Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Theoretical theory and practical, pragmatic, practice.

Before we begin our series on followership I just want to talk about theory and practice. This came out of a couple of conversations I have had recently. The first of these was with a company owner who made a remark that he didn't want theory but practical training for his staff. This got me thinking about what he might mean and what his understanding of theory was. Then when I was coaching another business owner who runs a company of about 150 people she stated that she wanted to know what the academic research was 'as it helps to inform what we do here'. Last week I was teaching at Liverpool and this week at Oxford University when the MBA students, most of whom were running businesses started a conversation about how they had changed their view of the use of theory. As we are about to look at followership and some of this will involve theory, opposed to the theoretical it I thought that it would be timely to quickly look at the differences between, theory, theoretical, practical, pragmatic and practice.

In everyday language people tend to mix up the concept of theory and theoretical. Quite simply theoretical means that something has not yet been tested. In other words it is speculative however there may be some anecdotal evidence for the speculation. 
The first thing to realise about a theory on the other hand is that in an academic sense is that nothing can be proven only disproved. So when academics have a lot of evidence to suggest something is so, then the explanation is called a theory even though it is based on good evidence. The reason why something with lots of evidence is called a theory is that there may well be a better explanation or new evidence may come to light. Never in an academic sense, will anything be called a fact because it is always assumed that a better explanation might come forward. 
So a theory can be (and is often) based on very grounded practical evidence that the lay person might call a fact. So a theory can and often is both practical and pragmatic, and can help to inform practice and make the practice better. To think that because something is called a theory it is somehow not grounded or practical is a mistake many people make. All that is happening is that theorists are hedging their bets.
On a word of caution however; not all theories are equal. Some are well founded and based on good (valid and reliable) evidence, and some are based on no more than an idea someone had in the shower for which there is very little evidence. 
We all work off theories all the time. Every time we notice a pattern (the buses are taking a long time, or x is difficult to deal with) we are weighing up evidence to come to a conclusion (a theory). 
So as we start our exploration of followership it is wise to have in mind the idea that not all theories are equal - many in business for example appear to be pragmatic but can be based on little evidence or data, or the data is biased in someway and ultimately the theory turns out to be wrong, often with bad consequences. Good theories or explanations are based on good evidence where as much of the evidence as possible fits the theory. 
A theory can be practical, pragmatic and based on and inform good practice. Also a theory does not have to be theoretical. Simple really when you think about it!

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