Monday, June 18, 2007

Reasons for a gap between theory and practice

In the Third Organization Studies Summer Workshop, Alfred Kieser and Lars Leiner had a paper on “Why Collaboration with Practitioners Is often Referred to in Management Science as a
Remedy for the Rigor-Relevance-Gap and Why This Is Not a Promising Idea”. Alfred Kieser is Professor of Organizational Behavior at the University of Mannheim. Alfred mentioned in his presentation several reasons why theory and practice may not meet. There are problems of access: scientific information may not be readily available for a practitioner. It may be that relevant information exists but it presents itself as information overflow. Scientists apply a multitude of different approaches to a particular problem and it is very difficult to assess which point of view is relevant for practice. Scientists also produce contradictory results depending on their theoretical framework and many practical choices. Sometimes the results are simply trivial from the practical point of view, for instance they may just confirm existing practices and intuitions. Last but not least, scientists speak for scientists: the scientific form of presentation is often not suitable for “consumption” in practical contexts. Alfred amused the audience by showing some mathematical formulae out of context.

Alfred Kieser and Sara Rynes discussing

In general, Alfred Kieser painted a quite dark picture about the possibility of being relevant for practice. This view, maybe presented in a provocative manner on purpose, was considered too pessimistic by many. For instance, Alper Alsan and Kathleen Park gave a presentation in which they described their collaboration as a researcher and a practitioner.

In summary, I would say that building a bridge from theory to practice is a challenging task. On the other hand, I would strongly claim that scientists are in a central role in protecting and producing wellbeing in the world. It is sad to see when people do not understand and appreciate the complex paths that the scientific results take to practice. Scientific understanding of evolution, human mind, physiology, materials, complex systems, etc. have fundamentally changed the way how human beings and societies live their lives. This does not mean, however, that scientific innovations only take place in formally organized institutions and projects.

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