– positive and negative aspects of the dissonance –
Education of top managers is sometimes criticized claiming that professors lecturing managers do not have practical knowledge and thus all learned has no practical value. This idea is even more accentuated if the manager is successful with a commonly held belief that such manager obviously knows what he/she is doing otherwise he/she would not be successful. Discussion on the relationship between theory and practice has loong been present (e.g. Bauer, 1942) and, regardless of the clear indications, this relationship always questioned ab-ovo instead of being developed further.
Professors/academics are sometimes criticized for allegedly having a lack of practical knowledge thus implying their possible incompetence for teaching managers, under the assumption that you cannot teach about something if you have no practical experience. However, having no experience in practice (assuming that routines are different in various organizations) can often be beneficial as it allows an individual to deliberate on practical issues without being constrained to the existing modus-operandi (Bauer, 1942). For example, an academic who has never raced in Formula 1 surely can understand better functioning of the car and key driving principles than a winning driver. While driver uses practical knowledge to optimize decisions in a given situation and win the race (short-run), theoretical knowledge enable understanding of systems and envisioning future improvements that will ensure race domination in the future (long-run).
DEFINITION: SKILLS PRESENT APPLIED (PRACTICAL) KNOWLEDGE
To discuss theory and practice or abstract and concrete knowledge, it is important to differentiate between skills and knowledge. While knowledge presents information and understanding of concepts and principles (logic) behind linking concepts, skills present capabilities of individuals to apply knowledge in specific situations and contexts. Abstract knowledge implies discussion and understanding of axioms, truths and assumptions related to certain knowledge domain increasing the understanding of principles and regularities that drive certain phenomena. Such business knowledge defines generic principles which are transferable (and valid) across various contexts. On the other hand, skills that are tremendously valuable in one context (company/market) often have limited applicability in other contexts.
PROBLEM: PRACTICAL KNOWLEDGE IS PERCEIVED AS MORE IMMPORTANT – BUT GROUNDED ON QUESTIONABLE ASSUMPTION
In generic discussions on theory vs. practice, practical knowledge is generally presented to have greater value as greater importance is placed on knowledge “how to do something” than “what to do” or “why to do it” (Prewett, 1955). Such “ranking” implies an unstated assumption (which seldom holds): that in every situation manager/owner/company knows exactly what needs to be done so the only thing needed is to execute it well. It implies that at every moment all options are known, all outcomes and known and all interconnections are well understood.
FALLACIOUS CONCLUSION: PRACTICAL KNOWLEDGE HAS GREATER VALUE THAN THEORETICAL KNOWLEDGE
Theoretical ideas are often not achievable in practice which often leads to the fallacious conclusion and logical flow that theoretical knowledge has no practical value. It is generally true that, due to objective limitations, it is never possible to achieve theoretical otpima in practice. This, however, by no means implies that theoretical / abstract knowledge has lower value, but actually accentuates its value. Practice should aim to achieve theoretical optima in spite of objective limitations. Theoretical knowledge provides a dynamic insight into desirable future business developments. For example, at the time when exiting Earth’s atmosphere was only theoretically achievable, it would be erroneous to ignore theoretical opportunities and focus on practical problems of that time. Similarly, through executive educations, it is important to understand what can be achieved and which direction should be pursued rather than focus on solving hardships of current times. Of course, envisioning possibilities and achieving practical success go hand-in-hand to interactively develop new knowledge (Mentzer and Schumann, 2006).
KEY IDEA: DO NOT MAKE EXECUTIVE EDUCATION MORE PRACTICAL (i.e. DO NOT ELIMINATE THE DISSONANCE) BUT MAKE ONE AWARE OF THE DISSONANCE SO HE/SHE CAN CREATE NEW VALUE
Generic discussions on executive education generally tend to falsely conclude that the dissonance between theory and practice should be reduced and that executive education should be more practical. However, professors teaching managers on practical issues truly adds no value, but it is important to raise awareness of the existence of this dissonance and its role in the new knowledge development. Interaction between theoretical and practical plains can create new knowledge (Boyer, 1990) and can generate new value for company, science and society. It is precisely the existence and awareness of the dissonance that allows the prepared mind to innovate and create new values.
IMPORTANCE OF EXECUTIVE EDUCATION FOR TOP MANAGERS
Abstract knowledge prepares a manager for future challenges rather than giving him/her toolkits for short-term success (e.g. Bauer, 1942). Managers that question current dogmas and established industry norms were long considered unfit for the job (Prewett, 1955). However, today it is precisely those managers that are favored: visionaries and abstract thinkers who question everything in business practice. To facilitate this change, executive education programs are becoming increasingly important. Such programs accentuate the dissonance by confronting:
- contemporary theoretical knowledge,
- knowledge from diverse industries and
- concrete company-related knowledge.
By doing so, executive education programs aim at stimulating top managers to develop new perspectives on existing problems, to define new potential problems and to search for innovative solutions to challenges they face in the short and the long run.