Making knowledge productive: Suggestions from and for a personal journey

By: Dave Ulrich | Posted On: 2021-05-10 03:16:08 | Updated On: 2021-12-05 02:56:36 | Views: 112

The tradeoffs between theory/research vs. practice/solutions are not new nor limited to management.  Philosophers for generations (e.g., Aristotle, Plato) and, more recently epistemologists (John Locke, David Hume Rene Descarte), explore the nature of knowledge including the dialectic of inquiry (theory) versus action (practice), or how to make knowledge productive. These theory/practice debates regularly occur in biology, education, engineering, education, law, medicine, psychology, sociology, and in business schools (Gouldner, 1956; Churchman and Schainbatt, 1965; Pronko, 1982; Duncan, 2017).  On the one hand, organization and management scholars, as academics often focus on developing theories to explain patterns of managerial activity validated by research using the scientific method of hypothesis testing and incremental knowledge cumulation.  Peers review these studies for publication in leading academic journals and the process is institutionalized through promotions (tenure).  On the other hand, practitioners (business leaders or consultants) face pressing problems that require timely solutions.  Success is measured less by the ideas and more by actions that resolve the presenting challenge so that stakeholders get results.  


Colleagues have analyzed and lamented the increasing gap between academic scholarship and business relevance because of differing goals, unique language, incentives, time frames, and skills (Hilgert, 1972; Shapiro, Kirkman, & Courtney, 2007; Nicolai and Seidl, 2015; Duncan, 2017); Shapiro and Kirkman, 2018).   To become credible through tenure, organization and management scholars explain why individuals and organization act as they do.  Practitioners often experiment with solutions about how to respond to present challenges without fully accessing or building relevant theory and research. 

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Many have explored closing this gap with initiatives such as: action research, action learning, appreciative inquiry, design thinking, evidence-based management, reflective practice, and other approaches (Barley, Meyer, & Gash, 1988); Rynes 2012).  In addition, others have suggested that bridging this gap could enable the relevance of theory and the improvement of practice (Cohen, 2007), including such legacy thinkers as:


He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast - Leonardo da Vinci


Experience without theory is blind, but theory without experience is mere intellectual play - Immanuel Kant


In theory, theory and practice are the same.  In practice, they are not - Albert Einstein


There is nothing so practical as a good theory - Kurt Lewin


As someone who has spent a career trying to navigate (often unsuccessfully) these polarities, let me suggest three choices to guide those who want to explore the nexus of theory/research and practice/solutions to make knowledge productive: [1] challenge traditional assumptions about knowledge, [2] claim your personal choice, and [3] engage in relevant research or pragmatic theory to meld theory/research and practice/solutions. 


[1] Challenge traditional assumptions about knowledge. 

At his retirement celebration, one of my mentors reviewed the message he was taught decades ago in a top graduate school about the hierarchy of scientific scholars: mathematicians were at the top of the pecking order, followed by physicists, natural scientists (biologists, chemists, earth scientists), economists, social scientists (sociology, psychology, political scientists), with management scholars (often in business schools) at the bottom of this ranking system.  


In a similar way, some believe in a hierarchy of knowledge providers, with those who explore theory/research and publish in “A” journals followed by those who teach next generation students, followed by consultants who offer advice, and ultimately managers who take action.  Such comparative assumptions exacerbate the theory/research vs. practice/solutions gap leaving each group justified in stereotyping the other.  Academics might label practitioners as quick fix charlatans, purveyors of silver bullets, or faddish.  Practitioners might label academics as ivory tower, egg heads, abstract, and quixotic.  


A more positive and bridge-building assumption is that thoughtful individuals make conscious choices about where they want to focus their intellectual energy and professional identity.  As such, ranking a hierarchy of professional identity is less relevant than rating the quality of work within that identity.  While there is a quality distribution of academics, consultants, and managers, ranking one professional orientation above another is demeaning and dysfunctional. 


If you cling to the assumption prescribed to my mentor (which he did not believe or practice) about a hierarchy of knowledge, then you will never bridge the gap between theory/research and practice/solution.  The knowledge hierarchy assumption widens the theory/practice gap because a vicious circle exists where each side denigrates the other.  A virtuous spiral starts with mutual respect where each side appreciates the other.  With respect for others, you can better respect your personal choices.


[2] Claim your personal choice:  What do I want?

With mutual respect for your and others’ career choices, you then face the never-ending personal challenge of knowing what you want?   Abraham Maslow wisely said, “it isn’t normal to know what we want.  It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.”   This seemingly simple question is very complex because answering it requires an awareness of personal strengths, passions, and values.  Without knowing want you want, others may define your wants for you, often not in your long-term interest. 


The self-reflection questions to probe what you want most are not new but worthy of continued musing:

  • What is the identity I would like to be known for?
  • What problems do I want to solve?
  • Who are the audience I would like to spend time with and influence?
  • What would be the indicators of my feeling successful?
  • Who are the colleagues I most admire?


Answering these questions often comes from experience even more than intent: 

  • Am I more excited by an academic publication or helping a leadership team solve a business problem?
  • If I had to chose between presenting a paper at an academic conference or meeting with a senior business team, which would I chose?
  • When I introduce myself to new groups, what is the first line of my identity?
  • In my private personal musings, what do I most often think about … clarification of the new ideas or application of the ideas?


Almost everyone has personal experiences that help answer these self-reflection questions. 


Early in my career, I was doing an all-day Friday leadership workshop for a senior business team in Chicago.  At the 9 am break, it turned out that Irwin Jacobs had just gone from 4.9% to 15% stock ownership to greenmail the company.  When executives returned from the break, they asked me about how to respond.  I did not know, so they dismissed me and engaged in a real-time problem-solving session.   I went home and spent time seeking academic literature on how to battle greenmail, but, at that time, found nothing.  So, I spent time crafting a response and met again with the team on Tuesday.  Together, we discovered an approach that helped the leaders lead through this crisis.  This experience captivated me as I found helping them solve their real-time challenge was intellectually stimulating and emotionally meaningful. 


Similar encounters with demanding challenges have occurred over and over and over again throughout my career as I have found that I seek and like to muse on complex, real-time, and undefined problems. I find I enjoy unsolved questions:


  • Why do firms in the same industry with the same earnings have different market values?  This has led to years of studying intangibles and the leadership capital index.
  • How does an organization create and implement a culture that delivers value to customers?  This has led to the understanding of leadership and culture as a brand from the outside/in.
  • Why do change initiatives not create sustained change?  This has led to the work on leadership sustainability, change disciplines and culture change.
  • Even with all the research on employee sentiment (engagement, commitment, experience), why are employees not increasing their sentiment scores?  This led to a synthesis in the book Why of Work and how to capture employees’ hearts as well as hands, feet, and head.
  • How do organizations wisely target their human capital investments when they often spend 1 to 2% of their annual revenue on talent, leadership, organization, or HR initiatives?   
  • What makes an effective organization?  This work pivoted a focus on the organization as morphology and structure towards seeing organizations as bundles of capabilities. 


Often initial answers to these (and many other) questions require the creation of new explanations and ideas, which, over time will be tested and honed.  I found I like being in the early 10 to 20% of the S-curve of ideas with impact, which requires creativity and exploration more than rigor and testing.   In doing so, I like to make knowledge productive.


So, what questions fascinate you? shape your identity? trigger your best thinking?  define your success?  If you want to be a contributor to management thought and action, it is important to recognize the questions that resonate with you, the audiences you want to impact, and your definition of success. 


As you define what you want, it also becomes important to recognize that success requires both competence and commitment.  Competence means you have the skills to do the task; commitment means it is something you feel passionate about and dedicates to doing.  To become a legitimate scholar requires extensive training and the ability to grapple with theoretical ideas and test them with scientific rigor.  Becoming a successful practitioner requires extensive experience to recognize and solve problems that deliver individual, business strategy, customer, financial, and community results.   Commitment means having the endurance to stick with a pathway even through difficulties.  


Knowing what you want also shapes short- and long-term actions.  For example, it is a misguided assumption and false-positive to publish to get tenure, then move to what you really want in terms of application.  It wastes many of your most productive years.   It implies a hierarchy (academic respect through tenure is more important than anything else).  It ignores and belittles the price paid to do practitioner work.  An academically elite colleague, soon after getting tenure, approached me and asked: “Now that I have tenure, I would like to consult.  What do I do?”  The implicit message was “how do I now go make more money by sharing ideas through consulting?”  My colleague was surprised by my response, “spend 80 to 100 nights on the road listening to, teaching, and coaching leaders so that you know what they are most interested in.”  He was disenchanted with my response, believing that meeting tenure requirements implied a license to consult, when, in fact, he did not have much to say that was relevant to business leaders.  The commitment to scholarship requires knowing theory and being able to do rigorous research to test it, which sometimes means rejection of ideas and revise and resubmit until ideas are honed and accepted.   The commitment to relevance means observing, hearing, and appreciating business challenges by practitioners which sometimes means that anticipated solutions don’t work in changing business contexts.  See Figure 1 for a summary of these personal choice questions which are very similar to the four quadrants based on the quest for fundamental understanding (theory/research) or consideration for use (focus on practice/solutions) Stokes (1997) and adapted to  business schooled by Agrawal, V.K., P. Khanna, & K. Singhal (2020).   It is useful to place yourself in this grid, both now and for your future. 


Figure 1:

What do I want?

Self-reflection questions:

  1. What is the identity I would like to be known for?
  2. What problems do I want to solve?
  3. Who is the audience I would like to spend time with and influence?
  4. What would be the indicators of my feeling successful?
  5. Who are the colleagues I most admire?


Making knowledge productive: Suggestions from and for a personal journey


[3] Engage in relevant research or pragmatic theory to meld theory/research and practice/solutions

If you respect various identities and want to engage in the art of making knowledge productive by melding theory and practice, let me offer a few suggestions (see Unruh, 2021 for similar discussions).  As you respond to colleagues, you may be asked if you are more macro or micro?  Focused more on theory, research, practice, or solutions?  An academic or consultant?  Seeking fame or fortune?   Your answer to most of these questions will be “yes.”  You become a polymath, with a wide range of knowledge. To integrate theory, research, practice, and solutions, you need have your way to connect, not separate, these ideas (Deadrick and Gibson, 2007; 2009).  Figure 2 lays out my logic for making knowledge productive through relevant research, pragmatic theory, and evidence-based practice leading to solutions.


  • Theory answers the why question and helps frame problems so that findings can be replicated over time and settings (Thompson, 1967; Klein and Potosky, 2019). Theory without research is daydreaming; theory without practice is esoteric. To offer sustainable explanations, theorists need to be committed to research to test ideas and in practice to ground ideas (Bennis, 1965).
  • Research answers the how question and helps discover reality vs. myth, to separate valid insights from popular opinion (Rynes, Colbert, & Brown, 2002). Research without theory is unguided empiricism; research without practice are convenience studies without sustainability (Wright, Nyberg, & Ployhart, 2018). Researchers need to know why they find what they find (theory) and how to make their findings useful to others (practice) (Lawler, 2007; Mohrman & Lawler, 2011).
  • Practice answers the what question by experiencing and solving real business problems (Rynes and Bartunek, 2017). Practices without theory are isolated and discrete events; practices without research are false hopes.  Practitioners need to be rigorous in their thinking so that they are not carried away on the latest winds of popular management fads.
  • Solutions result when theory, research and practice come together to offer evidence-based insights that make knowledge productive (Grossman, 2009; Kryscynski, D., & Ulrich, D. 2015).


Figure 2: 

Logic and Flow to Make Knowledge Productive


Making knowledge productive: Suggestions from and for a personal journey

If you want to engage in the journey of making knowledge productive, let me suggest seven steps, consistent with other views (Unruh, 2021).


  1. Start by observing a phenomenon. Integration of theory, research, and practice requires grounding in a phenomenon.  Phenomenologists encourage thinkers to experience, think about, and write about what is happening that is of interest to them.  The phenomenon may come from observation of an individual, leadership, or organization challenge and often is something that is a bit quirky or unusual.  For example, we noticed that two firms in the same industry with similar earnings had different stock prices.  This led to exploration of the intangibles in market value which led to better understanding of how investors derive confidence in future earnings from the quality of leadership, talent, and culture within a company.   To get clarity about the phenomenon you observe, write a short statement to describe simply and clearly what you are interested in and why.  Often your reflections show up as questions you want to answer based on the phenomenon you observe.


  1. Create your point of view. Once you have described a phenomenon, often with a question, probe why you think this might be happening.  Your explanations draw on your experiences and knowledge and create your point of view.  As noted above, figuring out why two firms in the same industry with the same earnings have different market values lead to our point of view on intangibles.  Creating your point of view before exploring others forces deeper and innovative thinking as you gain more clarity about the potential causes for the phenomenon. 


  1. Discover other relevant perspectives. Once the phenomenon and explanations are proposed, it is very helpful to review and systematically review what others have said.  Generally, there are many theoretical perspectives which may inform and predict why things happen as they do and research that tests these theories (Aram & Salipante 2003).   To unravel intangibles, we ended up reviewing economic, investor, and organization literatures.  Because we had observed and described a clear phenomenon and explored why we thought it might exist, we were able to synthesize how others had tried to make sense of this market quirk that validated our thinking.  By drawing on theoretical underpinning from others, we helped position our work in the knowledge network of what others have studied.  Because we had thought a priori about our solutions, we were also able to discover how our ideas differed from current theory and research.   From this work, we were able to identify specific questions we wanted to explore which expanded the existing knowledge network.  Without drawing on previous work, practitioners often repackage old ideas not recognizing that others have often already made great progress on problems they are trying to solve.  Sometimes, practitioners implement what others have done; at other times, because they recognize previous work, they are able to create new insights.  Our work on intangibles lead to the leadership capital index, a novel way to evaluate the market value of leadership that complements other work.


  1. Be rigorous in your methods. Research methods and statistical approaches allow you to answer your questions with discipline. The methods should match the research questions, ranging from exploratory and qualitative to analytical and quantitative.  In our intangibles research, since many of the ideas were exploratory, we did extensive interviews to figure out how investors thought about talent, leadership, and organization.  This led to other quantitative research that helped answer our questions about market valuation.  As you make knowledge productive, you are likely to be asked, “how do you know your solution works?”  Relevant research moves beyond personal opinions and isolated case studies to explore patterns and replication of ideas.  Your research design and methods validate answers to the questions you want to answer. 


  1. Tie findings back to the problem. Once you have done your research, it is good to close the loop and return to the original phenomenon.  Have you added to the understanding of what is happening and why it is happening?   Has your theory and research been able to offer new ways to think about and act on this phenomenon?  In our intangibles work, we moved beyond some of the outstanding previous work on intangibles (patents, technology, brand) to explore a new category of intangibles investors could examine (leadership, organization, talent).  As you link your insights to the phenomenon you are trying to solve, you are likely to build on existing and create new insights and your knowledge becomes productive.


  1. Learning is the ability to generate and generalize ideas with impact, so it is useful to envision how your work will offer insights to multiple stakeholders.  What would those experiencing the phenomenon do differently?  In our intangibles work on market value, what would we say to investors?  Leaders?  Scholars?   Anticipating these conversations, what is missing in our work?   In addition, what questions emerge or remain after answering the questions we started with?   Learning means that with every set of answers come additional questions. 


  1. Share insights. Ultimately, knowledge is productive when it is shared with others.  This sharing may come in the form of speeches, blogs, reports, workshops, training, conversations, or articles.  While many academic journals continue to be focused on the expansion of theory through the rigors of research, there are publications that attempt to bridge this gap.  Management Business Review (MBR) has the goal “to bridge management practice, education and research, and thereby enhance all three.”  By modeling collaboration across 11 business schools, MBR also distributes ideas with impact by weaving together theory, research, practice, and solutions. 


If you chose to make knowledge productive, these seven steps are not always linear or explicit, but they lay out the process for those who choose to participate in this work. 



The gap between theory/research and practice/solutions can and should both continue and be bridged.  Continuing the gap means that thoughtful colleagues have chosen where they want to engage.  Some will choose to be academic scholars and others practitioners.  With mutual respect, others will choose to be relevant researchers or pragmatic theorists to help make knowledge productive.   The good news is that support for this bridging role is increasing with outstanding colleagues who share the agenda publication outlets to distribute ideas, and institutional support with formal roles.  The better news is that if you want to engage in making knowledge productive, you can do so to meet your personal career expectations.   


Dave Ulrich is the Rensis Likert Professor at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, and a partner at The RBL Group, a consulting firm focused on helping organizations and leaders deliver value. He can be reached at



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Dave Ulrich
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