critical Pedagogy, wherein students are taught to become sceptical towards commonly accepted truisms.

Keeping it professional: Most importantly, while you had the feeling of being grilled on stage, there is a clear line of distinction: the work of the presenter was being criticized, not the presenter herself. This separation of your identity and your work made it easy for the presenters to take the criticism in the right spirit, and ask the right questions to one another.

Exactly two days after my return, I attended a ‘commercial’ conference, organized by and for the industry, wherein a number of awards were distributed among companies across categories. Because I was fresh from attending the academic conference, I could see the blatant disregard for critical analysis here. My observations:

Nobody questioned anything: Unlike the academic conference, where students, scholars, practitioners and experts had free-wheeling public discussions, the industry conference had smiles and happy faces all around. Every company was extolled and every initiative was cheered. Where is the learning if nobody questions the status-quo?

No roast? Far from it. I’m sure the speakers felt smug and happy on the dais, but the audience was bored to death listening to company after company singing paeans of all the uber-cool initiatives that led to its success. Appreciation is good, but it has to be balanced with a good dose of critical analysis. That keeps it real.

Your identity is shaped by your work: This was probably the root cause of it all. The moment your work gets attacked, you tend to take it personally and the defensive guard is up – this is the wrong mind set to have. Researchers however, know that the attack is professional, not personal – the criticism helps advance the body of work and helps you improve from where you are today.

My reason for writing this post is not to praise one institution and bring down another. There is also a lot that academia can learn from industry, and it does so too. As far as industry is concerned, because of its flexible nature, it can probably learn and adapt faster than academia. My idea is to showcase the need for critical analysis, which needs to be brought back into the domain of industry conferences. Leaders may squirm in their seats, but like Daniel Kahneman said: The inside view is the one that all of us spontaneously adopt to assess the future of our projects. If the reference class is properly chosen, the outside view will give an indication of where the ballpark is. Are you ready to bring in the outside view?

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Topics: Strategic HR, Leadership, #BestPractices

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