Academics as thought leaders: Promises and pitfalls

Monday, 2 November 2015 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


I was so happy to get involved in the Annual Research Symposium 2015, organised by the Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo, as the Plenary Speaker. As someone who does not work in the field of medicine, I picked the topic ‘Academics as thought leaders’, highlighting the promises and pitfalls in the Sri Lankan context. Today’s column is about what I shared.



Academics engage in scholarly activities. They deal with knowledge in multiple roles. They have to think and act as knowledge creators as well as knowledge sharers. Academics influence the attitudes and aptitudes of the student community. This is where ‘thought leadership’ comes to the forefront. Untitled-6

Superiority in scientific thinking, blended with socio-cultural realities is what an academic should smartly possess. It qualifies them to join the constellation of thought leaders. 

In fact, leadership is not about positions and titles but decisions and actions. It refers to a mindset of influencing, inspiring and instructing. Leaders as opposed to laggards, deliver results. As it has been observed, leadership is a vastly explored but poorly understood phenomenon. Many definitions of leadership in the limelight portray its multi-dimensional nature. Academics should shift from their perennial plight of “publishing or perishing” to a new paradigm of thought leadership. Such a transformation requires vision and passion. Overcoming socio-economic as well as religio-cultural barriers in moving ahead with a strong intrinsically-driven motivation is the need of the hour.


Triple roles for academics

The way I see it, academics have triple roles to play. These can be depicted as a knowledge pyramid of academics. Figure 1 depicts the details. 


Academics as knowledge capturers 

The bottom of the knowledge pyramid contains the role of knowledge capturer. This includes the learning dimension of an academic. We learn from the womb to the tomb, as lifelong learners. 

I prefer to be called a management learner rather than an expert. This is more relevant in the context of change, where knowledge is rapidly getting obsolete. Particularly in the areas of Information, Communication and Technology (ICT), the rate at which knowledge is updated seems more rapid.

This is where the academics have to explore new knowledge. They should have the mindset of exploration. It reminds me of a story that I heard about an elderly professor. He was serving in a residential campus in a European city, staying in the uppermost floor of the building complex. His room was well-lit during the early hours of the morning and the students could see him reading. Among the students, they were discussing as to why this veteran still suffers in getting up so early to read. One student had the guts to go and ask him as to why he was doing so. The professor gave a profound answer. “I would rather you drink from a flowing fountain than from a stale pond”. Untitled-10

Upon reflection, I was wondering whether we Sri Lankan academics are more “flowing fountains” or “stale ponds”. We might be hurriedly offering recycled knowledge over and over again to cater to an ever-increasing lecture demand. Hence, the knowledge-capturing dimension suffers and the opportunity to review and renew oneself gets neglected.

Academics as knowledge communicators 

The middle part of the knowledge pyramid is all about sharing knowledge. It highlights the traditional role of teaching. Communicating knowledge does not necessarily mean lecturing. We at the Postgraduate Institute of Management (PIM), thanks to the late Prof. Uditha Liyanage, have been practicing what we call the four modes of teaching. 

They refer to ‘tell, ask, show and do’. Telling means typical lecturing. Asking means to engage the learning community by raising questions expecting answers from them. Showing refers to audio-visual interventions such as documentaries, movie extracts, video recordings, internet-based resources such as YouTube, etc. Doing means to get the student community to engage in group discussions. In a typical three-hour ‘session’ (we prefer this as opposed to a lecture), roughly one-third would be telling.

I see clear issues among us Sri Lankan academics in this respect. Are we loading students with knowledge through one-way communication in making them mere receivers? They would easily resort to the ‘parrot technique’ of memorising subject matter and reproducing this content at the exam with spelling and grammatical errors. Are we being challenged by the student community sufficiently, in leading to a meaningful interactive discussion? I might be biased here in basing my observations on mostly post-graduate teaching experience. Yet, irrespective of what level an academic has to tackle, an appropriate adaptation is always possible. 


Academics as knowledge creators 

This is where the research comes into the limelight. Sri Lankan academics should reach the pinnacle of knowledge pyramid in becoming knowledge creators. Relevant research with rigor and results is the need of the hour.

I recall reading an article written by Dr. Jayaratne Pinikahana sometime ago, highlighting the need to focus on the private sector collaborating on university research. He shared some revealing statistics about local research. 

“Sri Lanka contributes only 0.17% from GDP whereas Singapore contributes 2.3%, South Korea, 2.9% and China, 1.3% from their GDP for research. A recent report published by the Ministry of Technology & Research in Sri Lanka revealed that Sri Lanka has only 287 researchers per million which is less than the world average of 894. The average number of researchers per million in the developed world and the developing world is 3272 and 374 respectively. It is clear from these statistics that Sri Lankan situation is worse than the average third world situation. The most alarming situation is that it is getting worse in recent years. For example, in 1996 Sri Lanka had 6000 full time researchers including university researchers but by 2006 this number declined to 4200.”

In such a context, any move to strengthen the research rigor, particularly among the university community, is commendable. As I observe, there is a clear need to create better awareness on the importance of research. This I see acutely in the field of management.


Moving from a vicious cycle to a virtuous cycle

In moving up in the knowledge pyramid, academics need to move from a vicous cycle to a virtuous cycle. I have attempted to capture both the cycles as depicted in figure 2.

As figure 2 depicts, the bottom is the vicious cycle where an academic gets stranded in capturing, collecting, contemplating and continuing knowledge. In other words, one gets engrossed in sharing the same knowledge over and over without reviewing, reflecting and renewing it. I refrain from giving Sri Lankan examples, but I know many among us who experience this situation either knowingly or unknowingly. 

The break though occurs when one moves from the vicious cycle to the virtuous cycle. Instead of moving beyond knowledge contemplating to knowledge continuing, the cycle should break with knowledge challenging. That’s the entry to the passage of knowledge creating and knowledge championing.

Let me explain this much-needed move through an example. Rather than pinpointing at others, I would share my experience. When I started teaching Human Resource Management, I diligently adhered to the textbook models in sharing my experience through them. I could even remember the entire lecture or even several lectures by heart. I was essentially recycling the same knowledge, of course with delivery effort sans intellectual stimulation for me. I realised it was just tutoring and not teaching. I needed to move beyond.

When I started challenging the appropriateness of some of the teaching models to our socio-cultural context, the move from the vicious cycle to the virtuous cycle began. My research on Strategic Human Resource Management (SHRM) shed new insights on the way we approach people particularly in the humanly-rich South Asian context. It gave me more confidence to blend western models with regional and local realities, rather than blindly sharing what the books say. 


Way forward 

I might have sounded a bit abstract today. Yet, we need conceptual clarity in order to commit ourselves as awakened academics. Essentially, it is an invitation to review and renew oneself. Also, one may argue of the need to have a conducive climate with the right remuneration. We do more than double the amount of teaching then our western colleagues as academics and less than half the amount of researching compared to them. I am simply providing an invitation to have a fresh look at what we are doing or perhaps overdoing. 

(Prof. Ajantha  Dharmasiri  can be reached through or

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