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.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.