Five minutes with…Keith Townsend

Associate Professor Keith Townsend

An undergraduate degree focusing on industrial relations (IR), public policy and politics, coupled with previous management and [IR] practitioner experience combined to reveal for Associate Professor Keith Townsend, just how complicated working life can be. Spending his life talking to others about their workplace complications has set him on a path; and the destination is still yet unknown! We spent five minutes with Keith to learn a little more about his journey…

In what area/s does your research interests lie?

My PhD was really about teams… — commonly…a HR [human resources] topic, but I embedded my research within an industrial sociology literature while working within an [academic] industrial relations department. So right from the start of my research career I had a bit of a scatter gun, but multi-disciplinary, approach to do research on things I thought were interesting. (Probably not the best advice to give to an early career researcher but I’m both easily entertained and easily distracted and my CV reflects that!).

Nowadays my research is must more narrow and focuses on HRM systems, and particularly, the role of line managers and employee voice within those systems.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am tying up a bunch of loose ends on pre-existing projects and finalising a third edited book on research methods.

A project that is taking most of my focus at the moment is one that’s around HR systems and support for paramedics. It’s an ARC [Australian Research Council] Linkage grant and we have three unions as our industry partners. One of our key goals…is to better understand, and provide recommendations for, the unions and employing agencies to create HRM systems that work well for employees who face some pretty horrendous things on a day to day basis.

Has there been major developments or key findings that have directed the trajectory of your research?

Research around line managers is really interesting, and neglected. Each of our [academic] disciplines approach the role of line managers, particularly frontline managers, in very different ways. As a result, we all seem to be talking past each other in a scholarly sense, and missing some aspects of understanding the role and influence line managers have on employees; but also the experiences line managers have in managing their own workload.

Frontline managers are fascinating for me because they have the most complicated job structure in an organisation. Quite often they’re obliged to continue performing operational tasks to the same level as their team members, but they will have an additional managerial and bureaucratic load to perform; and more and more frequently, they’re being asked to take on leadership responsibilities. In a recent project with Ashlea Troth and Rebecca Loudoun we found this to be a complicated role that both frontline managers were inspired by, and overwhelmed by.

It also means frontline managers are an important player in [how] the HR system [is operationalised] because they have to take policies which are sometimes unworkable and turn them into practice for their team.

Finally, are there challenges in your field/s in trying to bridge the gap between research, practice and policy?

What I think a lot of the best practitioners do is recognise that their particular industry sector might have some peculiarities that are unlike other sectors but [recognise] that [this] doesn’t mean they can’t learn from other sectors. As a consequence, academics who are experts in a topic, but generalists across multiple industries, can draw on [their] knowledge and experiences to offer advice and support.

For further reading on Associate Professor Townsend’s research, please visit his Griffith Experts page.