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Late night reflections on theory

In preparing these remarks I was struck by how our use of the word theory encompasses both theory and practice. There’ve been discussions in these threads already about various theoretical models which may be used to describe, explain and predict organizational behavior. Then there are references to theories – in – use where the sense of the word “theory” is one of practical application centered on results rather than on ideological purity.

In a number of posts there has been the suggestion that different people with different theories looking at the same organization can somehow blend the two and find the truth somewhere in between in either the intersection or the union of the theoretical insights. There is a natural social drive to get to certainty and consensus. We place a value on cooperation in peaceful coexistence in our organizations. We’ve seen some organizations that thrive on a certain amount of organizational tension, particularly in sales, where the strategy is to deliberately set teams against one another relying on aggressive spirit to achieve positive results at the expense perhaps of human spirit, integrity and teamwork.

It’s important to remember Thomas Kuhn’s insights into paradigms and theories however, because there are times when competing theories cannot be reconciled and there may not be objective measures by which to favor one or the other in the moment of decision. In those cases an additional theory, political theory, power theory come into play in order to find a resolution that allows decision-making to occur. Coombs insight into paradigms was that they truly do not permit compromise.

Paradigms are complete explanations of the world and how it works, what the important values and concepts are, the appropriate directions for research, the interesting questions to ask and they define measures of performance and success. Philosophers of science called this quality ”incommensurability”; in other words both cannot exist simultaneously in the same space. A choice must be made. If you go very far at all into the philosophy of science, you’ll come across Paul Feyerabend , who basically was of the opinion that there is no objective basis by which one theory may be universally preferred over another in any circumstance, and that all we are left with is a need to take action based on some justification which makes sense to us in our frame of reference with the consequences being our responsibility for choosing. He had a very strong influence on Kuhn, and yet also had a good working relationship in his early career with Karl Popper, who is often seen as being diametrically opposed to the Kuhnian “paradigmatic” point of view

Here’s an example from organizational theory of that very idea: the behavioral theory of the firm is a set of models and constructs that analyze organizations on the basis of the functions and interrelationships that they perform. The resource theory of the firm, on the other hand is concerned with the allocation of resources among components and sub organizations and with the economic value- add, and reward to risk ratios, and total portfolio performance. Politics is a component of both theories, but the political dimension takes a different form. Politics in the behavioral theory of the firm is concerned with rules of order and explicit power relationships. In the resource theory of the firm, the tacit and social dimensions of politics are even more important than the formal explicit structure. A consultant seeking to conduct an intervention can’t really pick and choose elements of both to find some blend that is satisfying, because the compromise would lack the coherence, integrity and fundamental logic of either theory. Since theories are like models and thus neither true nor false but only useful or not, the consultant would have to make it choice about which theory to apply and then be true to the process and take it to its conclusion. Efforts to compromise would only muddy the water and lack a solid foundation and satisfying explanatory power.

It might be possible to iterate among competing theories at different times in conducting an analysis and intervention, but the possibilities of confusion and consistency would argue against that general strategy. Change management is hard enough in the practical world without bouncing back and forth between theories. We’ve all seen cases where a series of fads and buzzwords generate more heat than light. This kind of behavior gives theories a bad name.
And that’s another sense of how theory is commonly used, as something that is “just a theory”with the implication that it doesn’t have real practical value. Kurt Lewin of course famously observed that there is nothing quite so practical as a good theory. He was using theory in the sense of an efficient and simplified model of the world that allows us to take organized and effective action based on the common framework of understanding it provides. In this case simplicity and clarity in the theory is a virtue. That aligns nicely with the value of simplicity in theories of physical science, in which the power of the theory is a combination of its simplicity and explanatory power. It is common for practitioners to disparage theory and research as if it is only appropriate for ivory tower eggheads and yet there is plenty of evidence to suggest that a good practical theory can be a rallying point for effective organizational operations.

So when we talk about organizational theory it does not just include notions of a theoretical model used to analyze a firm, but it can include a theory of just what the organization is. To echo Mel’s comments, organizations are interesting units of study because they manifest so many components of our own social experience in a microcosm of reality that seems on the one hand practical enough to study and yet generalizable enough to expand our knowledge about other organizations. And because we need organizations to be able to leverage the variety of skill sets and resources required to compete in global markets, organizations seem to be a robust social, political, economic and cultural grouping and therefore worthy of study. My sense is that large political organizations like nations and states and alliances are less robust than value creating organizations that span boundaries. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that there is a blurring of these kinds of boundaries.

On the subject of theory-in-use, there is an emergent concept of theories of action in the world of design thinking. Design thinking is concerned with wicked problems that are not solvable by routine rational planning processes. They are the kinds of problems that require both creative and critical thinking skills with teams of multicultural learners in a cooperative knowledge creation setting.

IDEO, the design company, is an example of an organization committed to exactly this kind of thinking. Design thinking begins with an attempt to appreciate complexity of the moment in finding a tentative problem framing that allows us to begin to explore different sets of problems statements. Experimentation is performed in the real world to see which of the problems statements seem to allow us to make progress towards an improved next state. Theories of action are created that provide just enough cause and effect relationships and process models to allow us to take action in a situation covered by uncertainty. In this case theory is used in a tentative and limited fashion and is only related to the local circumstances. Later on, if success is achieved, the theory of action may expand into a more formal rule set that allows us to routinely exploit future situations of this type.

Finally, I am examining 4 different theories of curriculum which derives from four different appreciations and beliefs about the nature of people, their learning styles, and their educational needs. These four different theories are independent, complete, comprehensive and incommensurable in that they do not permit ready compromise between proponents of the different schools of thought. Most of the educational wars of the last 50 years can be traced to differences in the implications that can be derived from these different theories.

They connect very strongly to Cresswell’s for worldviews and really serve to illustrate how theory can influence our understanding and interpretation of reality and shape the choices that we think are available for action. I am engaged in trying to shift my colleges culture and educational process to accommodate more than a single educational and curriculum theory and I’m discovering just how powerful a theory can be in practice. I have a ton of references available if anyone else is working in that area.

My sense therefore is that we have to be very clear about what we mean by theory and how we propose to use it and be ever mindful of how our coworkers understand and use the word themselves. It is so rich and varied in meaning that it almost, like strategy, cannot be simply understood. I am glad to see the level of our discourse beginning to rise as we make more connections between theories, in all senses of the word, and our direct experience.

Buono, A. & Savall, H. (2007). Socio-economic intervention in organizations: The interviewer-researcher and the SEAM approach to organizational analysis. Information Age Publishing, Charlotte, NC.

March, J. (1994)/ A primer on decision making: How decisions happen. The Free Press. New York.

Reynolds, P. (2007). A primer in theory construction. Pearson Publishing. Boston, MA.

Schiro, M. (2008). Curriculum theory: Conflicting visions and enduring concerns. Sage Publications. Thousand Oaks California.

Smith, P. Theory and reality: An introduction to the philosophy of science.


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