Both academics and practitioners have long discussed the application of theory. The notion that there will always be a gap between practice and theory dates back to 1793 when Kant suggested in one of his early works that practical judgment by a practitioner is necessary in order to apply a particular theory. Knowing a theory and knowing how to properly apply a theory are two different concepts. The issues lie in transferring knowledge from academics to practitioners in a language they understand, and in a way that is relevant to them. Similarly, academics must see the real value of practitioners in the trenches, acquiring valuable insights into the applicability of an assortment of concepts and theory. Business has changed dramatically over the years, and it is imperative the disparity of theory and application be examined in order for business to harness the power of both for a substantial strategic advantage.
The Relationship Between Theory and Practice
The function of theory is to predict outcomes. Rotfeld (2014) suggests theory must explain existing data, make predictions, and must be falsifiable. The empirical value of a theory can be weighed by assessing if the theory helps in gaining new knowledge about a phenomena, or even helps in the discovery of new phenomena. Further, a theory might be evaluated based on if the theory demonstrates further applicability. Rotfeld (2014) suggests that practical use of a theory would be tied to its ability to predict an outcome in given conditions where there is a decision to be made and new data may not be readily available. Regardless of the impact a theory has made, how applicable it is remains to be of concern to many practitioners.
There is a disparity between practical implementation and research theory. Additionally, practitioners often misunderstand the meaning of many theories presented in academic journals, while also seeing little relevance to the real world of business (Rotfeld, 2014). However, theories are instrumental in guiding decisions by explaining and predicting. In business, theory can help direct decision-making much like it does in the academic realm. Practitioners that draw on their past experiences to make decisions, are in effect using theory. These decision makers are drawing upon conclusions they have made, and making predictions of outcomes. Theory also helps guide values and beliefs while helping practitioners and academics alike reframe their thinking. Conditions, domains, and contexts vary within business, and transferring theory from one context to another necessitates evidence that will still hold true for the newer context. Many ideas and theories within marketing practice are simply not generalizable. This is where we rely on academic research. For example, the copious amounts of data now available from the use of social media platforms will require relevant theories to help interpret this data for marketers. Additionally, appropriate theoretical models could be useful for making sense of the data (Pan & Crotts, 2012). However, the utility of theory for practice can only be assessed in regards to how well they predict and inform decision making if they are actually used and applied (Rotfeld, 2014).
Theories are critical to marketing practice
Practitioners need research for better decision- making, but also for superior understanding of context. Without theoretical context, data generated has very limited utility, or worse, could be considered meaningless (Rotfeld, 2014). Theoretical frameworks may help practitioners in that they can offer a global and abstract view (Pan & Crotts, 2012). Rotfeld (2014) points out those practitioners who do not value or ignore marketing theory development are simply seeking out research that matches a decision they are making rather than seeking out information, and then making a decision based on findings. It is possible to identify evidence applicable to almost any theory, but researchers and practitioners alike should seek evidence that is a compelling test of a theory rather than evidence that is consistent with a proposed theory. Traditional methods of research used in the applied setting are not appropriate to address significant practical issues and questions. This is when scientific and empirical approaches are needed. In order for marketing theory and education to influence practice, academics must ensure practice does not evolve faster than marketing discipline (Harrigan & Hulbert, 2011).
Practice enriches theory. Research initiated to solve practical problems can have immediate applications as well as inform further research. However, Gummesson (2014) believes theory in the social sciences does not take a holistic view and is somewhat fragmented. The author suggests case study research to tackle the complexities of marketing by building on solid empirical evidence and avoiding assumptions (Gummesson, 2014). Simplifying theory through assumptions makes theories become unrealistic, going directly against the pragmatic view of research. Researchers must combine theoretical, methodological, and analytical approaches (McFarland & Ployhart, 2015).
Often academia can look to practitioners for new an innovative ways of thinking that are on the cutting edge of the industry. Given the long process of formal publishing in academia (Pan & Crotts, 2012), some practitioners are able to use low cost of open source publishing to share pseudo-theories. Pseudo-theories are recent conceptual frameworks yet to be tested empirically and are generally proposed by non-academics (Pan & Crotts, 2012). These pseudo-theories can contribute to the understanding of a discipline much in the way a micro-theories or macro-theories can. However, any statement that cannot be tested by observation or experimentation cannot be considered a theory (Rotfeld, 2014). Additionally, practitioners face significant ethical implications in any true research endeavor; they rely on academia for empirical theory development and testing.
Theory and practice work together in a reciprocal and interdependent way
Advances in theory produce advances in practice. Likewise, advances in practice will initiate advances in theory. While theory guides research, it also has the ability to guide practitioners. Similarly, application can guide further research and has the ability to guide academics in their quest to finding suitable research ‘problems’ for empirical studies. Theory guides marketing practitioners and helps to generate knowledge. It helps to describe or explain the discipline of marketing, and importantly theory enables practitioners to know why they are doing what they are doing.
Marketing is based on theory; it is founded on theories of consumer behavior that are drawn from the social and behavioral sciences. Theories applicable to marketing are plentiful, but few are truly relevant to the distinctiveness of social media marketing. Many do not account for more modern social issues and unique situations, and thus may require a more refined approach. However, when considering the act of exchange is essential to the discipline of marketing, focus shifts to theory that can guide research surrounding such relationships taking place within a social media environment.