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5 Reasons Why Reading Theory is Necessary

by Prof. Chandra Kant

Article Summary

Theory is often considered a waste of time. This article presents a logical rebuttal of the commonly held perception of theoretical learning.

Article Body

Most of us believe that theory is a waste of time.

Take the adage, “Give a man a fish and he is not hungry for a day; teach a man to fish and he will not be hungry ever!” what we want is the fish, not the theory behind catching fish.

When I ask someone for help in a particular situation, and he gives me theoretical answers and asks me to figure it out, I feel impatient and betrayed. I want a quick pill that will help alleviate the symptoms.
Theoretically, once the symptoms are gone, I can do a root cause analysis to prevent recurrence. But this rarely happens. We do not revisit the doctor if the symptoms are gone.

Let us take the doctor analogy further, should we go to:
1. A doctor knows the theory of medicine?
2. A person who has not attended medical school but has assisted a doctor in his rounds, say, a nurse?
3. Other persons who have some past experience in similar symptoms?
The answer is logically obvious:
1. no assistant or non-professional would have come across all the cases and variations and therefore
2. cannot guess or set up the right tests to understand the root cause of the problem.

But emotionally, we do it the reverse way -
1. Other persons first, then
2. someone who has had similar symptoms, then
3. a quack and finally
4. a doctor.

Even in corporate life, we try the old tested ways based on the experience of the employees. Sometimes we hire consultants because like doctors, they are detached from the problem and they have learnt more theory.

Only a doctor trained in root cause analysis would ask the right questions and recommend the tests to find the cause of the fever. A good doctor has the following characteristics:

1. He has learnt the theory of analysis and possible method to derive the root causes
2. He knows how to apply the theory – this requires creativity
3. He has the experience of some of the applications

A quack, on the other hand, know only point 3 above: some experience and a smattering of bookish knowledge form the most convenient layman book available.
So, why read theory?
1. It is the distillation of the thoughts and experiences of other persons and their perspective.
2. Healthy scepticism is necessary. It is not gospel truth, it is simply a theory and a perspective.
3. If we do not understand the author’s perspective and then, more importantly, do not argue in which situation it will work and in which it will not, we are believing that the theory is a law of nature. That is incorrect. It is the argument about the theory that creates experience in our mind.
4. We need to apply the theory to our life to see the situations where it worked or not. We need to analyse why it worked or did not work.
5. It creates a discipline of collecting and managing knowledge and sorting it in our mind for quick access – during exams or in real life.
It is a misconception that due to the advent of the internet, we can get any theory whenever we want.

Students sometimes decide that they would rather have practical experience and case analysis, because

1. they do not understand the theory,
2. cannot apply it,
3. dislike the book,
4. dislike the professor.
A case or a practical experience is only a subset of the topic, not the whole topic.Cases and practicals are a partial application of the theory, not a replacement.

About The Author
Prof. Chandra Kant, is an alumnus of IIM Calcutta and currently, a senior professor at Indus Business Academy, one of the Best B-Schools of India. He teaches, change management, business leadership and Self Management.

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