Management Theory and the Real World

I hear the phrase, “That’s just theory” a whole lot these days.  We use that line when we are looking for the practical, real life answer to a difficult question, and we hear a theory in response. Many people create an artificial duality between theory and real world practice. In other words, theory is something that is created out of thin air with no practical application.

Here’s how theory is developed.  A researcher, academic or practitioner notices some phenomenon and becomes interested in understanding it better.  They collect information about this question they have, this thing they’ve noticed, through observation, questioning, interviews or experimentation. From this information, they generalize to a theory that might apply, not just to a few situations, but to most similar situations. As a result, theory is based on real world practical situations.

Because a theory is generalized, it won’t fit to every single circumstance or situation. But good theories will fit in most similar situations. Bad theories don’t have “good fit” with the real world.  In order to tell if a theory is good or bad, it needs to be tested repeatedly.  I’ve posted before on the weaknesses of some common management theories.

But theories help us, because they provide us with frameworks to think about problems, and to test both the theory and the nature of the problem. Theory isn’t magically separate from the practical world.  Theory is based on observation of our real world.  So let’s not dismiss theory as “just theory”.  Rather, let’s to the hard work testing theories and stretching them to see if they are good or bad theories.  Let’s throw out the junk, and use the good ones.


3 replies »

  1. Another way to think of it is that theory is the regression line drawn through hundreds of individual experience points. My advice to anyone is use whatever experience you have, when confronted with a phenomenon. But if you want to improve, or if you have no experience with something, best to find what research says because whatever theory pertains is the course of action that minimizes error. And that’s not a bad place to start from.

  2. If a theory fails to fit “every single circumstance or situation” then it’s wrong and a new theory needs to be derived from observation.
    A distinction between scientific theories and nonscientific “theories” that generates a great deal of misunderstanding is that, in science, if you find a case that violates the theory you’ve made a discovery.
    Another example is the word “generally.” In science and mathematics, when you say that something is “generally true” you mean that it is absolutely true in every case (or something’s wrong and needs to be reevaluated).
    I know, totally off your point, but I was Googling around looking to write about my pet peeve of engineers thinking there’s a difference between practice and theory, landed here and couldn’t shut up 🙂

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