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Why Use Theory?

November 26, 2013

“There is nothing more practical than a good theory” [1].

Practicing managers place different requirements on theory than practicing academics. As managers, we need management theory that can be used for problem solving in practical application, is interdisciplinary and that is validated by demonstrating practical utility [2] [3], rather than by how many time is it quoted by academic peers. Thus, management theory that helps practicing managers in sense-making and in devising and implementing controls to achieve objectives through others may be viewed as beneficial [4]. So framed, the purpose of management theory is to describe complex phenomena more simply, allowing practitioners to make sense of what is happening and to predict what will happen [5]. These assumptions about management theory and its application are inherent in the writings of Schoen [6] and Mintzberg [7].

When using theory to inform our management learning and to address real world problems, we need not be as rigorous as the academic community in accessing the validity of theory. Theory such as Maslow’s Theory of Hierarchical Needs [8] for instance, may today be questioned [9], but that does not negate the utility of the theory when considering the needs of staff, aspects of job design and staff motivation. Practicing managers need to be critical in their analysis of theory and be ready to change and combine theories that are of potential use in making sense of complex management challenges. The cycles of theory consideration, subsequent own theory synthesis, application in a working context and examination of the results that are the core of Kolb’s [10] Cycle of Experiential Learning and Argyris’s Double-loop Learning [11] are critical in assisting the practicing manager in differentiating theory with valid practical application in their own context from less useful theory. But beware that as contextual conditions alter, today’s useful theory may become tomorrows failed experiment.

This focus on the practical application of management theory does not, and in my opinion should not, place a requirement on academic researchers that they only engage in research that has obvious and short-term practical application. A scientifically rigorous generation of fundamental, discipline-focused knowledge is of equal value [12] and may indeed offer unique benefits as the knowledge generated may be useful precisely because its academic freedom is not constrained by current business challenges [13]. The onus is thus on us,  as practicing managers, to continually assess what is useful in addressing our current challenges and to never stop engaging with theory as a source of new ways to think about the world and understand the world.


[1] Lewin, K. (1952). Field theory in social science: Selected theoretical papers by Kurt Lewin. London: Tavistock

[2] Cornelissen, J.P., and Thorpe, R., (2004), “The Validity and Usefulness of Management Theories: A Review”,  Leeds University Business School Working Paper Series, December, Vol. 1, Nr. 1.

[3] Gabriel, Y., (2002), “On paragrammatic uses of organizational theory: A provocation”, Organization Studies, Vol. 23, pp. 133-151.

[4] Weihrich, H. and Koontz, H., (2005), “Management: A Global Perspective”, 11th Edition, Singapore, McGraw-Hill Education

[5] Cameron, S., (2008), “The MBA Handbook: Skills for Mastering Management”, Sixth Edition, Harlow, Pearson Education Limited

[6] Schoen, D.A., (1983), “The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think In Action”, Cambridge MA, Basic Books Inc.

[7] Mintzberg, H., (2005), “Managers Not MBAs: A Hard Look at the Soft Practice of Managing and Management Development”, San Francisco, CA, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

[8] Maslow, A. H.,  (1943)., “A Theory of Human Motivation”, Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–96.

[9] Mahmoud A. Wahba and Lawrence G. Bridwell, (1976), “Maslow Reconsidered: A Review of Research on the Need Hierarchy Theory” in Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 15, pp. 212-240

[10] Kolb, D. (1984), “Experiential Learning”, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice Hall.

[11] Argyris, C., (1994), “On Organizational Learning”, Oxford, Blackwell.

[12] Grey, C., (2001), “Re-imagining Relevance: A Response to Starkey and Madan”, British Journal of Management, Volume 12, Special Edition, S27-S32.

[13] Weick, K., (2001), “Gapping the Relevance Bridge: Fashions meet Fundamentals in Management Research”, British Journal of Management, Vol. 12, (Special Issue), pp. 71–75.

One Comment
  1. Very good. will retweet.

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