A View from the Bridge: Tensions between Practical and Theoretical Perspectives in Vocational Programme Development



This paper aims to analyse and explore the tensions arising from ‘academic’ and ‘practitioner’ perspectives within a business undergraduate course team during a curriculum redesign process. The differing perspectives are examined and some shared perceptions uncovered, particularly concerning the value of research in teaching to produce graduates prepared for both the world of business and for future research. The paper concludes that the identified tensions can be used constructively to develop creative ideas for curriculum development, harnessing the input from both academic and practitioner to develop well-balanced business graduates.

Margaret Price and Jo Feehily


This paper aims to analyse and explore the tensions arising from ‘academic’ and ‘practitioner’ perspectives within a business undergraduate course team during a curriculum redesign process. The differing perspectives are examined with a focus on linking teaching and research (a requirement of the redesign) and the way the tensions were harnessed to develop creativity and innovation in course design is described.

The First Debate – the Profile of a Business Graduate

The process of redesigning the programme brought an array of problems, only one of which was how to make the links between teaching and research – within the curriculum, within the pedagogy and within the hearts and minds of the staff. As with other disciplines, within business and management there are beliefs that integrating research with teaching belongs at postgraduate level and is inappropriate for undergraduate courses, but before we even get to this debate, the tension running through all business education is between the practical and theoretical (academic). Is a business graduate someone who has the capability to operate successfully in business as soon as they graduate or one who can critically examine business? As with other vocational subjects we have to reconcile the ‘practitioner’ approach with that of the ‘academic’ in order to ensure our graduates are both capable and equipped with an analytical and a critical approach. However, while such reconciliation may facilitate the process of redesign it could also limit our scope for the linking of teaching and research. What we want our graduates to look like will colour our view of which teaching and research links are relevant. Are we teaching about business or for business? What role does traditional research have in preparing a student for a career in business? Is consultancy a form of research? Hounsell (2002) points out that the differences in how research is conceptualised, organised and communicated in different disciplines can alter the impact of research on teaching:

‘What may be feasible, appropriate, or worthwhile in one subject area may be difficult or impossible in another.’ (p. 7)

If such questions are not debated, tensions and conflicts are inevitable in a team-based approach to curriculum development.

Integrating Differing Perspectives

The role of research is viewed from entirely different standpoints by those in the ‘practitioner’ camp and those in the ‘academic’ camp. Macbeth (2002) provides contrasting definitions of the research academic and the business consultant. It is recognised that not all ‘academic’ teachers identify themselves as research academics but that they share similar expectations for students. Equally the terms ‘practitioner’ and ‘consultant’ cannot be used synonymously, but there is a sufficient overlap in qualities to make the Macbeth analysis useful in understanding the tension between the expectations of the ‘research’ versus the ‘practitioner’ camps. Additionally his definitions highlighted areas of commonality between the two approaches.

Agendas of the research academic Agendas of the consultant
1. Extend frontiers of knowledge 1. Apply knowledge to activity such that business objectives are realised
2 Create new theory 2. Create new understanding, practice and measurement
3. Develop and test methodology 3. Apply proven tool kits of solution approaches
4. Access and analyse the data 4. Access and analyse the data
5. Generate results 5. Generalise results to support and ideally extend the contractual requirement
6. Transfer knowledge through publication and teaching 6. Transfer knowledge through internal development of people and systems
7. Build reputation for personal advancement and future project support 7. Build reputation for personal advancement and future commercial projects

Table 1: Adapted from Macbeth (2002), pp. 7-8

Researchers operate at the frontiers of knowledge, creating new knowledge; Macbeth (2002) warns that they run the risk that those frontiers are constructed inside the academic process world view, rather than within the practical world of the manager. The avoidance of such a risk partly explains the often applied nature of business research, compared with the pure research which underpins business and is frequently located in more traditional disciplines. The practitioner however, learns from each new client, builds a body of knowledge about how theory can be used and how it needs to be modified in particular contexts:

‘This is not new theory but is new knowledge of application and might be new theory about application.’ (Macbeth, 2002, p. 9)

While there is a clear difference here, there is also common ground; the academic valuing an evidence-based approach for substantiation of argument while the practitioner draws on evidence to improve practice.

Macbeth (2002) points out that

‘occupying the hybrid ground is a challenge that will not be for everyone but in an applied area of academic research such as management, to do otherwise runs the risk of creating output of value in one schema as an intellectual exercise but is largely irrelevant to the practitioner one.’ (p. 2)

Hence if research was to be linked with teaching within the curriculum both viewpoints had to be accommodated in order to avoid producing graduates who are intellectually developed but unemployable in a practical business context. Brew (1999) argues that the way research and teaching are viewed defines the relationship between them. If both are seen as an ‘act of learning’ (Brew and Boud, 1995, p. 261) the link can be established. While the research perspectives of the practitioner and the academic reveal some differences they also include similarities on which to build and develop a curriculum focusing on student learning through student-centred and enquiry-based approaches (Elton, 2001).

The graduate skills necessary to satisfy both academic and practitioner evidently overlap, particularly in the analysis and critical evaluation of data and theory in practice for decision-making, and in the ability to transfer knowledge in new contexts, albeit using often different media. Research skills were seen as essential by academics (for research projects) and practitioners (for problem solving), current business thinking would inform theoretical debates and new business methods in a fast changing world. There was a clear opportunity to make links between teaching and research through training students in relevant research skills and requiring them to undertake research activities in a variety of contexts. In order to function effectively in the ‘knowledge economy’, graduates must be able to analyse and contribute to research (Zetter, 2002) and business graduates must also learn to apply theory in new contexts as well as have academic skills to enable potential researchers to develop. Thomas (2003) acknowledges that although

‘the difference between studying for business and about business is recognised, there is a common requirement for students to be able to source information, read it, make notes and in so doing turn information into knowledge.’ (p. 323)

Layers of Complexity

To place all members of the development team at one end or other of the ‘academic’-‘practitioner’ spectrum, is to belie the richness of interests, experiences and approaches apparent and to oversimplify the complexity of activity and approaches evident in the Business School. Further layers of complexity emerged during the development process of an integrated programme; first that of functional [areas of business] interest and second, researcher-teacher focus. The former being more influential in the content curriculum design process and the latter more influential in the development of cognitive and practical skills in the curriculum. The adoption of a largely integrated curriculum stimulated debate about functional input. The introduction of specialist functional research would have proved simpler with a less integrated curriculum but such a curriculum would not have reflected the true nature of business. Webster (2002) discusses academic research in vocational subjects as being

‘mostly applied, offering reflection, critical analysis and experimentation,’ (p. 15)

and providing a source of examples for the undergraduate classroom. He highlights the natural fluidity at the boundaries of teaching and research. He describes this fluidity as messy, with the messiness increasing as the knowledge increases and “fragments into multiple specialisms” (p.15). Such messiness rather accurately resembles our own experience of the increasing complexity generated by juxtaposing practitioner and academic approaches, coupled with functional specialist standpoints.

Within the development process we hoped to harness creativity from the messiness experienced at the boundaries of the approaches, exploit the common ground and shared expectations demonstrated by the Macbeth definitions by bridging differences to deliver a programme that would at the same time meet the core expectations of the diverse team and meet and exceed the requirements of the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) and Benchmark statements. Quite a high and long bridge – the reason why bridge-building sometimes felt like tightrope walking over a very wide, deep chasm.

The Process

Our starting point was to produce a carefully honed set of graduate attributes to present to the programme development team, honed to achieve a balance between practitioner and academic viewpoint and legitimatised by the Business Benchmark statement and NQF. The achievement of such a set of attributes requires learning through an active and collaborative process situated in authentic and complex problem domains. This social constructivist approach to learning (Vygotsky, 1962,1978; Bruner, 1986, 1990) would ensure learners both construct an understanding of theory and work with it thereby developing relevant skills and competencies.

Although we recognised the need for the attributes to be determined and agreed by the whole team we also knew that, with a team of about 60 staff, we could not start a meeting with a blank piece of paper and providing a set of attributes as a ‘fait accompli’ would bring a response. The response we wanted was for members of the team to identify the ways they could engage the learner in learning to develop these attributes. We encouraged their conceptions of the development of the attributes to be consistent with Barrie’s (2002) ‘engagement’ or ‘participatory’ conceptions of the development of attributes, conceptions focused on student-centred learning.

The profile provided a boundary to prevent individual areas of interest from prevailing but did limit the opportunity to make links between teaching and research through the introduction of specialist staff research in the curriculum and yet still left room for creativity in developing the curriculum. While staff discussed their contributions and tried to locate their modules on the map of attributes, they were able to see the value of other contributions to the whole. The attributes identified a graduate who understood business, had initiative and had good analytical skills, could communicate effectively and gather information, solve problems and evaluate. These may manifest themselves in different ways for the practitioner and the academic but they all recognised them as valuable.

Graduate Attributes
1. Begin professional practice
2. Make decisions and justify them
3. Work independently and collaboratively
4. Continue learning for personal and professional development
5. Recognise importance of values, ethics and social responsibility in all aspects of business and personal life
6. Have a critical and questioning approach especially through exploring the ‘boundaries’ of the discipline

Table 2: Graduate Attributes as Presented to Programme Development Team

The creative input from the module teams, toward the achievement of these graduate attributes, eventually underpinned the final, more subject-specific graduate profile produced for validation (see Appendix 1).

Building the curriculum towards the agreed attributes would only work if we followed the principles of ‘constructive alignment’ (Biggs, 1999) as well as ensuring that teaching methods integrated theory and practice, required students to use the current business thinking to solve real problems as well as to inquire and research. For example, the use of case studies

‘places value on the practitioner experience and academic knowledge and creates a two-way flow of knowledge and experience.’ (Hara, Reeve and Flowers, 2003, p. 177)

An integrated approach meant an holistic curriculum seeking to integrate many aspects of the programme in order, in the end, to produce the well balanced graduate. Such an approach was not, of course, without contention either, not satisfying those who believe all the fundamentals of their disciplines need to be taught before integration can begin nor those that claimed the same for the functional areas of business. The main debate surrounding the holistic approach was the role of content and skills. Can we focus on skills before students had a real grasp of business? At what point do they achieve this? Webster’s (2002) “messiness” was clearly evident in the complexity of opinion and contributed to the innovative result. An holistic approach to curriculum design and delivery was a way of providing a vehicle to bridge practical and academic approaches. The implementation of an holistic approach requires students to develop research techniques to solve problems, informed by cutting edge business research. Teaching an holistic curriculum works well when research is seen as integrated within practical decision-making

Curriculum Structure

The skeleton holistic curriculum consisted of a set of loosely defined, mainly interdisciplinary modules, built upon the platform of basic numeracy, IT and communication skills assessed and developed through a first year diagnostic process coupled with an early induction into the discipline of business and critical thinking skills. A key element in linking academic and practical approaches was a module directly linking teaching and research. ‘Methods of Enquiry’ was designed to develop a range of research skills, preparing students for a wide choice of honours level modules including a traditional research-based dissertation and a consultancy project module.

The course team formed small teams, some with both academics and practitioners, to put flesh on the bones of modules. Their first task was to define the learning outcomes and then develop the assessment. It was within these small teams that the tension gave way to creativity and innovation. The meeting where teams reported back on their work and ideas raised the level of excitement about the new programme. Learning outcomes and assessment methods linked theoretical underpinning with professional skills relating to research.


The whole process of developing the business and management curriculum was about making links and connections between what appeared to be greatly differing viewpoints. The role and relevance of research to the two ‘camps’ typified their differing perspectives but also eventually contributed to a reconciliation of the differences. The key was to achieve consensus on the required graduate attributes. From there the curriculum required to achieve these was bounded and the value of each perspective recognised.

The holistic curriculum, which was built as a bridge to span all viewpoints from academic to practitioner, in its pursuit of a balanced business graduate also provided the framework for integration of content and skills, and the linking of teaching and research. Accommodation of differences was made possible through the acknowledgement of the contribution those differences made towards the graduate profile (attributes) and identification of previously unseen similarities highlighted by the process of curriculum development.

Inevitably the resulting bridge had tensions naturally built into it. Such tensions are important in the study of business and management, but can be problematic:

‘The danger for a vocational subject is that teaching and research interests, tackle the challenges of complexity and messiness in incongruent ways, and lose the synergy that gives their subject coherence.’ (Webster, 2002, p. 16)

An holistic curriculum, whether at undergraduate or postgraduate level, attempts to overcome such issues and provide an environment in which students can learn to deal with tensions and incongruity, and work with multiple perspectives.

The resulting curriculum reflects the ‘messiness’ of a vocational subject and, in its continuing development, the fluidity at the boundaries of teaching and research can be further explored by the teaching teams.

‘If we are serious about expanding the boundaries of knowledge we surely must be open to the practitioner, the consultant and the academic as all being seekers after understanding and to find ways through our research and teaching interactions to gain benefits from diversity.’ (Macbeth, 2002, p. 12)

The design process was able to exploit that fluidity and capture the resulting creativity although many participants felt uncomfortable in the process. The strength and effectiveness of the bridge will be tested by students and staff in the years to come.

Appendix 1

Graduate Profile – Business and Management Field (BU)


  • To encourage the student to develop an analytical and enquiring mind which can respond creatively to the problems and opportunities facing business now and in the future as well as those facing themselves and society at large
  • To allow the student to exercise initiative and personal responsibility in order to develop qualities such as flexibility, adaptability and independence, which will enable them to cope in a rapidly changing economic, social and technological environment
  • To enable the student to communicate information, ideas, problems and solutions effectively to both specialist and non-specialist audiences in a broad cultural context.
  • To prepare the student for a career in Business and Management or related areas

Knowledge and Understanding

A Business and Management graduate will be able to:

  • Understand the current and projected context, nature, role and significance of management activities as undertaken by managers in a range of organisations
  • Examine and appraise management concepts and frameworks through analysis of complex, multifaceted business problems encountered by managers within organisations
  • Recognise the importance of effective financial management of business
  • Explain the importance of key functions, transformational processes and practices which contribute to the effective management of business
  • Demonstrate strategic awareness and analyse and evaluate options open to organisations involved in the process of formulating business strategies
  • Appreciate the uncertainty of the external environment and its effects upon the management and strategic direction of business
  • Understand the importance of effective individual and corporate behaviours and cultures in management and organisational development
  • Demonstrate awareness of business research methodology and techniques and its role in the developing of ideas and thinking at the forefront of the discipline
  • Recognise the integrated nature of business and the importance of an holistic approach to business management

Disciplinary/Professional Skills

A Business and Management graduate will have acquired the ability to:

  • Apply business-specific tools of research, analysis, decision-making and evaluation to a wide range of scenarios and problems
  • Using skills of critical evaluation, apply such business specific tools to devise, substantiate and sustain arguments contributing to decision-making in contexts with various degrees of certainty
  • Use and practise business-specific communication techniques
  • Develop competencies in planning, control and integration of business-related activities
  • Reflect on experiences leading to personal and professional development

Transferable Skills

Graduates of all the Business pathways will have developed the following transferable skills:

  • Self management
  • Learning skills
  • Communication
  • Teamwork
  • Problem solving
  • Information technology


Margaret Price is a Head of Teaching and Learning at the Business School, Oxford Brookes University. She is a National Teaching Fellow (2002) undertaking a project on assessment strategy and her research interests focus on assessment. Recent research and publications relate to assessment processes and standards.

Jo Feehily is the Undergraduate Course Manager and Field Chair for Business at Oxford Brookes University’s Business School.


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Zetter, R. (2002), ‘Developing the link: enhancing the relationship in the Built Environment’,Housing Studies Association Autumn Conference, Oxford. Retrieved from the world wide web at: www.brookes.ac.uk/school/planning/LTRC/documents/papers/HousingEducation2002.doc on 17th December, 2002.

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