Academic Theory

When I ask the question, does academic theory matter (and does it have any use in the real world), you might assume that, as an academic, I am going to say ‘yes’. Well I do but there is still much to consider.

Not all theories are created equal. There are heroes and famous figures in the academic world, as there are in the business world, and one of this number is Kurt Lewin. I share the value in Kurt Lewin’s view that is there is nothing as practical as a good theory with many of my esteemed academic colleagues.

The academic world is as complex as the business world. There is a notion (put forward by many academics) that the worlds of academia and business are somehow detached, which allows them to comment objectively on business practice. They pride themselves in theory, comment and applying rigorous methods and can be critically analytical about the world of business. As they are removed from the situation, they can provide insights which might not always be clear to those who are consumed by the unremitting daily challenges in their business world.

View Theory in Context

However academic theory must be viewed in context. Take for example a recent piece of research which I undertook. It was required that I look at ALL the material that had been written on the field of Organisational Development (OD) - tedious but necessary! More importantly when was it written, by whom and in which countries they were based. What became very clear was that all ‘thought’ on what OD was and how it should be practiced was overwhelmingly dominated by US based scholars. From other research I have done, I absolutely know that OD in the UK bears little resemblance to OD in the US. What is more, I am not suggesting you bother to do this, but if you were to look in the UK HR textbooks, you’d rarely find mention of OD and change management. The academic world of OD and HR does not reflect what is happening in the ‘real’ business world in the UK. Sometimes academic thought can appear to be behind or out of step with the areas it comments upon, but why?

Be Critical

It is not only in the fields of OD and HR that this disconnect between theory and reality happens; there is an ongoing and regular debate amongst business and management academics on the extent to which the US dominates academic thought. This seems to be due to the professional value placed on the publication of work. At the top of a much used list which ranks academic journals, the stars frequently go to American based journals. Academics like credits on their CV as much as anyone else and publishing in high ranking journals is the way to do that. Fortunately, there is also debate about the need for management research to be relevant, useful and VARIED.

So, if you are presented with an academic theory, please always consider: who developed this, when did they develop it, where did they develop it, what was their agenda? Don’t overlook good theory, but consider it in the context of its journey and in the context of the world to which you are applying it. I regularly take theory and look at how it can usefully be applied in real life business settings. In summary, I’m a huge fan of (some) academic theory – but – it does no harm to stop and think – do I really think these ideas are good and useful to me?

Anne Clare Gillon teaches on the DBA (Doctor of Business Administration), MBA and BA Business programmes at The University of the West of Scotland. She is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a Chartered Fellow of the CIPD. Anne Clare is also a Vice-Chair of the British Academy of Management, the foremost learned society for researchers and scholars of business and management in the UK.

If you would like further information from Anne Clare, you can contact her by e-mail:


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