A few days ago, I came across John Hagel’s review and summary of Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile, and I found many of the ideas intriguing. I agree we live in a world in which unanticipated events often prompt advancements and positive change. We live and work in a constant state of emergence, and getting too comfortable with the status quo is counterproductive in many ways. These ideas resonated with me… until I got to #7, which stopped me in my tracks.
According to Hagel, Taleb has little use for using theory to guide practice – and that’s a cause that is actually near and dear to my heart. Nonetheless, the point deserves pondering.
With regard to linking theory and practice, Taleb holds these views (as summarized by Hagel):
Taleb is eloquent in his contempt for theoreticians and his admiration for practitioners. He believes that a lot of society’s troubles come from the fact that we over-estimate the role of research and analysis and downplay the role of practice and experimentation in driving advances in knowledge and material well-being.
In fact, we reverse the real world flow of knowledge building. Most major historians suggest that theory and research lead to new insights that in turn shape our practices. In fact, he makes the case that most of our significant breakthroughs in knowledge came from experimentation and tinkering by practitioners that then got interpreted and codified by theoreticians. “ . . . we don’t put theories into practice. We create theories out of practice.” This is in part the result of “history written by losers,” the title of one of the chapters in Antifragile. Taleb asserts that practitioners are too busy doing, so they don’t have the time to write their own story. For Taleb, techne (crafts and know how) trump episteme (book knowledge, know what) every time.
If we want to prosper and cultivate the ability to grow through stress, we need to honor the practitioners and suspect the theoreticians. Practitioners are comfortable with messiness while theoreticians will go to great lengths to try to achieve smoothness and predictability, even if that ultimately results in more stress to the system.
Here’s my window on this issue. I’ve been doing quite a bit of work lately to find ways to encourage us to hold scholarly practice (practice that is evidence-based or grounded in theory and research) as something of a gold standard for practitioners in learning and development. There is so much that we have learned about how to support learning and the strategies that are effective, it seems a shame to not utilize that knowledge as we plan L&D efforts.
I can’t be dismissive of the theory-to-practice loop because it has served me quite well over the years. My habit of looking for research that might inform the projects I work on has saved me from mistakes and has provided useful guidance for my recommendations. I have gained tremendous insight from deep conversations with scholars about their areas of expertise.
At the same time, I was reminded that the loop of practice-to-theory also needs our attention. Whether we recognize it or not, we all have theories about how the world works, and we use our actions to test those theories all the time. Those of us who are well grounded are often figuring out how (and if) the theories and research of our field hold up in practice. What we don’t do well is feed back our findings in ways that benefit others; we don’t often enough share our practice experiences and use them to enrich, expand, caveat, or refute the body of knowledge that we use to underpin our work. Our practice questions and challenges can help shape research questions and theoretical models. But only if we are talking with one another.
A few years ago, Susan Lynham and Kim McDonald described a way of thinking about the relationship between research, theory, and practice that is relevant here. The relationship is depicted as interactive and synergistic, and none of the three sources of knowledge gets precedence. The effectiveness of this model depends on practitioners to be active in the loop – to both draw from theory and research and feed into theory and research. (Graphic is from There’s noting quite as practical as good theory, a 2011 article by S. Lynham and K. McDonald in Advances in Developing Human Resources 13(2).)
Rather than dismissing theory as useless to practice, the practitioner community should get better at articulating and validating what works so that we can continue to advance our work and ensure our effectiveness. How? We can be generous in sharing our experiences with peers, contributing to practitioner conferences, journals, and online communities. We can engage with academics to partner on research and to simply talk about our experiences and challenges. Reaching out to one another is more likely to lead to improved practice than is operating in our own worlds. And it’s certainly better than holding theoreticians in contempt.