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As If it Were Relevant: A Systems Theoretical Perspective on the Relation Between Science and Practice
Andreas Rasche and Michael Behnam Journal of Management Inquiry 2009 18: 243 DOI: 10.1177/1056492609337495 The online version of this article can be found at: http://jmi.sagepub.com/content/18/3/243

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European Essays

As If it Were Relevant
A Systems Theoretical Perspective on the Relation Between Science and Practice
Andreas Rasche
Warwick Business School

Journal of Management Inquiry Volume 18 Number 3 September 2009 243-255 2009 The Author(s) 10.1177/1056492609337495 http://jmi.sagepub.com

Michael Behnam
Suffolk University

This article discusses the concept of research relevance from a systems theoretical perspective. Based on the claim that many scholars still think of relevance as something that can be achieved and enhanced by choosing the right measures (e.g., user-friendly writing style), the authors argue that such a perspective obscures the self-referential status of science and practice as social systems in society. Our systems theoretical discussion, which is based on the work of German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, shows that, strictly speaking, science cannot produce relevant knowledge prior to application. Instead, practice has to make scientific knowledge relevant by incorporating it into the specific logic of its system. We argue that such an integration of knowledge is only possible by first acting as if the offered knowledge were relevant and to then modify and extend it according to the idiosyncrasies of the system. We characterize these as-if assumptions as fictions and show their significance for rethinking the concept of relevance. Keywords: research relevance; systems theory; fictions; science and practice

he field of management studies is usually defined as an applied science (Whitley, 1984), and the question of how to make its findings relevant to practice has been a central concern of scholars (Bartunek, 2007). The issue of practical irrelevance of research findings has been the subject of complaint for quite a number of years now (Astley & Zammuto, 1992; Buckley, Ferris, Bernardin, & Harvey, 1998; Cascio, 2007; Hambrick, 2007; Lorsch, in press; Pfeffer, 2007; Tranfield & Starkey, 1998; Weick, 2001; West, 1990). In this article, we seek to understand why these claims persist despite the fields awareness of them and considerable attempts to close the relevance gap (Bartunek, 2007; Saari, 2007). Although there is a substantial amount of literature making various suggestions on how to close the relevance gap (Anderson, 2007; Gibbons et al., 1994; Rynes, Bartunek, & Daft, 2001; Thomas & Tymon, 1982), we are asking a provocative, yet essential and necessary, question that has been neglected so far: Can we be relevant at all? Within the literature there seems to be the implicitly held assumption that the relevance gap occurring between science and practice can be closed if we just find the right measures to do so.

Contrary to this, we argue that much of the debate on the relevance gap is based on a rather linear understanding of knowledge transfer between science and practice. Marcus, Goodman, and Grazman (1995), for instance, talked about creating bridges between science and practice, whereas Starkey and Madan (2001) promoted a knowledge chain. These perspectives suppose that tested theories lead to knowledge that in turn influences managerial decision making and thus brings about effective action. Although there is a lot of emphasis on the interaction between science and practice when it comes to knowledge production (e.g., cooperation between academics and practitioners; Mohrman, Pasmore, Shani, Stymne, & Adler 2008) and knowledge dissemination (e.g., by so-called knowledge brokers; Starkey & Madan, 2001), the underlying assumption still is that knowledge can flow from science to practice. Thus, the achievement of relevance itself is not considered to be a big problem and the focus rather turns to the question of how to transfer the (assumed as relevant) knowledge in the most effective and efficient way. Undoubtedly, existing research on the relevance of scholarly activity in management studies (Aldag,

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1997; Buckley et al., 1998; Gibbons et al., 1994; Rynes et al., 2001; Starkey & Madan, 2001; Tranfield & Starkey, 1998) has provided important and much welcomed insights to the relevance debate. Nevertheless, we claim that the relationship between science and practice is more complex than is suggested by such a linear model of knowledge transfer. Hence, there is a research deficit when it comes to better understanding whether the systems of science and practice can interact with each other, and if they do interact, what this means for our understanding of research relevance. To address this deficit in research on relevance, this article has two objectives that also reflect the key contributions. First, we aim at challenging the linear understanding of knowledge transfer by introducing a systems theoretical perspective that discusses the relation between research and practice based on the work of German sociologist Niklas Luhmann. This perspective allows us to address the most fundamental question that underlies the relevance debate: Can researchers be relevant at all? Luhmann has explicitly addressed the relation between science in general and its application in practice in a number of publications (Luhmann, 2005a, 2005b, 1992). According to Luhmann (1992), science and practice have to be understood as two distinctive systems that are operationally closed and thus determine internally what constitutes relevant knowledge. In consequence, relevance cannot be easily achieved because knowledge cannot be transferred in a linear fashion. Rather, relevance is the outcome of a nonlinear reproduction of knowledge by the system of practice itself. By claiming this we assume that relevance is relevant, and that relevance needs to be judged by the (positive and negative) influence that research has on the practice of management (Whitley, 1984). We are not following a narrow (instrumental) definition of relevancea perspective stressing that relevance means delivering directly applicable knowledge to improve organizational and individual successbut understand relevance as resting on indirect, less tangible, and oftentimes delayed effects (Augier & March, 2007). Second, we outline implications of our systems theoretical discussion of relevance. Most of all, our aim is to demonstrate that we do not need (and cannot have) perfect bridges to close the relevance gap but instead need insightful fictions on both sides of the divide. A systems theoretical perspective teaches us that it is not knowledge per se that can be made relevant (e.g., by writing more user friendly; Buckley et al., 1998, p. 36) but that the system of practice itself needs to make it relevant. Hence, we claim that, in order to make scientific

knowledge relevant, practitioners often act as if the generated knowledge were relevant. Of course, such fictions are self-referential and certainly not every fiction becomes fulfilled in practice. However, fictions establish a ground for sense making processes that contextualize knowledge and thus can produce relevance (Weick, 1979, 1995). We start by reviewing in how far management scholars have followed the traditional linear model of knowledge transfer when discussing the relevance of research. This will also help us to identify the assumptions on which the linear model rests. Then, we introduce a systems theoretical perspective on the relation between science and practice in management studies that upsets the identified assumptions of the linear model and allows for novel insights about the possibility of relevance as such. By discussing the implications of the systems theoretical discussion we subsequently show the need to (a) be more careful when requiring bridges for relevance and (b) acknowledge the role of as if-assumptions (i.e., fictions) when discussing relevance. We close with a brief conclusion and outlook.

The Discussion of Relevance in Management Research

Dimensions of Relevance
The topic of practical relevance of management knowledge has attracted a lot of scholarly attention as the existence of numerous special forums indicates (Aldag, 1997; Hodgkinson, 2001; Rynes, 2007; Rynes et al., 2001). Because the underlying dimensions of relevance are often presented in a rather unstructured way or even obscured at all, we suggest categorizing existing research on relevance along two lines: production and transfer of knowledge. First, some authors claim that the relevance of research can be improved by rethinking the way knowledge is produced. For example, Gibbons et al.s (1994) seminal book reaches in this direction by arguing that we are experiencing a fundamental shift in the way knowledge is produced as well as what knowledge is produced. Along the same line other scholars either argue that relevance can be improved by redesigning the process of knowledge production (MacLean, MacIntosh, & Grant, 2002) and/or rethinking the nature of the knowledge that is produced by this process (van Aken, 2005). Second, other authors have focused more on the mode of knowledge transfer and the resulting communication between academics and practitioners (Buckley et al., 1998; Cohen, 2007; Hambrick, 1994; Kelemen & Bansal, 2002; Latham, 2007). This line of research typically

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makes the assumption that the knowledge produced by academics is relevant and valid but not perceived as such by practitioners. These scholars see the main reasons of the relevance gap in an inaccessible style of writing and a resulting low attractiveness of scholarly journals for practicing managers. For instance, Buckley et al. (1998, p. 35) argued that the information presented in such articles may be potentially useful to practitioners, but is inaccessible in its present form. Similarly, Hambrick (1994) in his 1993 presidential address to the Academy of Management suggests a variety of measures (e.g., joint conferences with practitioners, translation sections in major journals) to improve the dissemination of knowledge. Though we agree with both lines of research insofar as some of their recommendations can actually have a positive impact on the reception of academically produced knowledge, we argue that the underlying understanding of relevance and its assumptions within both lines of research prevent us from understanding the entire complexity of the problem of relevance. To point out these assumptions, we will discuss the traditional understanding of relevance.

Traditional Assumptions in the Discussion of Relevance

Although the concept of relevance has been discussed with quite some frequency and passion, the underlying question of the nature of the relation between science and practice is rarely asked and hardly ever critically discussed (for an exception see, Nicolai, 2004). The assumption predominates that relevance can be achieved if the right measures are taken. In particular, there is the assumption that knowledge flows from the domain of science to the one of practice. We can find this assumption with regard to both lines of research on relevance introduced above (i.e., production and transfer). On the side of scholars who wish to improve relevance by enhancing knowledge transfer, Starkey and Madan (2001) portrayed the interplay between science and practice by using a knowledge chain. According to this chain, knowledge, which can be jointly developed by practitioners and scholars, influences managerial decision making and subsequently effective action. The guiding principles of this chain are that knowledge should inform action; and that action becomes knowable if we understand better the underlying principles that link cause and effect (Starkey & Madan, p. S6). Scientific knowledge is characterized as something material that flows from the domain of science to the one of practice. Other scholars

who focus on knowledge transfer also leave the basic assumption of a linear knowledge flow unquestioned. Buckley et al. (1998, p. 34), for instance, aimed at repairing the disconnect and suggest to choose a more application-oriented language (see also Bettis, 1991; Charan et al., 1979). Hambricks (1994, p. 14) conclusions lead in a similar direction but stress the institutional requirements to talk more user friendly (e.g., new journals). Similarly, Shrivastava (1987, p. 88) suggested documenting the conditions under which research results were generated to allow scholars to transfer practical insights from one situation to another. In a similar vein, Krogh, Roos, and Slocum (1994, p. 66) suggested that more practitioners have to be integrated in the editorship of academic journals. On the side of scholars who wish to improve relevance by enhancing knowledge production Gibbons et al.s (1994) book The New Production of Knowledge deserves special consideration due to the widespread attention it raised. According to the authors, there are two modes of knowledge production: Mode 1 knowledge is largely discipline based, intrascientifically produced, not related to a specific context of application, and thus can move rapidly across organizational boundaries, whereas Mode 2 knowledge is transdisciplinary, jointly produced among a variety of actors, and bound to a specific context of application. Gibbons et al. rejected the linear model of relevance for Mode 2 knowledge because such knowledge is produced in the context of application and can only be consumed in this context (Gibbons et al., 1994, p. 11). Besides the fact that such networks are hardly found in practice (MacLean et al., 2002), there is still the assumption that managers and researchers can talk to each other in an almost unimpeded way (Kieser & Leiner, in press; Nicolai, 2004). Furthermore, as suggested by Weingart (1997), Mode 2 knowledge production neither questions the epistemological assumptions underpinning the relevance debate nor is it applicable to all forms of science. Weingart shows that Mode 2 knowledge production as described by Gibbons et al. is focusing on those institutional sectors where science, politics, and the media interface (e.g., health and energy policy, climate change). A similar critique can be applied to those writings that plead for knowledge production via collaborative research, that is, research jointly performed by academics and managers, as a remedy to close the relevance gap (Docherty & Shani, 2008; Mohrman et al., 2008; Pettigrew, 2001; Tushman, OReilly, Fennollosa, Kleinbaum, & McGrath, 2007). Joint interpretation forums, in which practitioners and managers temporarily meet to discuss research

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problems and available solutions, are one important element of collaborative research (Van de Ven & Johnson, 2006). Such forums still presume a rather linear model of relevance because collaboration is assumed to rest on an understanding of communication where the sender communicates information that the receiver understands and makes sense of (Mohrman, Gibson, & Mohrman 2001; Rynes & McNatt, 1999). Overall, when considering the various recommendations to close the relevance gap, there is the question whydespite the diverse attempts to produce and transfer knowledge about organizations in a more applicable stylethe problem of relevance seems to persist. We believe that one possible reason for the continued persistence of the relevance gap is scholars underlying assumptions that inform their thinking on relevance. In fact, the linear model of relevance assumes that the domains of science and practice can communicate with one another if we just implement the right measures. This understanding of relevance, however, does not itself reflect on the deeply held epistemological premises that underlie the debate on research relevance. To uncover these premises, we now turn to a discussion of systems theory.

A Systems Theoretical View on Relevance

Luhmanns Systems Theory
Luhmanns (1995) systems theory is concerned with social systems and their function. He specifically names society, organizations, and interactions as three different types of social systems. Contrary to sociological tradition, which describes either persons or actions as basic elements of social systems, Luhmann sees communication as the basic element. He conceptualizes communication as the combination of three selections: (1) information, (2) utterance, and (3) understanding (Luhmann, 1995, p. 151). Information is defined as a selection from a repertoire of possibilities because every communication selects what actually is being communicated from everything that could have been communicated. Utterance describes the form of and reason for a communication; it refers to how and why something is being said und thus also represents a selection. Finally, understanding is defined as the distinction between information and utterance. In other words: What is communicated has to be distinguished from how and why it is communicated and, therefore, also indicates a selection (Luhmann, 1995, pp. 408-410). Especially Luhmanns conceptualization of understanding is of importance for our argumentation. Most

communication theories assume that meaning depends on information and utterance, whereas for Luhmann understanding plays the central role. Instead of looking at the intended meaning of the communication, for Luhmann the meaning of a communication is ultimately determined through the understanding (Seidl, 2005). Though the speaker is free to give an information by uttering, it is up to the listener to decide what to do with it. For the listener the given information and utterance represent an irritation and not something he or she is forced to take. This means that not the speaker but the listener decides on the meaning of a message, since it is the latter whose understanding of the set of possibilities constrains the possible meaning of the message, no matter what the speaker may have had in mind (Baecker, 2001, p. 66). To make our point with regard to our argument on research relevance even clearer, no matter how well the speaker formulates the given information and utters it, it is ultimately the listeners ability and willingness to understand that decides on the success or failure of the communication. In Luhmanns systems theory society encompasses the other two forms of social systems (i.e., organizations and interactions) as it includes all communications. Society itself underlies what Luhmann (1982) called functional differentiationthe existence of a variety of societal subsystems that serve particular social functions and that represent social systems themselves (e.g., economy, art, science, religion). All functional systems are seen as self-referential systems, which means they reproduce themselves from within themselves. Such systems are defined as unities that recursively generate and realize themselves in the space in which they exist and as such also constitute their own boundaries (Maturana, 1981). In science, for instance, scholars take methods, theories, and results produced by the system to produce new methods, new theories, and new results. According to Luhmann (2006), self-referentiality is not just a characteristic of functional systems but also of social systems in general. All social systems reproduce their own elements on the basis of these elements. The elements of social systems, and thus functional systems, are communications. Hence, societal subsystems reproduce themselves on the basis of communications, or more precisely, communicative events (Seidl & Becker, 2006). Due to their self-referential nature, each functional system is closed on the basis of a binary code; thus, functional systems cannot determine each other. For instance, the functional system science refers to the code true/untrue, whereas the economic system uses the code payment/ nonpayment (Luhmann, 1982). Each communication of

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a system relates to other communications of the same system on the basis of the function-specific code. Thus, only communications within the functional system can add to the reproduction of this system. For example, only communications that refer to the accepted code true/ untrue can reproduce science. As a consequence, each self-referential functional system reproduces itself based on its own communications and registers the communications of other systems as irritations onlyirritations that are processed according to the internal logic of the irritated system. Functional systems thus represent environment for each other and cannot determine their operations. This, however, does not mean that they cannot influence each other. Following Luhmann (2005b), there are three different references that a functional system can make. First, the system can reflect itself. Second, the system can be reflected according to the function it fulfills. Third, the system can be reflected with regard to its interactions with other functional systems. Applied to the context of this article, in which science is characterized as one functional system, the first point (self-reflection) would mean to reflect existing theory traditions and thus conduct intrascientific research. The second point would require reflecting on the function of the scientific system, which, according to Luhmann (1992), is fixed by its code true/untrue. In the following subsection, we explore the third point, the interaction of the functional system science with other functional systems (e.g., the economy), which we summarize, for the ease of use, under the heading practice, or as Luhmann (2005b, p. 378) himself calls it: the system of application. By practice we mean the practice of management in organizations. The work of management, here, is understood as being influenced by a variety of societal subsystems because organizations are embedded in more than one functional subsystem of society (Akerstrom Andersen, 2003). Management practice is thus a heterogeneous task influencing and being influenced by numerous subsystems and their belonging codes such as the economy (payment/nonpayment), politics (govern/governed), and law (legal/nonlegal). Research relevance, then, means that scientific communications need to be in some way reconnectable to the codes used by an organization (Luhmann, 2005b, p. 373).

and practice as self-referential systems of meaning production, which are, due to their self-referential nature, decoupled from each other. Decoupling does not imply that communication between both systems is impossible but that external references (e.g., scientific knowledge) can only be integrated based on the historically developed logic of a system. The system of practice itself decides which knowledge is relevant and how this knowledge is interpreted according to already established meaning structures. For Luhmann (2005b, p. 374) the differentiation of science and (management) practice has consequences for the discussion of the applicability of knowledge: Science can, under these conditions, never be fully applicable; it can never be fully instrumentalized. Its traditions are too clumsy and its methods not context-specific enough. Science is thus autonomous due to its status as a differentiated functional system within society, and this is what we can show by taking the detour of a systems theoretical analysis. (our translation) As a consequence, a systems theoretical view shows the limits of the linear model of relevance. In particular, systems theory helps us to challenge two fundamental assumptions of the linear model of relevance. On the one hand, contrary to conventional wisdom that suggests that relevant knowledge can be produced if the right measures are taken, a systems theoretical perspective argues that the relevance of knowledge can never be fully judged in advance but is produced in the context of application. On the other hand, contrary to the assumption of the linear model of relevance in which knowledge flows passively from a sender to a receiver, a systems theoretical view emphasizes that the dissemination of knowledge is not a passive process but involves an active (re)construction of the irritated system practice can be irritated but not determined by science. Thus, to speak of knowledge transfer may be misleading. Instead, Luhmann (2005b, p. 379) chose the phrase nonidentical reproduction that points to the fact that whenever knowledge is reproduced by practice it is also necessarily altered and adjusted according to the local circumstances (for this, see also Derrida, 1995). This interpretation of the interaction between science and practice is not just based on the insight that academics and practitioners have fundamentally different frames of references (Shrivastava & Mitroff, 1984) but allows for a more comprehensive understanding of the limits of the relationship between science and practice.

A Systems Theoretical Perspective on Science and Practice

Luhmann (2005a, 2005b, 1992) discussed the relation between science and practice several times. His systems theoretical interpretation characterizes science

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Luhmann (2005a, 2005b) raised five points with regard to the sciencepractice link. First, both systems science and practiceneed to give consideration to their function in society. Because scientists are interested in (and judged according to) the distinction true/untrue, they do not leave this code but instead tend to dig deeper to better understand phenomena and to explore so far unknown explanations to achieve the expected scientific progress. This increases the needed theoretical complexity and often requires new terminology that practitioners are unfamiliar with (Luhmann, 2005a). As a consequence, user-friendly writing is hard to achieve without changing the nature of the argumentation because a differentiated argumentation of research problems requires new terms and references to existing theory. For instance, the discussion of the dynamic character of organizational capabilities (Teece, Pisano, & Shuen, 1997) required a fresh term (i.e., dynamic capabilities) to describe and explain a new phenomenon and also gave reference to already existing streams of research (e.g., organizational learning) in order to develop the argument (Zollo & Winter, 2002). Language, as Luhmann (2005a, p. 196) remarked, creates asymmetries between both systems regardless of whether old terms are retained (although their meaning changes over time) or new terms are introduced (and existing lines of identification are lost). Second, the self-referential nature of science is best understood when looking at the network of scientific publications that are linked by references (Kieser, 2002; Nicolai, 2004). This is precisely what Hambrick (1994, p. 15) means when assuming that we are working in a closed loop of scholarship. Every publication needs to be understood as a communication that refers to yet other communications. Attempts to translate the work of scholars may not turn out to be successful because in order to understand an argument one needs to have some basic knowledge of preceding communications that were used to work out the argument. Luhmann (2005b, p. 378) thus claimed that one needs to ensure that people in the context of application have at least some, even if a reduced, understanding of those theories that were used in the context of production. The relevance problem is not just about researchers being caught in an ivory tower (West, 1990) but also about practitioners who cannot understand science due to their lack of necessary theoretical fundamentals. Third, a systems theoretical perspective also connects the problem of time to the relevance debate. If the development of science really is a self-referential endeavor, it is less likely that scientific practice can be synchronized to whatever happens in the system of practice (Luhmann,

2005b, p. 378). Science, thus, is likely to remain decoupled from practice not only due to its discipline-based organization, but also because it either lags behind or precedes the problems that occur in practice. Partly, this problem can be solved by integrating practitioners into the research process (e.g., to identify problems) and conducting research in the context of application. Collaborative research, however, does not solve the communication problem because researchers and practitioners still process communications based on their system-specific logic. Fourth, the contextuality of management knowledge limits its application. Research often refers to certain contexts that are either not relevant or, if they are relevant, not easily transferable into the specific context of practitioners. This problem is related to the context specificity of management. As Mintzberg (2005, p. 10) writes: There is no one best way to manage; it all depends on the situation. To successfully apply scientific knowledge practitioners not only need to understand the context of production of knowledge (see above) but must also find this context relevant. The transfer between context of production and context of application is easier to achieve for knowledge that is susceptible to codification and thus professionalization (e.g., accounting or engineering). However, according to Khurana (2007), management practice failed the professionalization project, partly because it did not establish a codifiable and thus defensible knowledge basis. Rather, management researchers were professionalized through various disciplinary measures (e.g., associations, tenure policy). Fifth, and last, because scientific communications are based on the code true/untrue and research is always trying to come up with new insights, a good deal of research activity aims at falsifications (i.e., finding out what is not true to present better arguments in the battle of ideas; Luhmann, 2005b, p. 374). Managers, of course, are more interested in what actually is the case and are puzzled by research aiming at falsifying existing research results. To complicate matters, the quest for the right argument does not necessarily show that preceding research has been wrong but that, given other paradigmatic assumptions and/or a different research context, one can come up with alternative results. For managers this raises the problem of making a decision among competing explanations. For instance, some studies claim that a positive relation between corporate social/ environmental performance and long-term financial performance exists (Waddock & Graves, 1997), whereas other studies show the exact opposite (Aupperle, Carroll, & Hatfield, 1985).

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So, Can Research be Relevant? A Systems Theoretical Answer

The outlined systems theoretical perspective on research relevance allows for a better understanding why the many efforts to create bridges between science and practice (Gibbons et al., 1994; Rynes et al., 2001; Starkey & Madan, 2001) have not as yet resulted in an increased satisfaction with the produced knowledge. The demand for stable and well worked-out bridges between science and practice obscures the self-referential logic that underlies both systems. The problem of relevance is misunderstood because there still is the desire to have the same piece of knowledge simultaneously present in two distinct functional systems that operate not only in different social contexts but also with distinct functional codes. Strictly speaking we cannot achieve relevanceif we refer to relevance as the direct application of scientific knowledgebecause the application of this knowledge requires a modification by the system of practice. This modification is a necessity and by no means a shortcoming of poor theorizing or an outcome of nonuserfriendly writing. Of course, scholars should, whenever they can, write in an accessible way and team up with practitioners to identify research problems and thus converge the agendas of both systems (Gopinath & Hoffman, 1995). This, however, does not change the self-referential nature of the two functional systems. Practice itself creates relevance by either incorporating scientific knowledge into the logic of the system or leaving it aside. Relevance cannot be decided upon prior to application but rather, and most of all, is an outcome of application. Thus, a large part of the relevance problem in management studies is bound to the difficulty of controlling the context of application of scientific knowledge. Whereas management scholars are unable to control the context of application (partly because organizations face ambiguity; Weick, 1979), other fields have better command of the context of knowledge application (although cannot determine it; Whitley 1995, p. 92). Engineers, for instance, can in part control their context of application in laboratories, something that management scholars cannot do. To come back to our initial question, can management research be relevant? Yes, research can be relevant. However, relevance is nothing that is decided by academics or practitioneracademics teams prior to application. Research relevance is decided where it occurs: in the system of practice. To produce relevance we do not need bridges or translations but insightful practitioners who do not quickly follow the latest management fad (Abrahamson, 1996) and instead understand the necessary

emptiness (i.e., noncontext-specific nature) of scientific knowledge as an opportunity to modify this knowledge according to their specific circumstances (Ortmann & Salzman, 2002). A systems theoretical perspective shows the limits of the linear model of relevance that still implicitly underlies many contributions discussing relevance in management research. Certainly, Luhmanns point of view is a skeptical one questioning the viability of rather simple solutions (e.g., collaboration) and showing their limits. From a Luhmannian perspective, a gap between research and practice is almost natural in the sense that it can be expected to occur in any specialized research field (Anderson, 2007, p. 176). Instead of trying to find ever more bridges, we need to start acknowledging that science and practice influence each other in a more indirect way. In the following, we describe this indirect way of influence and discuss its implications.

ImplicationsAs If it Were Relevant

Relevance and the Importance of the As If
Our systems theoretical discussion emphasizes that science and practice influence each other based on fictions that need to be established in each system to integrate the knowledge claims that are produced in the other system. For the system of practice to decide upon the relevance of scientific knowledge, the system has to treat the knowledge as hypothetically relevant prior to the actual application. Theories are usually formulated at such a high level of generality that in the moment of application the relevance of research is still a fiction: Managers do not and cannot know yet whether knowledge is relevant; however, they can act as if the offered knowledge were relevant. Because the code of the scientific system (i.e., true/untrue) does not provide a form of communication practice can build upon, managers often act as if the knowledge were relevant. Our analysis of fictions is not prescriptive in the sense that we recommend the use of fictions to make sense of knowledge. We believe that often the interaction of science and practice is already based on fictions; this, however, remained largely unexplored so far. Hence, our discussion treats fictions as being already part of the interaction of science and practice. Fictions are established by the systems of practice and science: (a) Those who try to make sense of scientific knowledge (e.g., management practitioners, but also consultants or policy makers) base their actions on the assumption that the consumed knowledge were relevant.

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Figure 1 As-If Assumptions and the Relation Between Science and Practice
Managers need to act as if the generatedknowledge were relevant to the system of practice.

Self-Referential System of Practice

Researchers need to act as if the communicated problem is the true problem.

Self-Referential System of Science

(b) Researchers who make sense of practitioners problems to turn them into research questions also base their knowledge on the assumption that the uncovered research problem is relevant (see Figure 1). To focus our argumentation, we look at the role of fictions from the perspective of the practitioner only. Strictly speaking, scientific knowledge can never be fully relevant due to the self-referential nature of each of the involved systems. However, the established fiction provides a ground from which further sensemaking processes can unfold. A fiction represents an irritation (Luhmann, 1995) to the system of practice that often takes the form of a key idea or label (e.g., lean management). These irritations are then processed according to the logic of the system and thus modified, extended, supplemented, or even neglected. Like systems, fictions also operate on a self-referential basis: Scientific knowledge becomes relevant for the system of practice because the system itself has made it relevant. We do not claim that managers who consume scientific knowledge are always aware of the fictional ground of their knowledge. Practitioners fictions exist in many different forms, for instance, as part of strategic plans (Weick, 1979) and do not necessarily imply an explicit reference or mentioning. Practitioners fictions can (but do not have to) create relevance (a) because the asymmetry of language between science and practice can be overcome as practitioners use the logic of practice for their fictions, and (b) because fictions address the problem of contextuality (i.e., managers fictions are embedded in the context of practice). To become relevant, fictions need to be institutionalized and legitimized within the organization to create corresponding actions (Berger & Luckmann, 1966). Even though the resulting actions correspond to scientific knowledge, they are not determined by it; they

are modified, extended, and supplemented by the system of practice. The resulting organizational actions are not the outcome of a successful bridge between science and practice or particularly relevant knowledge claims but the product of an internal organizational reconstruction of knowledge based on the fiction that the offered knowledge was relevant. This does not imply that organizations and organizing are purely fictional but that they are based upon successfully accomplished assumptions together with the necessary corresponding real actions. (Luhmann, 1981, p. 354, our translation) To show the case in point we refer to Benders and van Bijstervelds (2000) empirical study of the reception of lean production. In the 1990s, lean production was perceived as a practically relevant management tool (Kieser, 1993), promoted by books that circumvented academic jargon and instead were written in a user-friendly way (Womack & Jones, 1996). According to the traditional model of relevance, lean production represents a good example for academic research that flowed into practice. Benders and van Bijsterveld (2000), however, showed that the managerial practices that resulted from the implementation of lean management in German companies had virtually nothing to do with the original concept that Womack, Jones, and Roos (1990) proposed. Lean production did not really represent directly applicable relevant research but was used as a ground for organizational fictions that resulted in more general restructuring activities. This is not to say that lean production is a useless concept but that it does not represent knowledge that flowed into practice. Rather, lean production represents a fiction used by managers to legitimize their courses of action. Other empirical studies that look at the adoption of scientific knowledge in practice come to similar conclusions (Hackman & Wageman, 1995; Lozeau, Langley, & Denis, 2002; Rose, 1990; Zbaracki, 1998). Lozeau et al., for instance, talked about the corruption of scientific knowledge by practitioners in the process of application. By focusing on the dynamics associated with the adoption of management knowledge, they show that there often is a natural misfit between the assumptions underlying knowledge and their context of application. Similarly, Rose (1990, p. 162) reported that Jack Welch, when trying to restructure General Electric, aimed at creating a boundaryless organization. However, he used this concept more as a fiction that was supposed to alter the perceptions of employees and not in the way suggested by theory. Thus, we should value scientific knowledge for what it is: a basis for practical fictions and not for what some want it to be, that is, directly applicable knowledge.

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Rasche, Behnam / Theoretical Perspective on the Relation Between Science and Practice 251

The Nature of Fictions Ambiguous and Viable

We now look inside those fictions that managers (implicitly) generate in order to better understand how fictions support communication between science and practice. Drawing on the literature on fictions in organizations (Brunsson, 2003; Ortmann, 2004; Rasche, 2008), we show how fictions connect science and practice and what we can learn from this. To focus the argumentation, our remarks are limited to fictions created by managers when irritated by scientific knowledge. Fictions and deliberate linguistic ambiguity. Managers fictions need to reflect deliberate linguistic ambiguity. If we conceive of management knowledge as being based on fictions, it is more fictions linguistic ambiguity and general character, rather than their precise nature that ensures relevance. Fictions that possess linguistic ambiguity increase the range of phenomena to which the used vocabulary may potentially refer (Astely & Zammuto, 1992, p. 446) and thus allow organizational members to act in ways that were previously unattended or inconceivable. Following Weick (1985), collective action may require agreement on the symbolic labels (i.e., fictions) used in communication, however, not on their meaning. From a Luhmannian perspective, deliberate linguistic ambiguity is favorable because it increases the likelihood that the recipient of a fiction can make something out of it according to the respective system logic. Ambiguous fictions allow for the interpretative flexibility that is needed for managers to reflect on their organization and explore their problem situation. Similar to strategic plans, they are excuses for action (Weick, 1979) and thus allow people to learn and create meaning. Vaguely stated fictions are noncontextualized and, therefore, require a competent filling according to the specific circumstances of an organization, a filling that also means modification and extension of existing knowledge claims. This perspective underscores that managers, from our perspective, are first of all interpreters and organizations interpretation systems. As Daft and Weick (1984, p. 294) remarked, The job of management is to interpret, not to do the operational work of the organization. Vague fictions can also help managers to create a complicated understanding (Bartunek, Gordon, & Weathersby, 1983) of the organization in the mind of employees. Such complicated understandings foster the ability to understand and perceive events from multiple perspectives. This has consequences for the theories that managers translate into fictions. Daft and Wiginton (1979, p. 185)

remarked in this context that insightful research models will tend to be somewhat ambiguous, vague and imprecise. Hence, it is not only fictions themselves that should possess interpretative flexibility, but also the knowledge that they are based upon. According to the linear model of relevance, knowledge should be empirically concrete rather than theoretically abstract and based on precisely defined constructs and measures (Sanderlands & Drazin, 1989). Detailed empirical tests of theories, however, are less likely to create fictions because organizational members can hardly relate them to the everyday contexts in which they operate. In addition, less precise theories also consider the fact that practitioners often do not have a detailed understanding of what their problem is and what knowledge is useful to them. They turn to scientists precisely because they do not know what their problem is and have no exact idea about what knowledge they need (Grey, 2001). Fictions and viability. Not every fiction becomes realized in practice or leads to improvements for the organization. To have an effect, fictions need to be accepted and prove their viability in social praxis (Ortmann, 2004). In other words, not any fiction will do. The scientific knowledge that is translated into a fiction needs to fit with the current context of the organization. For instance, a company that is in need of restructuring may respond very well to lean production, whereas a firm that has recently faced a scandal concerning social issues may find stakeholder management very attractive. Because organizations change constantly as societies evolve, values shift, and technologies emerge, the viability of fictions depends a lot on whether this fiction allows people to respond to the problems they currently face. For the system of science this can be a problem because, as mentioned above, research typically lags behind the incidence of the phenomena it explains. A good way to cope with the changing nature of events is to preserve a high level of ambiguity in the language that is used in dealing with them (Astley & Zammuto, 1992, p. 451). Viability also requires faith in the fiction. Faith in the fiction can be more important than its precise content because it allows people to relate the fiction to their own experiences and thereby creates follow-up actions. This emphasizes that fictions can turn out to be self-fulfilling prophecies if perceivers who act upon expectations faithfully enact what they predict will be there (Weick, 1995, p. 152). A theory can turn out to be relevant because the fictions that were created by managers based upon this theory brought about actions that made the theory relevant. For instance, there is now

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252 Journal of Management Inquiry

significant evidence that the Black-Scholes optionpricing model became relevant because everybody believed in its relevance (Cherian & Jarrow, 1998). Research relevance, thus, is also belief driven. Fictions are starting points (i.e., minimal structures) around which actions can form as the result of justified beliefs.

The objective of our contribution was to rethink the process of application of knowledge in management studies from a systems theoretical perspective that not only introduces a different set of assumptions about what constitutes relevant knowledge but also asks us to rethink the tenets of the very concept of relevance. Our contribution is a critical and provocative one. Being critical does not imply a denial that there can be a connection between science and practice but to highlight that bridges depend on empty fictions that need to be contextualized. Knowledge production by firms is apt to be firm and problem specific (Weick, 1996) so that universal bridges, which consistently link the decoupled logic of the two systems, are impossible to build. All of this leads us to two major insights. First, scholars as well as practitioners need to state more precisely what is meant by research relevance. As discussed throughout this article, relevance cannot mean to expect straightforward and theory-free solutions for complex practical problems. From a systems theoretical perspective, research is relevant if necessary fictions enable organizations to produce new alternatives for action to see things they have not seen before. Science is a successful undertaking if the unavoidable differences between scientific and practical problem construction result in a constructive dialogue (Kieser & Nicolai, 2005). Managers can and should use this dialogue to find answers to their questions instead of expecting readymade prescriptions. Prescriptions are most of all the job of practitioners themselves as they face an issue within a context (Mintzberg, 2005). Researchers have to deliver the ground on which such prescriptions can be developed by catching the interest of practitioners. Thats Interesting! (Davis, 1971) may thus be a better expression for relevance than conventionally assumed. Second, the relevance problem is too often framed either as a problem of knowledge production or knowledge transfer. This neglects the knowledge consumer who makes knowledge relevant in her or his own context of application. If we set up the relevance problem this way, we need to focus on practitioners competence to produce

viable fictions and not solely ponder about scholars apparent inability to deliver relevant knowledge. The relevance debate can profit from a more balanced perspective that equally considers the roles of knowledge producers and consumers. This perspective emphasizes practitioners responsibility to make knowledge relevant to the same extent as scholars responsibility to produce knowledge that can be used as a ground for viable fictions. Concerning future conceptual and empirical research, we need more investigations that question the assumptions underlying our concept of relevance. Conceptual research should, for instance, rethink the sciencepractice link from other theoretical lenses such as Giddens (1984) structuration theory, which would allow us to understand knowledge production and consumption as a process of reflexive structuration, or Weicks (1995, 1979) sensemaking approach, which could help us to better understand how practitioners enact problems and how researchers look for cues to find solutions to these problems. Qualitative empirical studies can supplement such conceptual research. For instance, the role of practitioners fictions can be empirically researched. Case study research can expose how practitioners come up with fictions, to what extent they correspond to the original theory, and whether they are aware of the fictional ground of knowledge consumption. Jarzabkowskis (2005, p. 10) case-based research, for example, reports that managers are not interested in the concept of a Porterian value chain per se but rather use it as a communication tool; they establish a fiction (Let us act as if the value chain approach were relevant for us) and then fill this fiction with context specific meaning. Our discussion demonstrates that there are still many unanswered questions and probably even more unquestioned answers when it comes to investigating the link between science and practice. Most of all, we need to start realizing that our concept of relevance needs to fit the unpredictable and idiosyncratic nature of organizations.

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Rasche, Behnam / Theoretical Perspective on the Relation Between Science and Practice 255 Organization Studies, Journal of Management Inquiry, Business Ethics Quarterly, Journal of Business Ethics and Business & Society. He is also the author of the book The Paradoxical Foundation of Strategic Management. Michael Behnam received his PhD from the Goethe-University in Frankfurt, Germany and is an associate professor of management at Suffolk University in Boston. Previously he taught at the European Business School in Germany. His research revolves around international strategy and business ethics and has been published among others in the Journal of Management Inquiry, European Management Journal, European Journal of International Management, Journal of Business Ethics and several top tier German outlets. He is the author or coauthor of four books on strategy and ethics.

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