Management theory and practice

What does research from the ivory tower have to say to people working in their fields?

My latest monthly column for FCW reports on academic research by Boaz Shamir of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Adam Grant of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania regarding  the question of whether government managers can improve the performance of their employees by themselves talking about the mission, values, and public purpose of their organizations. Regular readers of my column – may I take this occasion to urge blog readers to check the icon marked “Columns” on the left side of any page you open of the FCW website towards the beginning of each month to check for my newest column? – may have noticed that increasingly I have been using the column to present academic research relevant to public managers.

Some, perhaps many, practitioners are suspicious of scholarly work, including (maybe especially) scholarly work on organizations. Some of this, frankly, is simply anti-professor prejudice, no more attractive than other kinds of prejudice. Some are quick to dismiss academics as impractical, and to throw around phrases like, “This may look fine in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice.” Many are quick to accept the findings of academic research only when the findings correspond with their personal experiences in the workplace – and then are quick to denounce the findings as “obvious.”

In my view, practitioners who take this stance are cutting themselves off from sources of insight that could help them do a better job managing.

One thing academics are trained to do is to design empirical research that has the potential to shed light on practical problems in a disciplined way. Anecdotes and personal experiences are fine, but relying on them runs the really strong risk of relying on information that may be atypical, may be biased by preconceptions that lead us to interpret our personal experiences in line with those preconceptions, and may be confounded by other factors that we don’t account for in drawing conclusions from our experiences. By contrast, good academic research has a large enough sample size to allow drawing conclusions from the data and takes account of (“controls for” in academic jargon) other factors that may affect results, either through using statistical techniques such as regression analysis or through experimental research designs that create random selection and thus aren’t biased by confounding factors. In short, one thing academic research brings to the table is a greater ability to feel some degree of confidence about the conclusions the research presents. (Of course, academic findings can be controversial because scholars dispute about, for example, whether confounding factors were appropriately accounted for, what the direction of causation is – is a happy workforce more productive, or is there some common underlying psychological condition producing both happiness and productivity? – and whether lab results apply to situations, or populations, outside the laboratory.

There are of course theories some scholars produce that are not borne out by reality – the origin of the saw, “this works in theory, but not in practice.” Nonetheless, I would dispute the saw – if the theory doesn’t work in practice, it’s not a good theory, so it doesn’t work in theory. Good theories about reality need, at least as a general matter, to work in reality. It is also true that some scholars are obsessed with questions of little practical significance. But others are obsessed with questions of great practical significance. These scholars embrace the statement of one of the founders of modern social psychology, Kurt Lewin: “There is nothing as practical as a good theory.” Good scholarship has a nice mixture of a theory with practical implications and a rigorous empirical test of the theory. Practitioners should be happy to learn about what such scholars have to say, and this is what I am trying to share in these columns.