Theory and Jobs

An important requirement for successfully completing a PhD study is that the topic is new to the world in some respect. The aspiring scientist seeks to turn a belief or a suspicion into knowledge.

He selects an hypothesis – a bunch of cohering statements – to explain a phenomenon he fancies and then tests it to generate explanations or predictions. What is the same but using different data. This is different from application, which is intentionally, utile and not necessarily true regarding the nature of the topic. The generated explanations are then compared to what is observed in reality and their closeness is assessed. If repeatedly proven to be close then the hypothesis is promoted to a theory.

The scientist-to-be shows how what was not known to be true or untrue before can be known with some certainty, namely approximately and temporarily. What was uncharted territory to the human observer is now charted, minding the caveats.

If there is no such testable hypothesis to predict the phenomenon of his liking he may decide to develop it himself. He observes any number of seemingly related phenomena for which there seems to be no acceptable explanation. He asserts coherent statements, together a hypothesis, that explain the phenomena and their relations. Utilising induction (focus on structure in data) or abduction (focus on explanation), the scientist generates arguments such that the statements he makes are internally consistent (between them), and that their relation to what is already known (theories) is explained.

According to Bertrand Russell philosophy is defined as what is between science and theology. Science is the part that is known beyond suspicion, but how do we attribute meaning to the remaining unknown. He suggests to use the patterns of thought proposed by religion, or developing other patterns making use of philosophy. Philosophy means to speculate in a formal way about unknown phenomena and patterns of thought. Philosophers too aim to chart territory and to add structure where there was none.

My wish was (and is) to inquire into the nature of the firm. That means to investigate what is invariable in the phenomenon. Peeling off everything that is not invariably present in a firm only people, or in fact their behavior, remain. Even individuals come and go, so in fact not they determine the nature of the firm, but really the behavior of people in general. And assuming that that is guided by ideas, then they are the primitive, people acting on their behalf.

Starting from that premises, the topic of my thesis is the firm as an emergent phenomenon. I see the firm as an evolutionary developing self-referencing cultural system. It is constituted of a bunch of ideas in the sense of answers that guide people’s thoughts and their behavior. I hypothesise that those ideas constituting it are widespread and do not mention the firm.

Nothing new at first sight: ideas in this regard have been developed from different scientific disciplines. But all sorts of additional questions arise, e.g. how do ideas that do not have senses cohere into complexes, how is the complex of ideas of, say a multinational firm that is too big to fit into one mind consistently distributed over many people, how are parts of the complex coherently recorded on people’s minds, and how can a firm as such be self-referencing if the argument is not accepted that it is cognitive and autonomous.

The statements in the previous sections are non-anthropocentric, subjective, processual, and they admit the laws of physics, because they are not restricted to the organic. But they are not sufficiently coherent to explain the nature of the firm. I need additional statements from the literature for that, and where unavailable I must develop them. This implies that the nature of this study is in part scientific and in part philosophical. It is also hypothetical, because the desired outcome is an internally consistent framework of new, invented and reinterpreted concepts with well-explained relations to what there is. In other words this is a hypothesis, not a theory. The project serves to develop and compile coherent statements, not to test them to reality.

After some (I thought) well-deserved relaxation I thought it a great idea to develop this hypothesis to a theory by testing it, and then to make use of it professionally. I presented it to business schools and a couple of strategy departments in firms. They thought it too theoretical to include in their curriculum and to their practices. What I believe they meant was that it is formulated in abstract terms. From the start my purpose was for it to keep it general (applicable to every conceivable firm) and not enter an empirical rabbit hole of small n. This is however the more common practice and my approach does not help me to find a job.

Another comment was that it is not sufficiently applicable. This is not the same as to say it is not a tested theory: if it works it works. They argued it does not enable business managers to make practical predictions about their particular businesses and they have a point there. It was never intended to be applicable in that sense. It is made up of statements about the nature of the firm, not a management tool catering for generating a change of behavior of the firm (aka increase its performance). That is a derivative model of this one.

From the beginning I wish to share these ideas with an audience wider than the scientific community, it is in fact how the whole adventure started. That implies that people including customers, shareholders, and management will want to know what to do to anticipate their (professional) futures. In order to be useful in this sense the hypothesis needs to be tested against business reality, and then tools for thought must be derived from it that guide people to think about firms and how to deal with them.