Volume 3, Issue 3, 2003
What is Management
Mark W. Moss
Practically Useless? Why Management Theory Needs Popper
What would Karl Popper have made of today’s management and organisation theories? He would surely have approved of the openness of debate in some quarters, but the ease with which many managers accept the generalisations of some academics, gurus and consultants might well have troubled him. Popper
himself argued that processes of induction alone were unlikely to lead to developments in knowledge and considered processes of justification to be more important. He claimed that it was not through verifying theories from experiment that knowledge actually developed but through the invention of bold and innovative theories that experimenters then tried to falsify. If new theories did not agree with the results of experiment, then they were considered false. If they passed testing then they were considered unfalsified and worthy of further testing rather than true. Objective knowledge was to be obtained through ensuring
critical debate and learning, rather than adhering to some objective scientific method.
In this paper, Popper’s notion of falsificationism is explored through stressing the importance of the predictive content and testability of theories. A number of theories from the fields of management and organisation theory are examined and it is argued that many of them suffer from one of three defects: from
over-reliance upon untestable elements with psychological origins; from being phrased in language so vague that they gloss over phenomena; or from making predictions that are so cautious and all-encompassing as to be practically useless. As a result, they are likely to be unfalsifiable in Popper’s terms and their epistemological status is called into question. While acknowledging that the unpredictability of social systems poses problems for an approach stressing predictability, I conclude by arguing that organisation theory and management knowledge might well benefit from the openness and critical nature of Popper’s approach.