Sociologists Outside Academia: My days in the telecoms industry

The Swedish Ministry of Education proposed in a recent memorandum that universities should be transformed into private foundations in order to increase their autonomy and facilitate greater collaboration with industry. The proposed legislation follows more than two decades of political discussion on the issue of decoupling universities from the state. In response to this debate, an array of applied research centres, innovation offices and research companies have been created in order to cultivate collaborations between the academy and industry. This story is about my experiences during a three year post-doctoral position as an ‘in-house researcher’ at the consumer research department of an international telecoms company. The collaboration was initiated and largely financed by Riksbankens Jubileumsfond (www.rj.se) – a foundation with the aim of strengthening social sciences and the humanities.

When I applied for the position I had formulated an ambitious three-year research plan encompassing previous research, theory, method, and the lot. This was all according to the usual academic application procedure. After having been approved by the academic referees, I was summoned to a job interview at the company. Stepping into the head office that day I felt a bit out-of-place among all the well-tailored suits and big TV screens broadcasting company commercials.

I was interviewed by several people. I remember that they did not ask much about my research, instead they were more interested in my personal history, background, and interests. This was a surprise to me since I was under the impression that they would interrogate me about my research plans. I now understand that the interviewers were interested in assessing not my scientific skills but my social skills, to judge whether or not I would be able to fit in at the company.

However, one question regarding my research plan was brought up by all the interviewers: “Are you going to do one single project during the whole time?”. This idea of a single three year long project obviously aroused some suspicions. I learned that day that the company’s research projects usually ran between three to six months. That was the first challenge: how to work as a social scientist, doing research, in collaboration with short term company projects? I came up with a quick fix – I redefined my project as a program. By doing so I could participate in a range of different company projects, as long as I could fit them within the framework of the research ‘program’ that had been formulated in the application and accepted by my scientific patrons.

Furthermore, to ensure an effective use of my time, my way of working was structured as linear processes with definite steps towards delivery of results: a) Scoping: start up meetings with stakeholders and clients to specify the project; b) Data gathering; c) Analysis: analytical workshops with stakeholders and clients; d) Delivery: Communication to stakeholders and clients; f) Evaluation: assessment from stakeholders and clients. Even though this way of working proved quite helpful in setting up projects and performing empirical studies, it also proved difficult to find time to engage in theoretical or methodological work. My pragmatic solution was to maximize the empirical research and save the scientific analysis and publications till after the collaboration had ended.

After a while I started to get the hang of the practical ways of working and was participating in several company projects and activities. A more difficult lesson to learn, however, was the organizational culture – the informal rules, norms, language and attitude that govern the behaviour of the company colleagues. It was like I never really knew if my company colleagues understood what I said or of they just did not agree with me. One example of cultural clashes between academia and industry involved another social scientist who was invited to present his research. When doing this he brought forth his PhD thesis (as per good academic manners) and circulated it among the audience while talking about his research. I noticed that no-one in the crowd opened his book; the others simply passed it around, quickly. The situation irritated me and when the book came to me I  went through it thoroughly to acknowledge the invited researcher. Afterwards, I asked my colleagues about the situation. And apparently they too had felt disturbed, but for difference reasons than myself. They thought it rude not to give the speaker their full attention. In academic culture, passing around one’s thesis is a way to present oneself as scientist. My company colleagues did not know this and acted according to their internalized cultural script, which was to pay respect to what the speaker said, not to his book which they perceived as a distraction.

I see my days in the telecoms industry as a personal exploration of what an academic researcher can do and be in contemporary society by paying respect to different ways of working and thinking. I have learned to negotiate deals and manage international research projects, but what I value the most is probably my improved pedagogical skills. Participating in other cultures challenge you to express yourself differently in order to make yourself understood. Such experience enhance your communicative repertoire, involving verbal and body language but also presentation and visualization techniques, and can help you communicate research in ways that attract a wider community. Having said this, my days in the telecoms industry have also made me more appreciative of academic research. Universities can do well by learning a few tricks from the industry, but they should also be protective and nurturing of its own unique culture and qualities. I am not only talking about the methodological and theoretical skills of individual researchers but also of the organizational and environmental requirements that cultivates scientific creativity and serendipity.

Today, I am back in the academy doing three year projects again. And as manager for my university’s new collaboration arena I am building bridges between the academy and industry rather than burning bridges by trying to transform universities into companies.

Marcus Persson, PhD, received his doctoral degree in sociology from Lund University in 2007. Since then he has worked in educational media production and the telecoms industry; today he holds a position as post doctoral fellow at Mälardalen University doing research about ICT in health care and education, as well as managing the university’s new arena of collaboration.  


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