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QRAM
11,1 A pragmatic view on
engaged scholarship
in accounting research
40
Henk J. ter Bogt and G. Jan van Helden
Faculty of Economics and Business, University of Groningen,
Groningen, The Netherlands

Abstract
Purpose – This paper aims to discuss the question of how the possible gaps between academic and
practical accounting research can be reduced and how academics could make a contribution to solving
the practical problems of organizations.
Design/methodology/approach – A reflection on Van de Ven and Johnson’s ideas about “engaged
scholarship” as a way for overcoming the gap between academic and practical knowledge creation,
illustrated with examples coming from public sector accounting research.
Findings – Although academic consultant/researchers, who conduct research of direct relevance to
practice, ideally must have research objectives in mind that go beyond the practical problems of the
organization in order to address academically relevant goals, this is often not feasible. This is due to
the fact that academically relevant research questions can often only be identified when a
practice-oriented research project has already taken shape. The authors argue and illustrate that a
pragmatic form of engaged scholarship in public sector accounting research implies that such research
results in a variety of outputs. Some of the outputs will have direct relevance to the practitioners and
others to the academics involved, whilst the outputs that are relevant to each of these two groups will
only partly show connections and overlaps.
Practical implications – The preoccupation of academic researchers with publications in
high-ranking journals, due to pressures from their universities and peer groups, threatens research
projects with a potential relevance for practice, because their publication opportunities are uncertain in
advance. The authors welcome researchers who want to take this type of risk, and the authors
challenge university officials and journal editors to broaden their view on excellence in research
beyond the scope of their traditional academic domains.
Originality/value – The paper offers a realistic way out of serving two seemingly different research
goals, practice-relevance and academic rigour.
Keywords Public sector accounting, Engaged scholarship, Practice-relevant research
Paper type Conceptual paper

Introduction
How difficult is it for scholars to conduct research that is relevant for practice in an era
that is characterized by a search for academic excellence, as often reflected by
publications in high ranking international journals? Is there a problem here and, if that
is the case, how could it be solved? These questions relate to possible gaps between
academic and practical knowledge creation and options for bridging those gaps.
Qualitative Research in Accounting & As guest-editors, we edited a special issue of Qualitative Research in
Management
Vol. 11 No. 1, 2014
pp. 40-50 The authors are indebted to Deryl Northcott, the editor of QRAM, for her encouragement and
q Emerald Group Publishing Limited
1176-6093
suggestions. They also acknowledge the suggestions of Daniela Argento and Giuseppe Grossi on
DOI 10.1108/QRAM-02-2014-0016 an earlier draft of this paper.
Accounting & Management (QRAM) on qualitative approaches to practice-relevant Pragmatic view
management accounting research in 2012. Our paper for the current special issue on engaged
discusses the question of how the possible gaps between academic and practical
accounting research can be reduced and how academics could make a contribution to scholarship
solving the practical problems of organizations. In doing so, we provide examples
coming from public sector accounting research, which is our field of expertise. Having
in mind the particular focus of QRAM, we will also shed some light on the role of 41
qualitative methods in the debate about aligning practice relevance and academic
rigour in doing accounting (and management) research.

Three ways for bridging the practice-academic gap


Van de Ven and Johnson (2006) are amongst the authors who have discussed the issue
of whether a gap exists between academic research and practice and whether such a
gap, if it exists, is serious or not. According to them (Van de Ven and Johnson, 2006),
there are two well-known ways in which the possible gap between knowledge creation
by academics and practitioners can be bridged. The first is the translation and
diffusion of academic knowledge towards the arena of practitioners. This requires that
academics unpack their academically formulated findings in a way that makes them
accessible for practitioners, for example by deriving recommendations from their
major research outcomes. It also includes the search for media, such as professional
journals or meetings with professionals, for disseminating research outcomes. The
second route aims to accommodate differences in knowledge production by academics
and practitioners. Practical knowledge is specifically encountered to a certain case,
while academic knowledge sees specific cases as instances of a more general
understanding of practice. These differences can be overcome by stimulating
academics to include research questions that relate to the production of practical
knowledge.
To put it in another way, and in accordance with Shapiro et al. (2007), the practical
relevance of research can be lost either before or in translation. When research does not
address problems that matter to practitioners, practical relevance is lost before
translation. When researchers do not translate their research outcomes into formats
that are accessible to practitioners, the practical relevance of their academic research
is lost in translation (see van Helden and Northcott (2010) for an elaboration of this
distinction in public sector management accounting research).
Van de Ven and Johnson (2006) suggest a third way for overcoming the gap between
academic and practical knowledge creation, which they call “engaged scholarship”.
According to these authors, engaged scholarship “ implies a fundamental shift in how
scholars define their relationship with the communities in which they are located,
including other disciplines in the university and practitioners in relevant professional
domains (Van de Ven and Johnson, 2006, p. 809).” This engagement with other
disciplines and practitioners requires collaboration and a dialectic process of inquiry,
which points to a dialogue for finding research questions that meet the diverging
criteria for relevance in the academic and practitioners’ domains. Van de Ven and
Johnson (2006, pp. 811-815) argue that various factors are contributive to the success of
these collaborative research projects, especially a strong involvement of researchers
with practice (in the sense of many face-to-face contacts), a long-lasting duration of the
research project, and the adoption of multiple methods and models for leveraging
QRAM competing explanations. Van de Ven and Johnson’s claim is that engaged scholarship
11,1 leads to research that is relevant and rigorous according to both academics’ and
practitioners’ criteria.

Multiple forms of engaged scholarship and the role of qualitative research


There is a varied repertoire of engaged scholarship forms. An ultimate extent of
42 engagement can be achieved in a collaboration project that includes researchers and
practitioners, and in which both groups contribute to the identification of research
goals, the selection of methods and concepts, as well as the conduct of research
activities and the discussion of the findings. A second option is interventionist
research, and especially action research as the probably most well-known form, which
tries to combine a focus on goal-directed problem solving and an ambition to show the
theoretical connections and the research contribution of this solution (Kasanen et al.,
1993), and which requires, according to Van de Ven and Johnson (2006, p. 810),
a dialectic research process. Finally, more detached forms of collaboration between
research and practice can be distinguished such as research review panels and advisory
boards, in which practitioners take part (Van de Ven and Johnson, 2006, p. 811).
Now the question could be asked whether quantitative or qualitative research
methods are most appropriate for engaged scholarship, or particularly for
practice-relevant accounting research. In principle, qualitative research is primarily
directed to finding a deep understanding of accounting practices of a single organization
or a few organizations by giving emphasis to the particularities of these organizations,
including their context. Moreover, the qualitative researcher is strongly involved in the
practices he/she researches through intensive face-to-face contacts with practitioners.
Contrasted to that, quantitative research is mainly interested in finding causal
relationships between organizational and accounting variables for a large sample of
organizations in order to explain and predict how an “average” organization’s accounting
practices are affected by certain factors. In addition, the quantitative researcher acts in a
relatively more remote way from the practices he/she examines because his/her main
data sources are accounting documents and the responses to surveys.
However, it should be clear that both quantitative and qualitative research can
provide outcomes that are relevant to practitioners. However, there is a difference in
what organizations can expect from each type of research. As far as quantitative studies
include explanatory variables for accounting practices that managers can control, they
can provide practice-relevant outcomes. For example, if such a study showed that the
degree of budget participation is positively related to good budgetary results, this would
offer support for practices of budget participation in organizations. However, even when
statistically significant, the relationships found between variables in quantitative
studies are often not very strong. Further, this kind of support is often quite generally
formulated in quantitative studies, in the sense that it may not hold for specific contexts,
such as a highly competitive environment, or for particular historical backgrounds.
If, for example, the particularities of context and history are crucial, qualitative research
seems to be more appropriate for providing solutions to practitioner’s problems.
As Parker (2012, p. 65) puts it: qualitative research is “best fitted for investigating,
critiquing and illuminating the deeper level organisational, accountability and
contextual interface issues” and offers the prospect of providing “a more holistic
appreciation of organisational and environmental context and complexity”.
Thus, it seems that in many instances in practice the use of qualitative research methods Pragmatic view
could be helpful to engaged scholars. It could be argued that researchers, who have on engaged
face-to-face contacts with managers and other employees of an organization, as in
qualitative research, have a lower risk of receiving biased responses than in quantitative scholarship
research. Notwithstanding the differences between quantitative and qualitative
methods in conducting practice-relevant research, the adoption of mixed methods could
offer the most promising perspective in this respect, at least when the findings of 43
qualitative and quantitative methods are integrated in a proper way in both study
design and data analysis (Grafton et al., 2011, pp. 8-9).

A critical view on engaged scholarship


Van de Ven and Johnson’s (2006) idea of engaged scholarship is certainly not
undisputed; it is criticized, for example, by McKelvey (2006). He argues that academics
will mostly focus on conducting research and writing papers based on discipline-specific
theories and methods, in order to produce knowledge that is generally regarded as
legitimate in academia and to “perform well” in their academic world. That is to say,
academics writing papers have different success criteria than practitioners. Further,
practitioners cannot wait for the lengthy procedures of academic research and
publishing academic papers, but want immediate help (McKelvey, 2006, pp. 825-826).
Moreover, McKelvey (2006, p. 827) observes that “[w]hat gets stamped as legitimate
[academic] research [. . .] is [often] discipline-centric quantitative research with large
samples, [. . .] findings reduced to averages, and confidence intervals”. However, in his
opinion managers in organizations live in a world of extremes and for that reason they
do not want to have knowledge about “average” organizations, but “want [to know]
more of the good ones and wonder how to better avoid the bad ones” (McKelvey, 2006,
p. 828). Teaching cases in business schools also often refers to extremes, which
makes sense because such extreme events are a natural part of the social world
(McKelvey and Andriani, 2005, pp. 225-226).
McKelvey (2006, p. 828) adds to this that what managers “get from academia is
invariably from an assumed Gaussian world”, although he also wonders whether any
“science-type ‘truth’ actually emerged from the decades of action research” (McKelvey,
2006, p. 825). So, in the eyes of McKelvey, engaged scholarship and action research do
not seem to provide a real solution to the statistical types of research focussing on
normal (Gaussian) distributions, which can be characterized by their mean and
variance. To summarize, McKelvey is critical about engaged scholarship and – taking
his arguments into consideration – we could say that there seems to be some reason for
such a critical treatment of the concept.
We also have to observe, however, that McKelvey (2006) with his rather polemicist
vocabulary might be drawing up a straw man to some extent, in that he exaggerates
the difference between what he proposes and what is advocated by Van de Ven and
Johnson (2006), including how the latters’ ideas could get shape in practice. It seems
that knowledge about good and bad examples from practice, so avoiding “averages”,
could be provided by more qualitative types of case research. Whether the case is about
an “extreme” or about “just an interesting organization” is probably not so important,
once one agrees that in-depth insights are the main focus rather than statistical
averages (moreover, the term extreme is probably more a part of precisely that world,
which does build on statistical averages). If such a form of case research is based on
QRAM solving really existing, specific problems of an organization, i.e. academic consultancy
11,1 work, which is conducted together with practitioners working in the organization, then
in our view engaged scholarship could become more than – in the words of McKelvey
(2006, p. 825) – something existing only in “dreamland”.

The practice of engaged scholarship


44 In practice, in the first instance, the co-production of knowledge by academic
researchers/consultants and professionals will probably often relate to practical
problems with which the organization is confronted. Those problems are the issues
for which the organization wants to find a solution and is prepared to engage the
academic researchers/consultants. However, by making a contribution to solving
the practical problems of the organization the researcher/consultant also obtains more
in-depth knowledge about the specific problems in and situation of the organization and
probably in issues in which he/she has a scientific interest. In order to raise the practical
knowledge gained to a level where it might contribute to academic knowledge, it would
be ideal that right from the start of the project the academic consultant/researcher has
one or more research objectives in mind that go beyond the practical problems of the
organization. However, we have doubts about the feasibility of this route, as will be
illustrated below.
In a probably more realistic view, the consultant/researcher could be seen as
identifying such academic research objectives more precisely during the work process
in and for the organization. Such research objectives are often not of a direct interest to
the organization involved, but the practical work for the organization and its findings
provide the basis on which the more academic research objectives can be developed
and obtain shape. This implies that when deciding about accepting consultancy types
of work or on doing action research or not, the academic researcher needs to be aware
of the potential importance of this work for academic purposes. However, developing a
concrete academic research question calls for creativity on the part of the researcher,
because he/she has to detect academically seen interesting research themes whilst
conducting the practical work. The consultant/researcher should also agree with the
organization about developing these more academic research objectives in advance,
to avoid a lack of clearness and prevent discussions about this later on. In this way,
engaged scholarship might get shape in practice – perhaps not completely in the ideal
form as sketched by Van de Ven and Johnson (2006), but hopefully in a way that is
more or less in line with their ideas, and also with what McKelvey (2006) proposes. It is
true, of course, that it could be difficult to combine conducting this type of research
with working with a pre-planned long-term academic research agenda, because the
precise research question and form of the academic research are not known in advance.
We will now give some examples of our own experiences in doing practically
relevant research in the public sector accounting domain in order to identify a position
on engaged scholarship that in our opinion is more realistic than Van de Ven and
Johnson (2006) claim, but probably also more ambitious than what McKelvey (2006)
sees as feasible.
The first example is a project in the 1990s for developing a cost accounting system
for a newly established government agency that provides services in the higher
education domain, among others student loans and the organization of nation-wide
exams. The aim of this project was to find procedures for calculating the full costs
of these services. We were mainly consultants in this project, helping the people of the Pragmatic view
accounting department in a new job due to the autonomization of their organization on engaged
(which used to be a part of a ministry). There was no immediate academic output
coming out of the project. However, indirectly this project enabled the conduct of a scholarship
subsequent case study about the changing role of the accounting repertoire as a
consequence of autonomization in the public sector and the efficiency impacts of such
autonomizations (ter Bogt, 1999, 2003). The role of the original consultancy project 45
was twofold: it familiarized the researcher with the challenges and problems of
autonomization operations in the Dutch public sector and it gave access to managers and
financial staff members of a specific organization for conducting academic research.
The second example concerns a benchmarking project of the Dutch water boards
regarding one of their main tasks, i.e. waste-water treatment. One of the authors of this
paper was appointed as a chairman of the steering group of this benchmarking project,
for which a private sector consultancy firm was attracted for developing the
benchmarking system. In the course of the implementation of this project, which
started in the late 1990s and lasted several years, many data came available about the
performance indicators of the 25 water boards in The Netherlands. This became a
source of inspiration for doing research about the impact of this benchmarking
operation, which resulted in a couple of academic papers. One of these papers had an
almost purely academic character because it aimed to develop a benchmarking theory
based on economic and institutional reasoning for which the water boards’ project
served as an illustration (Van Helden and Tillema, 2005). In 2005, another research
project started, which used institutional theory for explaining how and why the
initially ambitious reform of the Dutch water sector turned into a moderate pace of
change. The scope of this project was far beyond the original benchmarking project,
because it not only included other types of water organizations, such as water
supplying companies, but it also covered, in addition to benchmarking as an
accounting tool, organizational issues of coordinating activities in the water chain
(Argento and Van Helden, 2009). This example illustrates that the goals of academic
research projects were developed in the course of a practice-oriented consultancy
project, whilst these goals had a primarily academic character.
Our last example is by far the most closely related to the ideas of Van de Ven and
Johnson (2006) about engaged scholarship. This project, which lasted between 2008
and 2011, was aimed at improving the programme budget of a Dutch province. Our role
was to help managers active in the various policy fields and employees of the financial
department in making the yearly budgetary information more relevant for decision
making and control by the members of the provincial council, i.e. elected politicians.
The revised budget was the result of a co-production process between these managers,
staff members and us as researchers (whilst the councillors were also involved). One of
our academic papers dealt with our role as consultant-researchers in this project, in the
sense that we showed, inspired by recent developments in institutional theory, how our
interventions were directed at increasing the coherence between the logic underlying
NPM-like innovations and the performance budgeting techniques adopted in actual
practice (ter Bogt and Van Helden, 2011). In another paper (ter Bogt et al., 2014),
we assess the extent to which the newly designed budget lived up to its original
ambitions, for which we developed a new way of framing the transformation process of
a public sector organization that, rather than standardized services, produces complex
QRAM and sometimes project-types of services. Especially, the latter paper could be regarded
11,1 as an example of research that combines relevance and rigour for both practitioners
and academic researchers.
These examples show that academic researchers can help organizations in solving
their practical problems. They can also write short papers for professional journals in
which they discuss the problem researched in a more general sense, or use some of the
46 findings from the research in presentations for practitioners. Further, academic
researchers can use the information obtained from such projects as a basis for
academic papers. However, in our experience it is often too ambitious to try to identify
research projects that right from the outset combine practice-relevance and academic
rigour according to practitioners’ and researchers’ criteria, as suggested by Van de Ven
and Johnson (2006). The examples presented above seem to show three things.
First, the process of collaboration between academics and practitioners often cannot
be started with questions that are relevant to both the practitioners and academics.
The collaboration mostly originates from either the practitioners (when they want help
to solve a problem) or the academics (trying to obtain access to an organization to
research a certain research question). After some contacts and research activities, the
party that did not take the initiative for the project, can discover that something “might
be in it for him/her”, and then the collaborative aspects of the project take shape. Second,
if initially practical problems shape the project, its outcome is uncertain from an
academic viewpoint, so do academic researchers really want to take the risk of getting
involved in practice-oriented activities, which perhaps do not lead to publishable
results? Third, ideally co-production of knowledge during the whole process is probably
the objective, but this could be very difficult to realize, due to existing differences in the
interests between (and “success criteria” for) academics and practitioners. Generally the
co-production of knowledge by the practitioner and the academic consultant/researcher
relates to the more practical level and stage of the research project. After the practical
stage the consultant/researcher will often “return” to his/her position of academic
researcher for doing further analysis and writing an academic paper. But the research
could still be quite closely related to “real” organizations and practice then.
To conclude our plea for a pragmatic form of engaged scholarship in accounting
research implies that such research results in a variety of outputs. Some of the outputs
will have direct relevance to the practitioners and others to the academics involved,
whilst the outputs which are relevant to each of these two groups will only partly show
connections and overlaps.

Threats and challenges


While engaged scholarship may be desirable for several reasons, as explained above,
it is important to be aware of one of its possible downsides. Independence is crucial for
academic research, but close engagement of the researcher with an organization could
endanger this, regardless of whether the research is quantitative or qualitative.
For example, an organization may consider certain research outcomes as desirable and try
to enforce or stimulate those outcomes through the provision of funds or access to relevant
data sources (Gulbrandsen and Smeby, 2005, pp. 941-942). If case research is conducted,
close personal contacts between the researcher and, for example, managers of the
organization could also lead to a certain bias in the outcomes. This seems to imply that the
issue of academic independence deserves extra attention in the case of engaged scholarship.
When discussing engaged scholarship and the forms it could take, we should also Pragmatic view
keep an eye on the reality that surrounds many academics in their universities on engaged
nowadays. That reality considers the academic accounting researcher increasingly,
in the terms of Gendron (2008), as an “academic performer”, who is an actor in academia scholarship
producing as many “commodities” as possible, i.e. papers, which preferably should be
published in highly ranked journals (Willmott, 1995). Gendron (2008, p. 106) observes
that universities increasingly seem to rely on journal rankings and performance 47
measurement, and measuring the performance of individual academics on the basis of
such indicators as the ranking of the journals in which they published their papers and
the number of citations of their papers. Tenure and promotion decisions are also
increasingly based on numbers of publications in such high-performing journals. The
consequence of this can be, according to Gendron (2008, p. 100), that academics are
encouraged to conduct research and write papers that will probably be acceptable to the
high-ranked journals, thus reducing the motivation of the researcher to start novel and
innovative projects, which carry a higher risk of not leading to the desired success.
Moreover, the measurement of research quality through journal impact factors can be
subject to various forms of manipulation, for example when journal editors encourage
authors to refer to other research published in the same journal and – more
fundamentally – when journals overemphasize types of research with good citation
potential, which could be harmful for research on novel themes (Libby, 2012).
Ter Bogt and Scapens (2012) make somewhat similar observations on the basis of
their case research in two accounting and finance departments in universities in The
Netherlands and the UK. They observe that the increased focus on journal rankings in
performance measurement systems in universities implies that researchers have to try
to publish their papers more in the so-called top international journals, and adopt the
research agenda and research methods favoured in those journals, which could imply
an increasing narrowness in accounting research (Lukka, 2010). It also implies that
academics try to reduce the time they spend on teaching, administrative tasks within
the university, and activities for the broader society, such as providing services to
professional or other organizations outside the university.
Lukka (2010, p. 112) observes that “mainstream” accounting research in the top
international journals, which seem to be dominated by North American journals,
particularly implies conducting economics-based empirical accounting research that
makes use of large archival databases or analytical modelling. It seems that this is not
particularly the type of research that is produced by the researchers who are involved
in more qualitative engaged research. In that sense, the recent developments with
respect to performance measurement in universities do not seem to stimulate the
conduct of “engaged” types of research, trying to contribute to solving the practical
problems of the organizations involved. A researcher can decide that it is worthwhile to
be involved in a practice-relevant research project in an organization, but solving the
practical problem will probably not lead to a publication in an “outstanding” academic
accounting or management journal. Whether contributing to the practice-relevant
project will lead to a more academic research question and academic research at a later
stage, as outlined in the previous section, will often also be uncertain at the time when
the researcher has to decide about being involved in the practice-relevant research
project or not. In that sense, being involved in practice-relevant research could be
considered as a risky publishing strategy, which in the present situation probably does
QRAM not contribute to being an “academic performer”. The latter seems to be particularly
11,1 true for more junior researchers, for example, those who are involved in a tenure track
procedure.
It is obvious that a change in the performance measurement systems used in
universities, i.e. decreasing the rather exclusive focus on the number of publications in
high-ranked journals, can make it easier for a researcher to act as an engaged scholar.
48 On the other hand, editors and editorial boards of top journals could also decide to
broaden their scope and to publish more diverse types of papers in their journals,
such as more qualitative papers based on case research – without loosening standards
with respect to academic rigour (which probably does not mean necessarily that the
researcher uses statistical methods and calculates significance levels). However,
the commentaries of the editors of various accounting journals included in the paper
that we wrote for the QRAM special issue that we edited (ter Bogt and van Helden,
2012) suggest that for the time being, at most, moderate expectations about such
changes can be expected. With respect to the issues of stimulating practice relevant
research and qualitative research methods, most editors mainly gave support to these
ideas in only some rather general terms. One has to bear in mind that we did not ask for
a commentary from the editors of the top North-American accounting journals (because
they do not focus on qualitative research at all), so overall the support could even be
less than suggested by the commentaries that we included. In that sense, a journal like
QRAM is very valuable and has an important role to play in publishing qualitative
types of research conducted by engaged researchers in accounting and management.

Encouragement for engaged scholarship


More could be said about the issue of academic research and practice relevance and
how to reduce gaps that might exist between the two. Although we think this is an
important theme, and one that deserves attention in universities as well as in society
more generally, we do not discuss it further in this paper. However, in accordance with
our view on engaged scholarship in accounting research presented above, we would
like to conclude with some recommendations.
The preoccupation of academic researchers with publications in high ranking
journals, due to pressure from their universities and peer groups, seems to drive out
initiatives for challenging research projects with uncertain outcomes. Research projects
with a potential relevance for practice, for which qualitative methods often seem to be
most appropriate, are important examples of such projects. There is a need for
researchers who want to take the risk of combining relevance and rigour in accordance
with both academic and practice criteria. Taking the present situation with respect to
performance evaluation in universities into account, senior academic researchers, with a
more established position, in particular might be prepared to take such a risk. However,
in the long run, institutional settings for academic research need to change. This
requires a greater number of university officials and journal editors who are inclined to
broaden their view on excellence in research beyond the scope of their own (quantitative)
domains. Fortunately, debates are emerging about the need to reduce short-termism in
publishing research and advocating research with a long-term societal impact,
notwithstanding possible risks to remain unpublished in top journals (as, for instance in
The Netherlands, Dijstelbloem et al., 2013). All in all, we hope that this opens up the
prospect of high level academic research projects that are also relevant for practice.
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Further reading
van Bogt, H.J., Helden, G.J. and van der Kolk, B. (2014), “Challenging NPM ideas about
performance management: selectivity and differentiation in outcome-oriented performance
budgeting”, Financial Accountability & Management, Vol. 29 (in press).

Corresponding author
G. Jan van Helden can be contacted at: g.j.van.helden@rug.nl

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