Theory Building in Applied Disciplines

Richard A. Swanson (Author) | Thomas Chermack (Author)

Publication date: 08/05/2013

Theory Building in Applied Disciplines
  • The first multidisciplinary book specifically on building, evaluating, and developing theories in academic fields that apply research to professional practice
  • Offers a five-phase model that can be used to build and test a theory in any applied discipline
  • Written by two highly respected scholars

Theory matters in applied disciplines-fields that apply scholarly research to professional practice, such as management, social work, health care, human resource development, education, and many others. Because these disciplines deal with human beings in the real world, a flawed theory can result in actual harm to people and institutions.

When faced with a professional problem, practitioners resort to the latest fad or simply throw everything and anything at it because of the lack of sound theory. Scholars deal with problems by slicing them into small segments to study them but fail to address the practical implications. What's needed is a way to unite research and practice to create robust theory.

This is exactly what Richard Swanson and Thomas Chermack offer here: a complete, five-step method for developing sound, field-tested theory in applied disciplines. Unlike many existing methods, which cover only the initial conceptualization of a theory, the authors offer a complete approach, from conceptualizing a theory to creating relevant assessment criteria, establishing a research agenda to test the theory's validity, applying the theoretical concepts in the real world, and using that experience to further refine and improve the theory. The method is not restricted to any single discipline, nor is it beholden to any research ideology.

Swanson and Chermack provide a set of tools for each phase of the process, making this book accessible and applicable to a wide audience. And in addition to examples in each chapter, they offer two extended case examples of complete theory building. With flawed theories impeding the development of many applied disciplines, this book is desperately needed.

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Overview

  • The first multidisciplinary book specifically on building, evaluating, and developing theories in academic fields that apply research to professional practice
  • Offers a five-phase model that can be used to build and test a theory in any applied discipline
  • Written by two highly respected scholars

Theory matters in applied disciplines-fields that apply scholarly research to professional practice, such as management, social work, health care, human resource development, education, and many others. Because these disciplines deal with human beings in the real world, a flawed theory can result in actual harm to people and institutions.

When faced with a professional problem, practitioners resort to the latest fad or simply throw everything and anything at it because of the lack of sound theory. Scholars deal with problems by slicing them into small segments to study them but fail to address the practical implications. What's needed is a way to unite research and practice to create robust theory.

This is exactly what Richard Swanson and Thomas Chermack offer here: a complete, five-step method for developing sound, field-tested theory in applied disciplines. Unlike many existing methods, which cover only the initial conceptualization of a theory, the authors offer a complete approach, from conceptualizing a theory to creating relevant assessment criteria, establishing a research agenda to test the theory's validity, applying the theoretical concepts in the real world, and using that experience to further refine and improve the theory. The method is not restricted to any single discipline, nor is it beholden to any research ideology.

Swanson and Chermack provide a set of tools for each phase of the process, making this book accessible and applicable to a wide audience. And in addition to examples in each chapter, they offer two extended case examples of complete theory building. With flawed theories impeding the development of many applied disciplines, this book is desperately needed.

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Meet the Authors


Visit Author Page - Richard A. Swanson



Richard A. Swanson is an internationally recognized authority on organizational change, human resource development, the analysis and evaluation of work behavior, and financial analysis. He has consulted with Arthur Andersen Consulting, AT&T, 3M, CIGNA, Citicorp, General Motors, Honeywell, and many others. He has written and published widely on the subjects of performance and human resource development, and his recent book Analysis for Improving Performance won the Outstanding Instructional Communication Award from the International Society for Performance Improvement and the Society for Human Resource Management Book Award. Swanson is professor and director of the Human Resource Development Research Center at the University of Minnesota and senior partner of Swanson & Associates, Incorporated.


Visit Author Page - Thomas Chermack

Thomas J. Chermack has studied and practiced scenario planning for over 15 years. His initial interest in scenario planning was due to its unique combination of analysis and creativity in exploring difficult status quo thinking an dhelp people see things differently.

Tom consults on scenario projects through his company Chermack Scenarios (www.thomaschermack.com) with organizations worldwide, including Saudi Aramco, Motorola, Directlink Technologies, Cargill, Emerson Process, General Mills, Centura Health, and others. Many of these projects have yielded profound insights for their organization leaders resulting in significant re-perceptions of their organizations, environments, and capabilities. In consulting with world-class organizations, Tom has seen the utility and effectiveness of scenario planing firsthand.

An assistant professor in organizational performance and change at Colorado State University, Tom teaches courses on scenario planning, human expertise, analysis in organizations, change management, and organization development. With a focus on the theoretical foundations and outcomes of scenario planning, Tom's research has won awards of excellence from the Academy of Human Resource Development and has appeared in scholarly journals as well as books and magazines. Much of his published work on the theory and practice of scenario planning includes numerous studies that document its benefits.

Tom is also the founder and director of the Scenario Planning Institute at Colorado State University (www.scenarioplanning.colostate.edu). The Scenario Planning Institute (the first of its kind in the United States) is a hub of activity related to scenario planning, including research, consulting with organizations worldwide, a program for certifying scenario planning facilitators, seminars, and other activities that link Colorado State University to organizations and members of the community, both locally and internationally.

Applied disciplines like scenario planning require both reflection and action--reflection, for understanding how scenario planning works and how it can be improved, and action, for putting new knowledge to use. Tom has made it a point of his career to study and apply scenario planning. An emphasis on both inquiry and application has provided a unique perspective, and a wealth of experiences that come together in this book.

Tom's experiences with the research and practice of scenario planning have yielded invitations to speak at organizations around the world, as well as present seminars, workshops, and keynote addresses.

Tom lives in Fort Collins, Colorado.

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Table of Contents

Preface xi

PART ONE

FOUNDATIONS OF THEORY BUILDING

1 To Hell with Gravity

2 Foundations and Definitions of Theory Building

3 General Method of Theory Building in Applied Disciplines

Contributed by Susan A. Lynham

PART TWO

PHASES OF THEORY BUILDING

4 Conceptualize Phase

5 Operationalize Phase

6 Confirm Phase

7 Apply Phase

8 Refine Phase

PART THREE

SUCCESSFUL THEORY BUILDING

9 Case Example: Marsick and Watkins's Learning Organization Theory

10 Case Example: Chermack's Scenario Planning Theory

11 Figuring Out the Present Status of a Theory

12 Whatcha Gonna Do?

References

Author Index

Subject Index

About the Authors

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Excerpt

Theory Building in Applied Disciplines

1

To Hell with Gravity

A BUMPER STICKER reads, “To Hell with Gravity.” While this message provokes a broad smile for a moment, it also quickly surfaces all the fears surrounding the anti-intellectuals and anti-science folks in our society. Hoards of individuals who are anti-theory, anti-science, and anti-intellectual are very comfortable with their rickety armchair theories and ideologies.

Searching for truth and sound theory is no easy task. Anti-intellectual positions that start with the answer—versus the question—avoid all that messy reading, thinking, and testing stuff. Blurting out uninformed opinions is easy—and almost always wrong. It is quite ironic that today we have more good information available to us than in any point in history and at the same time more misinformation. Outliers in the theory world were once less visible.

The Internet allows outliers a larger venue. It seems that if a piece of misinformation gets “tweeted” enough, it soon is perceived as fact by many people—a phenomenon particularly evident in recent political campaigns in the United States. The lament is that the real loser from cynical manipulations of fact and fantasy is truth (Kruse, 2012; Thomas, 1997).

The challenge put forth in this book is that theories in applied disciplines are extremely important and need to be advanced. Remember: When thinking about theory in applied disciplines, keep these definitions in mind:

• A theory describes a specific realm of knowledge and explains how it works.

Applied disciplines are realms of study and practice that are fully understood through their use in the functioning world. Management, organization development, public administration, marketing, highway engineering, leadership, and nursing are just a few of the many applied disciplines.

Sound theory within applied disciplines has great utility. A rich understanding of a specific realm is implied. Because applied discipline theories require theories in use, their utility makes all the difference. It is easy to see that such realms as nursing, public administration, management, physical therapy, highway engineering, organizational communication, and school psychology are applied disciplines having both a body of knowledge and an application setting.

APPLIED DISCIPLINES ARE STUCK

While applied disciplines address the grist of life, dominate the number of academic majors in universities, and impact us all on a daily basis, most applied disciplines are stuck in terms of their theoretical foundation. This is because they

• have not integrated scholarly descriptions and confirmation in practice,

• overinterpret partial theories,

• celebrate rock star practitioners who are hollow role models, and

• tolerate opinion over inquiry.

Most attempts at theory building have fallen short. Existing work on theories in applied disciplines generally address only parts of what is required for complete theory building. The resulting explanations end up being incomplete, noncomprehensive, and unfulfilling to those trying to solve problems. Indeed, the status of theory-building methods in applied disciplines hinders growth and development due to their methodological incompleteness.

APPLIED DISCIPLINE THEORY REALLY MATTERS

The impact of theories-in-use dominates our lives day in and day out. The problem is that practices can just as easily be rooted in inadequate and often destructive logic, instead of confirmed effective alternatives. Theory in the hard sciences can be characterized as “bench-top” theory. If it works in the laboratory or on paper—and the empirical test results support a theoretical explanation—the odds of wide acceptance and adoption are very high.

The messy world of applied disciplines—the varied application settings, cultures, resources pool, and individuals—is much more challenging than bench-top laboratories that can be controlled. Even so, some “pure” disciplines like philosophy and mathematics take the plunge into application. University degree programs that expand from philosophy to applied philosophy, or from mathematics to applied mathematics, bring on the challenges facing other applied disciplines. Their questions and explanations get rooted in and modified by the real world. They cannot be solved on “bench-tops.”

THEORY BUILDING TO THE RESCUE

What a contrast we have between stereotypical practitioners and scholars. When facing important professional problems, practitioners regularly respond by force-fitting the latest gimmick, or by throwing everything and anything at the problem. In contrast, scholars regularly slice problems into small segments to study and explain them, without directly addressing the practical problem itself. Both approaches miss the target of sound theory and practice.

FIGURE 1.1 General Method of Theory Building In Applied Disciplines

Image

Source: Adapted from Lynham (2002).

The General Method of Theory Building in Applied Disciplines presented in this book and portrayed in Figure 1.1 advances both theory and practice. This method for developing sound theory in applied disciplines is meant to fill voids. When it is followed, both scholars and practitioners have input into this successful approach. Fusing information from both perspectives can yield a complete and accurate understanding of the realm being investigated. This is accomplished by completing all five of the nonlinear phases: Conceptualize, Operationalize, Confirm, Apply, and Refine.

Applied disciplines must meet the standards of both scholarship and practice. This book describes a complete, detailed method for developing sound theory in applied disciplines. In contrast, most theory development methods are incomplete, inappropriate, or totally overwhelming.

Incomplete. Theory is often considered as only a hypothesis or is limited to conceptualization. The full process of theory development and phases beyond theory conceptualization are simply ignored, for numerous reasons: (1) the practical rush to find answers, (2) the desire to gain recognition and possible wealth, and (3) a lack of knowledge about theory standards and methodology. The first and last are understandable. The premature and unworthy desire to gain recognition and wealth is despicable and all too present.

Inappropriate. Many authors present theory limited by an “ideology” framework such as empirical, critical science, or feminist perspectives. The nature of applied disciplines almost always precludes ideology biases. Yet, many individuals wanting to create rival theories choose a limited ideological approach to secure predetermined outcomes and thus miss the opportunity to create sound theory. Holding back on ideological biases is difficult. It is not always necessary as long as the theory builder acknowledges the bias and makes an adequate case for it.

Overwhelming. Several authors present exhaustive and tedious methodologies for developing theory within a specific discipline. These works are almost always intended for a very limited group of scholars within a specific discipline with little, if any, generalizability to other disciplines or practice.

We have some excellent examples of detailed theory-building methodology. Two such examples include Bernard Cohen’s Developing Sociological Knowledge: Theory and Method (1989) and Robert Dubin’s Theory Building: A Practical Guide to the Construction and Testing of Theoretical Models (1978). As good as they are, these books are both overwhelming to the neophyte and difficult for the expert. Our attempt in this book has been to displace these criticisms.

CHALLENGES FACING THE THEORY-BUILDING PROCESS

Clearly, the demands of practice can be a threat to sound theory. The motto of “ready, fire, aim” captures the pressure to respond to the immediacy of life situations. Real-world demands to respond quickly can provoke new answers to problems and at times demand whole new strategies (Torraco, 2004). New strategies that do not work in practice can be rejected. New strategies that do work in practice can ultimately be rejected, explained, adopted, or improved at a later time.

Theory building almost always extends over a period of time. It can start from practice or from scholarship. Most would agree that rigorous theory building in any realm is hard work. The crush of ongoing practice in applied disciplines adds to the difficulty. The immediate demand to respond to problems raises the hopes of seemingly attractive and often atheoretical options. In addition, the changing conditions of practice are unsettling to ongoing theory-building commitments.

The work of theory building in applied disciplines is very important because of the positive impact that sound theory can make on people and systems. Sound theory has the potential to dislodge false theories that can actually harm people and systems. False theories abound within society and organizations and can easily persist when they are not challenged. Unfortunately, impatient executives, politicians, news reporters, publishers, and businesses are regular purveyors of false theories in applied disciplines.

First Things First

Getting things out of order and jumping to conclusions with inadequate knowledge, expertise, analysis, and synthesis have always been a part of our human existence. Furthermore, advanced communication technology makes it possible to spread false information and theories much faster and to more people than at any other time in history. In addition, slick communication tools can be used in sharing this information, for high-quality presentation of false information. A warning for all of us is to “Never express yourself more clearly than you are able to think” (Merchey, 2004, p. 63).

At the beginning of the reengineering movement in the 1990s, reengineering developers Hammer and Champy (1993) presented themselves as confident management consultants who were backed by the Harvard Business Review, Harvard Business Press, and Wall Street Journal. Reengineering, based on simple systems theory, gave the promise of large economic gains and proved to be disastrous for the majority of businesses adopting the reengineering methodology. Hammer and Champy totally ignored the fact that business organizations are human-made systems and the psychological theory required to help understand them. Their mantra of “carry the wounded” (those who helped with the reengineering effort) and “leave the dead behind” (those who rebuffed the change and who were to be fired) was a cruel reminder of their flawed theory. Reengineering projects caused confusion, delays, resentment, and screw-ups that led to crises. Jobs were eliminated without much subtlety or consideration. (As an aside, a critique of Hammer and Champy’s Reengineering the Corporation was sent to the Wall Street Journal following their early laudatory support of reengineering. The critique noted reengineering’s simplistic and inadequate theoretical basis and predicted failure. It was never published.)

Only after years of personal lucrative consulting and client organization failures did Hammer and Champy come to realize the inadequacies of their failed theory in practice. In a retrospective, Kleiner (2000) reports that a series of studies in the early 1990s established that 70 percent or more of reengineering initiatives had actually made things worse. Years later, Hammer himself admitted errors in an interview in the Wall Street Journal, and Champy apologized in an article in Across the Board. Sadly, there was no need to wait for the reengineering bloodletting to figure out this theoretical and practical deficiency.

Beyond the sorrowful presence of atheoretical actions in the realm of practice, it is important to acknowledge that bad theories are known to destroy good practices (Ghosal, 2005, p. 75).

Taking a Closer Look

Rummler and Brache, well-educated and experienced consultant-practitioners, continued to refine their organization performance improvement thinking and methodology over several decades. Their classic books, Improving Performance: How to Manage the White Space in Organizations (Rummler & Brache, 1995, 2012) and How Organizations Work: Taking a Holistic Approach to Enterprise Health (Brache, 2002), reflect their best thinking. Even so, neither Rummler nor Brache explicitly explained the theoretical foundation of their work. Theory scholars, impressed with their methodology and successful application in practice, spent time unearthing and reporting on the underlying theory of their performance improvement methodology (Torraco, 1999; Wimbiscus, 1995).

What impressed scholars most was the completeness of the Rummler and Brache view of the organization and its elements, the explicit connections of the parts based on their experience, and the case study examples they reported that describe the paths they took in their improvement efforts. No shortcuts and no inflammatory promises. When advocates promise quick solutions and amazing results, it is best to take a closer look.

CONCLUSION

The challenge for gaining high integrity and effectiveness in applied disciplines is to discover what works and how it works. As part of this challenge, it is also critical to purposefully reject the charlatans that feed off problems and issues facing practitioners of applied disciplines. Building sound theory in applied disciplines is important.

This book directly addresses the problems of the lack of clarity as to what theory is and its full dimensions. The following chapters describe the General Method of Theory Building in Applied Disciplines, detailing its five component phases. Throughout the book, we have included specific useful advice and examples that illustrate solutions to these real problems. We declared earlier that Theory Building in Applied Disciplines has no rival theory development methods book. We hope you both agree and have the personal motivation to continue learning about theory building as an important strategy for advancing your applied discipline.

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Endorsements


“Swanson and Chermack argue that applied disciplines falter when either theory or practice dominates. The method of theory building in applied disciplines presented and detailed in this book is simple yet powerful.”
—Wayne F. Cascio, Robert H. Reynolds Chair in Global Leadership and Professor of Management, Business School, University of Colorado Denver

Theory Building in Applied Disciplines is a long-overdue book. Swanson and Chermack have made a truly significant contribution to the development of practice-based theories that will enrich applied disciplines.”
—Marshall Scott Poole, Professor of Communication, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

“This book practices what it preaches by meshing theory and practice in an accessible and rigorous way. Scholars and graduate students will benefit from the advice and examples provided.”
—Kevin Dooley, Distinguished Professor of Supply Chain Management, Arizona State University 

“This is a welcome addition to the growing conversation on the role of theory and theory development in applied disciplines.”
—David Whetten, Jack Wheatley Professor of Organizational Studies, Brigham Young University

“Swanson and Chermack's excellent presentation and expansion of the phases of theory building in applied disciplines represents a significant contribution to the scholarly literature.”
—Pedro Reyes, Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, The University of Texas System

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