Putting theory to practice?


Moving towards more engaged forms of practical scholarship in the management of projects

By Paul W Chan

School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering,
The University of Manchester,

Manchester, UK


In this paper, I question the knowledge-practice divide by drawing inspiration from contemporary interest in practice-based theories. I focus on recent renewed interest in the Aristotelian notion of phroenesis (or, to put simply, the doing of practical wisdom). Rather than to turn knowledge into practice I argue that knowledge is practice. I stress that practical knowledge is not just what practitioners do; practical knowledge calls for deeper, more engaged forms of practical scholarship. Such scholarship demands a move away from ‘grab-and-go’ methods of knowledge creation depicted by earlier scholarship that provided prescriptive guidelines and toolkits, to consider the power of engaged scholarship (e.g. action research, ethnography) in co-creating practical wisdom in project management. I offer the newly-launched Professional PhD Programme in Project Management at The University of Manchester as a possible way of inviting practitioners to become co-researchers in putting practical wisdom to work.

Keywords: phronesis, practice-relevant scholarship, professional doctorate


Project management has matured as a field from being “almost theory-free” (Morris, 2013b: 67) and “extraordinarily [silent] on the theoretical” (Koskela and Howell, 2002: 293), to current recognition that project management knowledge is pluralistic, drawing on a diverse range of theories (see Söderlund, 2011, and; Morris, 2013a). In part, this growing acknowledgement of the role of theory is due to the belief that “a theory of projects is beneficial to the development and acceptance of the field for a general audience” (Hällgren, 2012: 805). As Hällgren (2012: ibid.) noted, the more established top-tier academic journals tend to make higher “demands for theoretical contributions and scientific rigor […] than in journals in less established areas as project management”.

The pursuit of theoretical rigour is nevertheless not without criticism. Morris (2013b), for instance, while acknowledging the need to embrace theoretical pluralism, also warned against the development of theory for theory’s sake. He stressed that “[t]he problems we face in the world of projects, and the ways to address them, are often intensely practical. […] Yet, academics too rarely experience the reality of really managing projects” (Morris, 2013b: 69).

In this paper, I critically consider this bifurcation between theory and practice, along with the debate on the role of theory in project management. In so doing, the purpose is to question the rhetoric of turning knowledge into practice. Such a turn of phrase implies the separation between theory and practice, an assumption that knowledge is an entity that comes before its application in practice. In this paper, it is argued that such a linear view of knowledge production that emphasises the dichotomous distinction between theory and practice is outmoded. By drawing on current interest in and scholarship on practice-based theories (see e.g. de Certeau, 1984, and; Nicolini, 2012), it is argued that the problem lies not in turning knowledge into practice, but to situate knowledge production and reproduction in practice. Thus, theory is not some isolated entity that precedes and juxtaposes against practice (theory vs. practice); rather, practice and theory are both sides of the same coin, recursively intertwined and mutually constitutive of one another.

The paper is structured as follows. The next section will trace the debate on project management theory. This brief overview will outline the ongoing debate on the role of theory in project management, between those who favour a normative view of finding better or ‘best’ practice (e.g. Morris, 2013a; 2013b), and those who reject such normative accounts and prefer to study the multiple ways in which practices actually happen (e.g. Cicmil et al., 2006). Although the debate on theoretical unification/pluralism has made much progress on bringing theory to the fore, the review highlights the need to break away from the theory-practice divide. A salient review of practice-based approach to understanding project management and what project managers do is then outlined, with a view to reconnect theory and practice in project management. The paper closes with an illustration of how this can be achieved through the Manchester Professional Doctorate Programme.


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Editor’s note: Second Editions are previously published papers that have continued relevance in today’s project management world, or which were originally published in conference proceedings or in a language other than English. Original publication acknowledged; authors retain copyright. This paper was originally presented at the 3rd annual University of Maryland Project Management Symposium in College Park, Maryland, USA in May 2016. It is republished here with the permission of the authors and conference organizers.


About the Author

Dr. Paul W. Chan

Manchester, United Kingdom


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Paul Chan
is a Senior Lecturer in the Management of Projects in the School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering at The University of Manchester in Manchester, United Kingdom. www.mace.manchester.ac.uk/people/staff/profile/?ea=Paul.Chan.

Paul joined The University of Manchester, one of the founding institutions into the academic study of projects, in 2009. He is the Academic Director of the Professional Doctorate in Project Management Programme in Manchester. He specialises in the study of human relations, focussing particularly on how people respond to social, organisational and technological change. He has a track record of collaborating with industrial partners in the construction, manufacturing and transportation sectors on publicly-funded research projects to examine change management in practice. He is especially keen to uncover how innovative practices can often be found in mundane, everyday routines in organisations. Paul’s work has a strong social dimension. He is currently working with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority in the UK to develop better insights into communicating societal value of nuclear decommissioning. Paul is taking over as Chair of the Association of Researchers in Construction Management (ARCOM) in September 2016. He is also Editor of Construction Management and Economics, a leading peer-reviewed journal on construction and the built environment. Paul has authored over 70 peer-reviewed journal and conference papers.

Paul holds an undergraduate degree in Construction Management and a PhD from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland. He can be contacted at [email protected].