Theory or practice? How about theory and practice?

Photo by DoubleM2

Kurt Lewin once said:

“There is nothing so practical as a good theory”.

A number of good friends sent me a link to the Schumpeter column on the economist titled “A post-crisis case study: The new dean of Harvard Business School promises “radical innovation.  As my friends point out (Thanks KO and Kelechi), the most interesting part of this column is actually the comments which are filled with cynicism about MBA in general and Harvard MBA in particular. As a recent MBA graduate, I share some of the sentiments and I have my own view of what business education ought to be like and how it can be improved. However, I noticed something else in the comments that made me flinch a little. Here is part of a comment by Philip OCarroll:

Case studies teach you exactly the opposite of what you need to know.

Case studies are always written like fairytales. The author has a moral in mind when one is written and he uses the case study to instill the moral into the readers. Therefore the facts of story are chosen to fit the moral.

The fact is that there are two kinds of knowledge in this world. The kind you can get by reading books and case studies and the kind you cannot. For instance, you cannot become a concert pianist by reading piano books. You cannot become a carpenter by reading books on carpentry.

Business, especially in competitive fields, requires more of the second kind than the first. i.e. it is more like carpentry than philosophy. MBA schools think it is the other way around.

If you want to understand IKEA, you are better off assembling a flat packed wardrobe than reading a HBS case study.

The commenter OCarroll describes the world (and I know many share this opinion) as black and white. Some things you can learn from a book, some you can’t. Maybe it will be easier of the world did work like that. The world however, is made of many shades of gray.

Can you honestly tell me that a pianist can’t learn anything from reading books? From the understanding of music techniques (which I admittedly know nothing about), to relaxation and concentration methods to just pure inspiration by reading about great pianist of the past. All of these things can be learned from books. They will not teach him how to produce music per se, but they will allow him to be a much better pianist. And I will argue, that without this knowledge, his chances of becoming a great pianist greatly diminish.

Or take the carpenter example. Can you truly tell me that if a carpenter learns about different types of wood, how they react to different materials, how long they hold for and the best ways other carpenters in the past found to handling them he can learn nothing? I find this claim ridiculous. I am not saying you can become a carpenter without doing actual… well… carpentering, but to say that theory and books hold nothing for that carpenter is in my view, just wrong.

All of that does not take into account that people are just different. Some people learn better by doing. Some by reading. Some by observing. Some use the combination of all of the above. Each and every one of us is unique in the way we learn and in the way we develop.

But in OCarroll’s world, we are all the same. We all fall into “two kinds of knowledge in this world”. This approach is not only sad, it is also scary. This is the kind of thinking that later leads to fascism. Our way or not at all.

The world is not black and white. Thank god it is not. It is time we start embracing that fact. While management education deserves to be criticized and might not be employing the best of methods, to imply that theory, books and case studies give nothing is in my view, just plain wrong. What we need is more from both and not less from this or the other.



7 Responses to “Theory or practice? How about theory and practice?”

  1. Dennar Says:

    Thanks Elad for your insightful post.
    As in most things in the world, the truth in this case is in the middle.While Business schools are not the messiahs the schools hype them to be, to describe them as irrelevant and useless smacks of ignorance, outright deception and crass cynicism.
    A great chunk of the problem can be traced to the doors of the business schools,who in a bid to create a premium market have painted an exaggerated picture of exclusivity. While theory alone will never make a good manager,suggesting that a combination of theory and practice is of no greater value than theory alone is a laughable argument.
    The truth about business education is in the middle. It is neither black nor white,more likely grey!
    A good dose of theory and a humble embrace of practice.
    Those that ridicule business education may be wrong but the ball is in the court of business schools to move to the center, which is neither black nor white.The center is grey and so is the future of business education

  2. Dennar Says:

    a slight correction –
    While theory alone will never make a good manager,suggesting that a combination of theory and practice is of no greater value than practice alone is a laughable argument.

  3. sherfelad Says:

    Thanks Dennar,
    Insightful indeed! I agree about the need for change in business schools and I can assure you… I am working on it 🙂

  4. ratcfc Says:

    Great post elad. I think that you make a really good point. There is a place for business education. I think that if nothing else, it allows the student to get out of the trenches and ‘take a balcony view’ of business. There are clearly some problems with the structure and execution of MBA programs, and they would do well to practice what they preach truly understand customer needs.

  5. sherfelad Says:

    Thanks Rishi,
    So true…
    However, I am not all about giving the “Customer” of education what they they want… Education, in part, should be about giving people things that they need but don’t want… but that does not make your point any less valid!

    Thanks for commenting!

  6. Jonathan Says:

    Like most things in life, an MBA is what you make it.

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

    Insert you favourite optimistic bumper-sticker slogan here.

    I had a transformative experience at AGSM and am learning every day how to apply my MBA, if not simply to continue the learning process in the spirit of constant growth and improvement.

    Thanks Elad!

  7. sherfelad Says:

    Thanks Jonathan,
    I agree. I think reflection (and then action) is a big part of what makes the difference. I am afraid of dogmatic approaches that imply there is only one (or two) ways to do something. The diversity of our MBA cohort has proved that we many people do similar things in different ways.

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