Relevance and Practice

19 November 2007 at 3:42 pm 7 comments

| Steve Phelan |

Peter, thank you for the warm introduction. In addition to 15 years in academia, I also had another life working in strategic planning in major corporations in Australia and undertaking the odd strategy consulting gig. I’ve also had the pleasure of teaching executive courses on four continents.

In all this time, the most common critique I encounter is the lack of relevance of academic courses to the “real world”.  I am sure that many readers will agree that the 1980s and 1990s were an exciting time to be a strategy practitioner or researcher. The work of Porter and Barney (among many others) brought a level of rigor to the discipline that promised to revolutionize the practice of strategy.

Now, in the first decade of the 21st century, I can’t help thinking that this momentum has slowed. As Rich Bettis argued in 1991, we may have donned a “normal science straightjacket” too early. Consequently, I would argue that the link between theory and practice has never been more strained.

The “strategy as practice” movement has recently emerged in Europe and directly seeks to link institutional phenomena to micro-processes. Unfortunately, the movement seems to have been populated with critical theorists and post-structuralists seeking to study “discourse”. I am not sure this is making strategy research any more relevant for practitioners.

So, do you, the readership agree with my thesis? Is strategy becoming increasingly removed from practice? What should we be doing to link rigor to relevance and improve strategy practice? Is the strategy as practice movement a step forward or back?

Entry filed under: Former Guest Bloggers, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science, Pomo Periscope, Strategic Management.

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Vladimir Dzhuvinov  |  20 November 2007 at 3:35 am

    Academics are supposed to teach students, but who/what teaches the former? :)

    Where did you learn more, what brought you more insights, what was more enjoyable — your work as a researcher at university or your work as a practitioner in industry?

    I guess everyone would have his own answers to this question and I don’t expect all to agree.

    Sometimes I notice that I understand problems better when I encounter them face to face. And sometimes I notice that I arrive at better solutions when I step back to gain a perspective from the side.

    I think academic institutions should give their people the possibility to spend some time in practice, at one’s own discretion.

    Some time ago IMD-Lausanne posted an advert for some open research positions. I’ve always had an interest in research and teaching, but I also didn’t want to lose my practical touch, so I asked the person from HR whether it was possible to mix the job with practical work away from the school. Unfortunately, it turned out that they didn’t have a well defined provision for that.

  • 2. Steve Phelan  |  20 November 2007 at 10:22 am

    Vladimir, I would argue that a rigorous academic education is highly beneficial – I certainly think about strategy in a much more informed and nuanced way then I did earlier in my career.

    I lalso earned more in academia and enjoy academia much more. (I guess that’s why I’m still here!) However, I think the pendulum may have swung too far towards rigor and needs to swing back towards the applied end. I am just not sure how to achieve this or whether others feel it is a problem.

    Your experience with IMD is interesting. I would have thought they you would have been most likely to mix practice (i.e. consulting) with an academic life at a place like IMD. I guess not.

  • 3. Vladimir Dzhuvinov  |  20 November 2007 at 4:05 pm

    Oh, scientific rigour is sexy! Splendid equations, neat graphs, etc… I love that :-)

    Anyway, I don’t see an Exclusive OR problem here: Rigour OR applied? Theory OR practice? To me, it’s rather a question of how to mix, combine, connect them — for better results.

    I think people in academia have great potential to solve problems precisely because the environment, the economy are different there. Problems are approached from a different perspective, a bit like having a smörgåsbord where you can choose dishes according to your taste and if you like one then you can go back for some more.

    The relation to problems when you work in industry is a lot more strained and therefore solutions tend to be ad-hoc. You seldom come to choose your problems, instead they jump at you as in an arcade game; as soon as you shoot one down the next one arrives, you just shoot without thinking (much) ~:-o

  • 4. Steve Phelan  |  20 November 2007 at 4:26 pm

    Vladimir, I like your disinction between smorgasbord and shoot from the hip :-)

    The whole area of how practitioners engage in sense-making about the problems they are facing is fascinating to me. You seem to suggest that they put little thought into it, suggesting some sort of heuristics or rules of thumb might be in operation.

    Could the goal of MBA education be to program managers with (better) heuristics? Of course, there must be other influences, including the legendary school of hard knocks.

  • 5. Vladimir Dzhuvinov  |  21 November 2007 at 8:35 am

    I’ve been on engineering projects where because of overly optimistic deadlines or unexplored technologies one puts himself into such a pressured situation that most decisions end up being heuristic at best :-)

  • 6. twofish  |  4 December 2007 at 11:23 pm

    I have on order “How Economics Forgot History” by Hodgson.

    It seems that social science disciplines suffer from “Plato’s disease.” There is the belief that behind all of the noise there are same basic abstract principles that unify the discipline, and the goal of research is to discover those grand principles.

    The trouble is that by looking at more and more abstract principles, one becomes more and more detached from messing and complex reality, which may be a problem if unifying abstract principles do not exist and all that is “real” is messy reality.

  • 7. Plato’s disease « Twofish’s Blog  |  4 December 2007 at 11:26 pm

    […] Plato’s disease Filed under: economics — twofish @ 4:25 am https://organizationsandmarkets.com/2007/11/19/relevance-and-practice/ […]

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