Tuesday, August 16, 2016

How a Pickup Truck Taught Us That Research Can’t Be Detached from Practice

In 2001, the British management business leader and philosopher Charles Handy vividly described the pace of change: “All of the world’s trade in 1949 happens in a single day today, all of the foreign exchange dealings in 1979 happen now in a single day, as do all the telephone calls made around the world in 1984. A year in a day is exactly how it feels sometimes.”1

In spite of these vast world changes, the theory of project management has remained largely unchanged. As noted by P.W.G. Morris: “Modern project management… emerged… in a period that was more inflexible and less complex and where events changed less rapidly than today…. It [the theory of project management] is in many respects still stuck in a 1960s time warp.”2   

Practitioners must recognize that the prevailing theories and the basic assumptions of their discipline have a great impact on their own thoughts and practices. Albert Einstein explained it very succinctly: “It is the theory that describes what we can observe.” Indeed, in his 2005 seminal article, Bad Management Theories Are Destroying Good Management Practices, Sumantra Ghoshal cites Kurt Lewin’s argument that “nothing is as practical as a good theory.” Ghoshal stresses, however, that the “obverse is also true: Nothing is as dangerous as a bad theory.”3 Management theory stuck in the 60s may not only be old and irrelevant, it may also adversely affect our performance in terms of cost, time table as well as quality.

If conventional methods of project management can exacerbate rather than alleviate project problems, then we should not be surprised to learn about the widespread poor statistics of project results. One key reason is that the research is detached from practice.4 Attempting to respond to this concern, Cicmil et al. suggest that “what is needed to improve project management practice is not more research on what should be done” but rather a better understanding of “the ‘actuality’ of project-based working and management.”5  

We attempted to follow this recommendation and to develop a “theory of practice” by studying the “actuality” of projects. However, as Alex learned in one of his first studies, learning from practice requires more than just going out to the field. In this study, Alex examined the factors affecting the optimal size of a construction crew. His list of factors was very elaborate, and included among others the worker's experience, foreman's training, and complexity of work.

He collected data via field interviews and on-site productivity measurements both in Texas and Israel. However, only after he completed collecting the data did he learn that he failed to include one simple but sometimes very crucial factor. It turned out that for some trades in Israel, the deciding factor for the size of the construction crew was no more nor less than the size of the pickup truck carrying the workers from their remote villages to the site. Literature surveys and field pre-testing of the interview guide were insufficient. Deep acquaintance with the phenomena under study is the key.

Only when the researcher acquires a rich and intimate knowledge of the subject, or when the practitioner serves as an active partner in helping the researcher formulate the right questions and design the right research tools, will any of us learn something meaningful.6

1.          C. Handy, (2002). The Elephant and the Flea: Reflections of a Reluctant Capitalist. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, p. 101.
2.          P.W.G. Morris (1994). The Management of Projects. London, UK: Thomas Telford  Services, p. 217.
3.          S. Ghoshal, (2005). Bad Management Theories Are Destroying Good Management Practices. Academy of Management Learning and Education 4, 1 (March): 75-91.
4.          Sandberg and H. Tsoukas (2011). Grasping the Logic of Practice: Theorizing Through Practical Rationality. The Academy of Management Review 36, 2: 338-360. 
5.          S. Cicmil, T. Williams, J. Thomas, and D. Hodgson (2006). Rethinking Project Management: Researching the Actuality of Projects. International Journal of Project Management 24, 8: 675-86.  
6.          Laufer, A. ASK Magazine, NASA, Issue 8 May 2002 http://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20020070475.pdf