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Improving Theory and Research on Quality Enhancement in Organizations: Report of a Workshop (1997)

Chapter: Bridging the Gap Between Practice and Theory

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Suggested Citation:"Bridging the Gap Between Practice and Theory." National Research Council. 1997. Improving Theory and Research on Quality Enhancement in Organizations: Report of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5925.
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future research; and to identify broader social science issues that can contribute to the study of quality in organizations.

The workshop was successful in beginning this dialogue between researchers who study the issue of quality and social science theorists. The current research in this area is somewhat disjointed: it could clearly benefit from a delineation of key principles and more systematic tests to evaluate desired change across a broad range of organizations. The workshop was able to identify areas where relevant social science theory could be applied, but it did not succeed in beginning the development of a unifying framework. Participants emphasized the necessity of such an enterprise for future research and for scientifically rigorous research in this field.

Eight papers, covering a range of perspectives and interests, were prepared for the workshop and served as the basis for discussion over the course of the 2-day meeting. The papers were not representative of all research being conducted in the field, but were selected to represent some of the more interesting, theory-driven, and careful research being done (see list in the Appendix). The authors of each paper made a short presentation of their material and then designated commentators made brief remarks before opening the floor for general questions and comments.

Following a brief section on practice and theory, this report presents summaries of the papers. The next sections summarize the workshop discussions by topic. The last sections note promising directions for future research and for the TQO program at NSF.

Bridging the Gap Between Practice and Theory

As explained by Baba (1998) and by Dean and Bowen (1994), the development of quality enhancement and quality transformation has been more driven by application than by theory. Industry practitioners in Japan attempted to develop methods to transform their devastated industrial system to be globally competitive. By direct observation and experimentation inside individual Japanese firms, they sought approaches to improve organizational processes and products. As their work spread to the United States, a more generalized set of concepts and methods were articulated, some inspired by Japanese models and others drawing on related prescriptions from American managers. These concepts and meth-

Suggested Citation:"Bridging the Gap Between Practice and Theory." National Research Council. 1997. Improving Theory and Research on Quality Enhancement in Organizations: Report of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5925.
×

ods are generally referred to under the rubric of total quality management (TQM).

As would be expected, practitioners have not used their inductively generated insights to create an explicit theory of organizational quality. They are not connected to the organizational research community in academia and have neither the interest nor the background knowledge to support theory building (Baba, in press). Practitioners have attempted and introduced a great many changes in organizational practices, but they have done so in ways that do not allow for systematic learning about the levers of organizational change that relate to quality improvement.

Although scientific understanding sometimes leads the way to improved practice, workshop participants agreed that TQM developments clearly represent an instance in which practice has been ahead of scientific knowledge. Questions were raised as to why organization theorists have been slow to study the new practices that are being applied. It was observed that many scientists have been put off by the exaggerated claims of management gurus and by the overly enthusiastic accounts of committed practitioners. Most of the writing to date on this phenomena consists either of prescriptive principles promoted by ''experts'' on organizational reform or anecdotal accounts of the vast improvements in companies adopting particular practices. This is not the sort of territory that most scientists find appealing.

Yet it is clear that important changes are occurring in both manufacturing and service companies and organizations as many of them adopt and implement some version of TQM ideas and practices. Workshop participants agreed that it is time to take a more careful look at those changes. As with any scientific undertaking, it is essential to develop a systematic approach tied to theory. Although much of the early work on TQM consisted of a few well-known case studies in industrial settings, there are some general lessons that can be learned from the existing research. More broadly, there is a need to develop a conceptual framework, with links to social science theory, that can then guide future research in the field.

Suggested Citation:"Bridging the Gap Between Practice and Theory." National Research Council. 1997. Improving Theory and Research on Quality Enhancement in Organizations: Report of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5925.
×
Page 2
Suggested Citation:"Bridging the Gap Between Practice and Theory." National Research Council. 1997. Improving Theory and Research on Quality Enhancement in Organizations: Report of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5925.
×
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