Bridging retail academia and real life

  • Opinion
  • March 24, 2016
  • Jonathan Elms
Bridging retail academia and real life
Image: Kerryn Smith

Many moons ago when I was a poor PhD student, I attended a seminar delivered by an academic heavyweight from a leading UK business school. The seminar was on the relevance of business and management academic research for practice. The presenter was an academic rock star (if there is such a thing). However, after only two minutes in, I was already disappointed. Very disappointed. I could only assume that the academic rock star must have used academic ghost songwriters to pen their tunes.
Rather than championing that all good academic management and business research should be relevant to the needs and requirements of industry, with its merit judged accordingly, the presenter argued that good academic research should distance itself from the demands of the business community. He regarded these demands as often short-term, irrelevant or uninteresting, and lacking an understanding of the bigger picture.
Moreover, if, and only if they had to, academics should at best pay lip service to practice in terms of their research and teaching, while proactively ensuring that their research findings were as indigestible and unreachable by managers to preserve the status and authority of academia. In sum: what is relevant for real-life practice isn’t relevant for academia. Lock. Stock. And barrel. 
By the end of the seminar, after scanning the room that was full with seemingly ancient professors with their obligatory big hair and brown or grey corduroy suits with elbow patches, my feelings of disappointment then moved to worry and concern. Those in the audience who hadn’t fallen asleep under the sheer weight of their own pompousness were nodding profusely and congratulating the presenter on their ‘bold, critical and thought provoking’ seminar. Yikes!

Fortunately, the academic world has changed significantly since I started my PhD. Although not perfect, my current university – Massey University – does a pretty decent job in this respect. This seems to be the belief of the retail industry, amongst others. Up until relatively recently, many retailers would have been very wary of this level of commitment with a university, precisely because of the attitudes of the academic ‘rockstar’ I described above.

Massey’s commitment to the retail industry has been cemented by the successful launch the Bachelor of Retail and Business Management (BRBM) in February 2015. The launch of the degree recognises that retail is a very important industry that generates significant revenues, contributes to economic growth and prosperity, and provides numerous employment opportunities. Moreover, such an important industry also requires well-educated and professional managers who have the skills and subject-specific knowledge to provide the expertise and leadership it needs. Despite this, the BRBM is New Zealand’s only retail degree – and only one of two offered in the Asia-Pacific region. Most universities would suggest that a general business or management degree would be sufficient to meet the needs of the retail industry. Really? This one-size-fits-all approach adopted by many universities is to me very short sighted. Yes, they may benefit from economies of scale, but in the longer term this will be to their detriment as employers will question the relevance of what is taught and how it is taught, delivered and assessed.    

It is important here to note that the BRBM was developed in partnership with an industry-working group that identified a real need for the programme. Note too, that the BRBM is also overseen by an advisory board that currently includes representation from the likes of Briscoes, Barkers, Foodstuffs North Island, Mitre 10, Country Road and Retail NZ. Having these organisations' input and direction is a phenomenal achievement and suggests Massey is definitely on the right track. Indeed, the sustained and continuing partnership between Massey University and New Zealand retailers will ensure that the BRBM remains both practically and academically relevant and up to date. The partnership will also support broader industry initiatives in professionalising the retail industry, as well as to raise the appeal of retailing as a desirable and rewarding career choice - things that the industry has a desperate need for.  
We have just completed first ‘Big Issues in Retail’ survey, which seeks to capture the key priorities, issues, challenges, and opportunities for New Zealand retailers. The preliminary findings of the survey will be discussed at Retail NZ’s event in Auckland on 16 February. The findings of this survey will also inform our teaching and research agenda.
To top it off, the arrival of Mark Powell as CEO in residence in February provides a further very strong message that Massey is taking very seriously how relevant it is to industry practices, as well as broader society. My only worry with Mark is the rumours I’m hearing that one of his slow days in the office is equivalent to a normal person’s 20 days in the office. So not only will Massey be ‘walking the walk’, but it’ll be doing so on tiptoes!   

This story originally appeared in NZRetail magazine issue 742 February / March 2016

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