The Gap between Theory and Practice

In case you missed it, my first Chronicle Vitae article came out last week. It is called Good Ideas Aren’t Enough, and is about the importance of learning how to get things done, i.e., learning some management skills.

It is the nature of publishing on a site with an editorial process that my second article was due just a few days after my first one came out. So last week I was also busy putting the finishing touches on another article to submit. One of things I needed to do was look up some references. These were for statements about management practices that I consider non-controversial, but which I thought would have some empirical evidence. I started searching for good summaries of that evidence… and fell down a rabbit hole. It turned out that the evidence around the practice I was researching was more nuanced than I had assumed. I ended up with several papers to read, and only once I’d read them did I feel able to select one to cite- and I also tweaked my text to include more nuance.

This is not the first time I’ve gone searching for the evidence behind a commonly accepted management practice and fallen down a rabbit hole of less clear cut research papers. Some of this is just due to the difference between academic papers and articles written for a more general audience. Academic papers must necessarily be more precise and careful in their claims. But some of this is due to a gap between the empirical evidence being generated by academics and the general knowledge of people actually doing management work.

To be honest, a lot of people actually doing management work do not think about how it should be done at all. There is a tendency to just muddle through, assuming that good management is primarily a matter of applying common sense. I probably fell into that camp in my early days as a manager, so this isn’t so much a judgement as a lamentation. Many of our work cultures just do not take management seriously enough for the people working in them to realize that there are actual skills involved that can be learned, and that what constitutes “good management” is not just a matter of preference, but something that can be studied empirically.

Even among managers who realize that there are skills to learn and evidence to examine, I doubt the academic literature on management gets much attention. I do not know of any managers who read it, and I will confess that I never went looking to the primary literature until I started this blog. I read plenty of Harvard Business Review articles, books about management (and in my defense, some of these were by academic researchers), and articles in places like Fast Company.  But I had never read a single academic paper on management.

It is not like I am a novice to the field- I have been managing people and projects for more than ten years, and have been actively reading and working to improve as a manager for most of that time. It just never occurred to me that I should go find some journal articles to read.

I’m not sure why that is, and I certainly don’t have any ideas about how to change it on a wide scale. But I can change it on a personal scale. I’m starting a regular practice of reading academic articles from the literature on management.  If nothing else, it is likely to provide some blog fodder!


  1. AEMcDonald said:

    I’ve really been enjoying your posts! Have you found any particular management journals that consistently publish articles that you find useful? Are there any that would be more applicable to managing in an academic lab setting?

    February 5, 2015
    • Melanie said:

      Thanks! I have just started exploring the management journal landscape, so I don’t really have any “favorites” yet. I’ll be sure to post about what I find, though.

      In terms of being applicable to an academic lab setting- I suspect that most of the research will be done on business settings (although I’ll be delighted if I discover I’m wrong). Certain aspects of the research will probably translate fairly well, though. For instance, the research about what motivates people and how to give effective feedback. Ideas about how to organize work effectively may need more translation. But that’s just my instinct. Figuring out which management ideas work well in which settings is one of my interests, though, so if you have specific questions, feel free to send them in and if I think I have something useful to say on the topic, I’ll add it to my “things to write about” queue.

      February 6, 2015
  2. […] original literature that is relevant to management, since, as I’ve discussed before, a lot of nuance can get lost when that research is translated into management advice aimed at a general audie…. Perhaps I should start with a paper on the impact of communication styles, to see how that field […]

    April 1, 2015

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