A Perspective: Theory and Practice Divide

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By Nigel Piercy, formery Professor of Strategy at Cardiff Business School, UK:

The notion that there is a divide between theory and practice in marketing, and that it matters or is in some way a bad thing, is something of a cliche´. Nonetheless, it is one that will doubtless receive yet further attention in the aftermath of the economic downturn amid further questions about whether what business schools teach is useful or positively harmful. Problematically, the notion of the divide seems to be based on two unhelpful and generally invalid stereotypes: the “down-to-earth” hard-nosed manager looking for action and results in the real world (good), compared to the fuzzy-minded academic interested only in abstraction and theworld of ideas (bad). Neither view appears to reflect more than the extremes of fiction and reality television: Alan Sugar compared to Darwin, for example.

Certainly, it is worth noting that we are not alone in periodically torturing ourselvesalong these lines – a similar tension exists between academics and practitioners inmedical schools, engineering, and so on.However, if the “divide” is to be debated then let us consider teaching and research separately at first. Let us be clear – universities do not exist to do company training on the cheap or forfree. It is not our job to train; our role is to educate. Appositely, business school deans like Arnoud de Meyer of Cambridge’s Judge Business School believe that businessacademics failed to sufficiently question their own theories when the times were good, and continue to fail in  the role of being critical and forcibly questioning the generallyaccepted rules (Gardiner, 2009). At the simplest level, our role as educators is notsimply to teach tools and techniques, but to show the limitations of those methods andhow they can lead to disastrously bad decisions, whatever consultants and managers may think.

Suggested remedies are that every model taught should be accompanied by illustrations of how it can go wrong; a model’s predictive record should be compared to (simpler) alternatives, particularly if the model’s assumptions fit past conditions but it has more limited application in the future; students should be confronted by situationswith surprises where models do not fit (Makridakis et al., 2009). Indeed, In the specific context of finance teaching, Pablo Triana accuses academics of “lecturing birds onflying”, suggesting mathematical models have done more harm than good, and comparing academics to virgins making porn films (Triana, 2009).

Similarly, teachers of management stand accused of failing to align teaching withsocietal values. In a 2005 critique, entitled “Bad management theories are destroyinggood management practice”, the late Sumantra Ghoshal condemned amoral theoriestaught in business schools which have “actively freed their students from any sense of moral responsibility” (Ghoshal, 2005).

However, it is unlikely that addressing these shortfalls will reduce the “divide”between theory and practice (or academics and managers) – it is more likely to widen the divide as we fulfil our purpose in inculcating a critical perspective on practice and values, not aping the latest consultants’ clownery.

Turning to research, we stand accused by some managers (often those who have never read an academic journal in their lives) of irrelevance. Let us be clear: practitioners do not own the research agenda, though they are welcome to contribute to it. Certainly, academics should be interested in how organisations make decisions and innovate in how they go to market, but should not be restricted to that frame of reference. The relevance of new ideas to practice is frequently not clear when the work is undertaken – though it may become so later in the process. It is simply not our job as educators to undertake “applied research” on the cheap for companies. If organisationsneed research projects conducting, then they can pay for them. For example take “benchmarking best practice” (a frequent cause espoused by practitioners and a great excuse for doing bad research) – while managers love comparing themselves to others, our role should not be facilitating this conceit but establishing how invalid andunhelpful is most benchmarking research (usually because it chooses poor criteria of performance).

If research addresses the big ideas of the day, as arguably it should, then it is likely that the results will be controversy and bruised managerial egos. Doubtless, we will betold again how irrelevant academic research is to management practice. The fact that groundbreaking research upsets the status quo is kind of the point.

In short, I conclude that there should be a divide between theory and practicebecause they approach different goals and strive to perform to different metrics. Weare set up to do different things for different reasons. In fact, the divide probably needs to be vastly bigger than it is now. There should be a healthy degree of antagonism between the world of ideas and the world of action. The alternative appears to be academics aping the antics of managers, and managers attempting to set the academic agenda for teaching and research on whatever basis they feel best serves their short-term interests. Long live the divide!


  • European Journal of Marketing
  • Vol. 44 No. 1/2, 2010pp. 5-20
  • Emerald Group Publishing Limited
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