Practice versus Theory

The title of this post is the thought that lead me to creating this blog. In my notebook I wrote “Practice versus Theory” because I was thinking how we spend a lot of time where I work on practice and implementation. That is a good thing. If we don’t execute on plans the company would be in a bad place, and we are not. But what about the theory behind what we do? Who is working on that? Do we need someone to be working on theory?

I started thinking about this while doing some research on high performing Scrum teams. I was following random branches from Google, from blogs I found, from citations by various papers. One interesting article I came across was a Forester report on the adoption of agile practices world wide (Google “mainstream adoption agile” to find an accessible copy). About the same time, I read a post by Jurgen Appelo mentioned how he was spear heading the creation of a network agile thinkers in Europe. After reading Jurgen’s post, I thought that perhaps our European business units would be very interested in this. It then occurred to me that I didn’t have a clue if any of the European business units were using agile development. Oh, wouldn’t it be cool to survey my global colleagues on the penetration of agile in the business. Would it mirror the Forester research? Then I asked myself what the business value of such research would be. Hmmm. I don’t know.

So we have thousands of employees in North America alone and I don’t know of any technical employee’s engaged in pure research. We recently started an innovation labs and the suggestions so far are targeting features or technologies that we can sell. If there was no business value to understanding the adoption of agile within the organization then how does Forester charge hundreds of dollars for a study on just that? Here is another thought, do any PhD’s work for the company? If so what do they do?

In my eleven years with the company I have met just one person who holds a PhD. He is a PhD in English and wrote the most extensive and beautiful process documents. We have MBA’s, accountants who became programmers, and even a few with a Masters but no PhD’s that I know of. Perhaps they are of no value? That doesn’t feel right to me but that may be due to the fact that my father has a PhD (A sample of his work). So what is an example of something that blends practice and theory? How about the monthly magazine published by the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM)?

In the past year, ACM has revised its monthly magazine Communications of the ACM (CACM), to include articles for both practitioners and researchers (scientists). Perhaps this is in part to complaints from the researchers about copyright issues, here is one opinion, or perhaps it is to keep practitioners such as my self engaged. Do I understand the value, or even care, about three quarters of the research papers the CACM publishes? No, I don’t and sometimes I read something amazing that wants me to know more. Does it necessarily help me accomplish my business goals, usually not today, and probably not in the near future but it might.

I think a company needs people who just love digging into things regardless of immediate business value, and how big does a company need to be to fund people like this? Do you have to be a GE or IBM, or can you be something smaller? I do it because I love it. I read morning, noon, and night and learn all sorts of ‘useless’ things that might be useful one day, or not. Wouldn’t it be cool if part of your day job including pure research?

So where do you think the value of pure research lies for businesses?

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One Comment to “Practice versus Theory”

  1. “Pure Research as a day job” – they are mostly called post-doctoral fellows at universities – that was on my dream job list until I found out what they pay! So I consciously walked away from the opportunity to do a Phd. I changed my career when I moved to Canada and came into IT so that I would have at least some opportunity to “think” and have a moderately decent pay. I have friends who are post-doctoral fellows at Princeton & they make 35K per year! We as a society do a good job of not encouraging those who may have some potential!! We want to benefit from the findings of the best minds around us – yet we are never ready to compensate them well financially! So the ones that go into pure research as a day job are the ones who either don’t care about the financial part or are lucky and don’t need to worry about it.

    Value of pure research in business – example, the pharmaceutical industry cannot sustain itself without continuous research. So Pharmaceutical industry is probably one of the few industries where pure research is rewarded well monetarily. Recently I have been doing extensive research as to the future potential of getting into pure research as a career – the intangible and tangible returns. The intangible returns for the motivated individual doing the research will be very high – I am 100% sure of that – but the take home money at the end of the month seems to be a real problem! So currently I am trying to help an young adult come up with a plan where he could dream about doing a Phd and continue in pure research later if he found it viable – or he could take an escape route after the Phd and come back to the industry. He is in high school and actively researching to figure out where he wants to be in 10 years – both in terms of what he does as a day job and how much he wants to make.

    Pure Research as a day job in Sage – that sounds fantastic. Hopefully someday a job like that will be posted in our Career Centre! If the industries took more initiative to fund research at Universities – we probably would reap the benefits of many more smart minds.

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