Kurt Lewin proposed, “There is nothing as practical than a good theory.” I know what many of you are thinking: “Are you kidding me? Management theory, really?” The good news is there is no heavy-handed management theory required for this process. However, an understanding of the empirical evidence regarding what works, what we know doesn’t work, and under what conditions, is useful for any management design endeavor.
Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton, in their book Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-Based Management, make the point that practitioners’ actions and practices are often not based on the latest scientific theory. In fact, their practices have already been demonstrated not to work. This is the risk of ignoring management theory: you might end up endlessly reinventing a broken wheel.
It is not clear how we got to this point. It is hard for one to imagine an architect not taking into consideration important scientific evidence (e.g., metallurgy) when designing a new building” (Latham, 2012, pp. 12-13).
Questions to ask:
- Who are the leading thinkers in this area or system (e.g., strategic management)?
- What are the established theories related to this particular area or system?
- What do they tell us about the design of the system?
Depending on the particular system, this can be a large task. It is usually impractical for the design team to study all the relevant literature on a particular process or system. That’s where subject matter experts come in.
Subject Matter Experts
Unfortunately, we seldom have the time to do all the research that would be required to do this step well. Consequently, subject matter experts (SMEs) are often included on the design team to provide this knowledge as needed throughout the design process. Also, there is the complexity of context and the cross-disciplinary nature of most organization systems (e.g., psychology, sociology, business, and systems theory). One way to avoid the team getting bogged down doing research on the key theories and concepts is to include applicable SMEs on the design team. Ideally, these SMEs also have an understanding and appreciation for the other disciplines in the system. In other words people with depth in a particular area, but also breadth in a variety of areas enabling them to work on cross-disciplinary projects such as organization design teams.
- Identify the relevant leading theories and key concepts.
- Identify the leading thinkers and leading-edge ideas that could inform the design of this system.
- Identify the most recent research and empirical evidence regarding the system.
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