Do you talk about management like other people talk about sports? If you do, you might be a management geek. I am intrigued by organizations and the process of transformation – systems, culture, and individuals. One of my favorite books is The Pleasure of Finding Things Out by Richard Feynman. For me, the title says it all – Discovery is fun! Learning about how the world works and how organizations work is a fun way to spend your day. I am curious about organizations, our attempts to manage and improve them, and our methods to understand them.
Theory AND Practice
All too often, we highlight the differences between theory and practice. I find this odd given that management and all social science only exist in practice. As Kurt Lewin noted, “there is nothing more practical than a good theory.” Yet, there seems to be a divide between management theory and practice. Talking about particle physics, David Kaplan noted that “without theorists, the experimentalists are in the dark. But without experimentalists, the theorists will never know the truth” (Particle Fever). In the field of management, one might view the researchers and academics as the theorists and the practitioners (managers) as the experimentalists and organizations are our “super colliders” where we run our experiments to test new business models, products, strategies, systems, processes, etc.
We need BOTH theory AND practice. All too often, we draw conclusions from our practice that are inaccurate. And we often confuse correlation with causation. Why? As Deming said, “without theory, experience has no meaning.” While reflection on our experience is essential, without theory, we often misinterpret the experience and end up with an unorganized “collection” of concepts that may or may not be true. Or, as Pfeffer and Sutton (2006) propose, we end up with “dangerous half-truths and total nonsense.” Some of the challenges we face in understanding our experience and theories are due to the nature of the phenomenon – organizations are complex combinations of complex and creative individuals operating in a complex environment.
Nature of Organizations
Organizations are complex, and many of the constructs and relationships that we study to explain how they work vary widely in characteristics and behavior. Some of the constructs and variables we deal with in organizations are measurable, predictable, and controllable (e.g., manufacturing processes). Other constructs and variables are context-dependent and less predictable and controllable (e.g., strategy development).
Organizations are human-created constructs occupied by humans who appear to have free will and thus do not always obey the immutable natural laws of science. Humans also seem to come in a wide variety of personalities, capabilities, motivations, and so forth, and when combined into groups, the permutations appear infinite” (Latham, 2014, p. 13).
All too often, in organizational research, the measurable, predictable variables are intertwined with a wide variety of unpredictable and often unmeasurable variables. When developing theories to explain organizations, it is often difficult to separate and understand the differences between unimportant idiosyncrasies and differences that make a difference to the explanation. As a result, we often research the pieces and parts with narrowly defined variables that we sometimes “pretend” operate free of context. These issues are part of what makes management and organizations so challenging to understand and explain. However, these social science ontology and epistemology issues shouldn’t excuse using inferior quality methods. The challenge is to design research to provide the greatest insights to make changes that will improve performance.
To What End?
The purpose of research and theory is to improve performance. There is an old saying in process improvement, the way we know the difference between “change” and “improvement” is by the results. Theories of management are based on studying the existing management methods which humans designed. So, we can redesign management and research the effectiveness of the new approach. If we know more about what works, what doesn’t work, and what works under what conditions, managers can use that to inform the development of organizations and management approaches that improve performance. An exciting and gratifying part of research is that we can use the new knowledge and insights to redesign management so that our organizations create value for multiple stakeholders. In the end, we endeavor to understand management and organizations to improve the human condition!
Unfortunately, progress in many social science areas has been slow, and it is easy to get discouraged with our lack of progress. Tenacity is essential to be a successful management researcher. Or, as Savas Dimopoulos proposed in the documentary Particle Fever, “jumping from failure to failure with undiminished enthusiasm is the big secret to success!” In the beginning, the number of theories in a particular area expands. Over time, as we learn what works and doesn’t work, these theories are “pruned” and “synthesized” to form more concise explanations. Unfortunately, some areas of management research seem to be making little progress. For example, leadership is a messy “landscape,” and it seems that once a leadership theory is developed, it is seldom discarded. And, there is a large amount of overlap of concepts among the leadership theories (Latham, 2014). So, much work is needed, and maybe new approaches to research in this area are in order.
For me, research is recreation, and if you are not having fun, you are doing it wrong. I have an incurable case of “management fever,” and the more I learn, the more questions I have. “Once you have curiosity, you can’t control it” (Savas Dimopoulos, Particle Fever). My wish is that you find what you are curious about, catch the fever, and become an unapologetic geek!
Feynman, R. P. (1999). The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Perseus Books.
Latham, J. R. (2014). Leadership for quality and innovation: Challenge, theories, and a framework for future research. Quality Management Journal, 21(1), 5. | Download
Pfeffer, J., & Sutton, R. I. (2006). Hard facts, dangerous half-truths and total nonsense: Profiting from evidence-based management. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.