All entries for Sunday 26 July 2009

July 26, 2009

Theory of action vs Theory in use

For weeks now I wondered about the terms 'theory of action' and 'theory in use'm what they mean and how they are different. They are two concepts introduced by Chris Argyris and are widely cited in organisational learning literature. Unfortunately, except in the earlier work by Argyris, he doesn't seem to define them clearly , rather it was used straight away. The same  goes with the literature. No definition , somehow reader are expected to know them already

Today I finally know the difference

Theory of Action is a theory of deliberate human behaviour which is for the agent a theory of control but which, when attributed to the agenet, also serves to explain or predict his behavior (P.10)

On the other hand, he explains the difference with theory-in-use as

When someone is asked how he would behave under certain circumstances, the answer he usually gives is his espoused theory of action for that situation. This is the theory of action who which he gives allegiance and which, upon request, he communicates to others. However, the theory that actually governs his actions is his theory in use, which may or may not be compatible with his espoused theory (p.11).

In more straighforward terms, theory in action is the things you say you do. Theory in use iswhat you actually believe and not just what you say you believe. These two may not be the same e.g. attitude toward smoking, sexual orientation, exercise, healthy eating, and more generally, political correctness.

Chris Argyris- Organizational learning- A theory of action perspective


Defense routines

Few days ago we received the feedback for the Management of change module. It was a long awaited feedback since we submited the assignment about six weeks ago. I am not saying Dee was slow in returning the feedback but like they say "Good things come to those who wait", I think what I got was well worth the wait.

First thing I noticed was the length of the written feedback. One thousand words by my computer editor's estimate. Well I think this is the first I I ever got such as detailed feedback for any of my work. As far as I am aware, Dee does this for all her students. Just imagine the time and effort she'd put in to mark 16 assignments or in some other classes , 30+.

At the first reading it was a bit uneasy because of the critical tone she used to examine my work, just like when we had the module. It often feels as if she could see the unvoiced assumptions deep down in my mind and ruthlessly tear it out into the open. 

In one passage she wrote

Most issues were well discussed but unfortunately, your last line (...there simply was not enough time to build that relationship) overturned a good number of insights that went before. This highlighted what appeared to be a blind spot on your part, what Argyris has often described in his work on organisational defensiveness. You were a leader and you had enough time to form relationships with people ¡V leaders in other simulations in the past have managed to form highly positive and communicative relationships with their staff in the past. 

The reason I picked this one is because well first I don't fully agree with her but if I come up with any excuses, I'd end up being labelled being "defensive". It's like I am not allowed to explain myself. Secondly, organisation defensiveness is something I am researching for my project. So I thought it would be interesting to compare my experience and what I learnt from the literature so far.  According to Argyris (1978;101) Organisational defense is when what people use to protect themselve from threatening situations, implictly suggesting that these actions are counter-productive. Organisational progress may be hindered if certain key players decide it was not in their self interest to adopt new practice, routine, or idea and so on. People do it because it prevent them from engaging in a painful and difficult task of 'critically examining their role within organisation'. So organisation defenses is a mechanism people use to prevent themselve from changing.

Was I being defensive when I made that comment? Did I say that because I didn't want to admit that I wasn't doing a good job? I don't think I was because for that entire paragraph I was reflecting on the mistakes I made as the financial manager during the business simulation

Perhaps as the management we didn't communicate well and more importantly allowing workers to communicate back to us which contributed lack of mutual understanding and a divisive culture.  

The reason I added that comment at the end  (...there simply was not enough time to build that relationship.) was simply from my own observation of the environment at the time (deadline, confusion, yelling, and a lot of stress) there was simply no opportunity to build realtionship with the group member. Given that we were not suppposed to stop producing output throughout, it was difficult to focus on soft people issues when there were more pressing issues (profit) to deal with.

Of course, the couter argument for this is "In real life, this is what business environments are like, you don't get time to work on soft issue, you gota do them both at the same time!". "Besides other groups have managed to build a cooperative culture in the past , why can you?" Well, this is difficult  to argue with that since I havn't had that business experience and seen personally for myself how such people issue could be solved under the same conditions.

To quickly conclude, I don't think I was being defensive when I made that comment in my writing. It seems like the problem I encountered was although I know perhaps what I should have done, I didn't actually believe I could do it. I didn't believe we could have attended to 'building a open culture' under the time and performance pressures.I guess this just leave me with what do I need to do to close the gap?

 


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