Theory is not the enemy of practice, they are allies

Theory is not the enemy of practice, they are alliesA dangerous misconception has become prevalent in our society. It is a pestilence that affects, among other things, companies, the academia, health care, and education. As an almost invisible force it prevents mankind from reaching greatness in many ways.

This misconception is the great divide between theory and practice.

The great divide between theory and practice

At its worst, a world where theory and practice do not meet looks like this:

Companies are not interested in the advances in science made in the academia, disregarding the contributions of the academics as theoretical and impractical. They focus their innovation on immediately profitable ventures and strive to hire people first and foremost from their competitors, from the same industry they are in, thus perpetuating the established truths within their business.

Academics reside in ivory towers where connections to life outside those walled gardens are rare and unappreciated. If an academic should venture outside, he shall be judged less competent by his peers, a suspicious individual, even, for he thus shows his lack of dedication to the pursuit of pure knowledge.

The primary purpose of health care is to make people feel good. Whether the effects are based on tangible effects or placebo is irrelevant, as long as individuals can stay within their comfort zones. Death may result because of lack of proper care, but hey, who cares as long as beliefs are not questioned. Homeopathy is administered by medical professionals (despite the well-known fact that it is just water, and no, water does not have memory), and even the most vital vaccines are optional, no matter how well-known and safe they are.

Education is based on whatever belief systems each student happens to have, and different opinions are avoided regardless of evidence, as they might make someone feel bad. Evolution, hey, that’s just a theory, I want my children to think that the world is just a few thousand years old. Questioning this would be as bad as physically assaulting me!

I claim that the common root cause behind all this is, in fact, the divide between theory and practice. It is this divide that hinders innovation, and makes widespread relativism possible – even in areas where there should be no room for different interpretations.

How did we end up here?

I don’t have all the details on our journey to this point. Perhaps we were never any better, with all the witch hunts and other nonsense people did already centuries ago.

I can, however, point out two things that are making things worse in our own time.

The progress of science is built on top of previous science. There can no longer be an Aristotle, working on everything. It is hard to see even a Mill, working on many aspects of ethics, logic, economics, and politics. As fields of science specialize further and further, and new science is built on top of existing science, the fields become increasingly siloed with their own jargon and area of expertise that encompasses but a small portion of human existence.

The logic of efficiency in the industrial world leaves no time to think. The counterpart to the academia, the industry, is not doing any better. Mankind still lives in the awe of the industrial revolution, where increasing production is the goal, and people are pushed to work faster, not smarter.

With these two forces exerting their pull in opposite directions, it is no wonder that people rather limit their vision than strive to understand it all. Science becomes more difficult to understand, and there is no energy left to try to understand it anyway after running all day at work. Simple explanations are better! Evaluating claims is difficult, and it’s easier to just follow whoever is the most charismatic.

Theory affects us, whether we like it or not

The simplified life is a dangerous one. What we perceive, or think we perceive, affects what we do. Language, for one, is a tremendously powerful tool, as it is not just an instrument for communication, but also an instrument for thinking. We are unable to think things that we have no concepts for.

There is a good reason why the scientific method, in its many slight variations, always follows a common pattern: plan – do – study – adjust (PDSA). Even if our model of the world is left unarticulated, it affects our actions. It is only through articulating our hypothesis and testing it in action that real knowledge is gained. It is only through this process that we truly learn what works in which situations, instead of learning mere anecdotes, the deeper meanings of which are left unexplored, and the anecdotes themselves prone to fail us in their next application because we do not know why they work or in which situations.

Thinking exactly along these lines, W. Edwards Deming wrote in Out of the Crisis (1982): “Experience alone, without theory, teaches management nothing about what to do to improve quality and competitive position, nor how to do it. If experience alone would be a teacher, then one may well ask why are we in this predicament?”

Having a theoretical model to base actions on results in faster and more reliable actions, because the causal effects are clear.

How can we move forward?

The way forward can be painted by thinking of countermeasures to the two forces that wedge theory away from practice.

Counter the silos. As the leading edge of science moves toward deeper specialization, there is an increasing need for a middle layer, the generalist. This applies both to the academia as well as to the industry – wide understanding of multiple fields is the connecting force that helps us build the big picture and, perhaps counterintuitively, helps us innovate more.

Change the logic of business. The thinking that more is more is inadequate. The old logic of business has already been challenged in multiple ways, and spreading those challenges far and wide is the key to changing companies. The main challengers include Lean, Theory of Constraints, and service-dominant logic.

It is still uncertain whether these things are enough. After all, if people simply don’t care and choose ignorance over knowledge, what could stop them? Or should there even be anything stopping people from making such a choice? Ultimately, I choose to believe that people want to choose knowledge over ignorance, and by removing obstacles that hinder making that choice it is possible to change the world.


Photo: Design in theory and practice by Double-M @ Flickr (CC, cropped)

Author: Ville Kilkku

I run my own consultancy business, so if you find the ideas on this blog intriguing, contact me at or call me at +358 50 588 5043 and we can discuss how I can help you solve your business problems. I am currently based in Finland, but work globally.