Theory & Pragmatism: two sides of the same coin

There’s been a lot of theory-bashing lately in the internal communications arena.

I find this strange.  To me, theory and pragmatism are two sides of the same coin.  Theory drives strategy; pragmatism drives implementation.

But, it’s easy to see why people would blow this trumpet so loudly: listen to me, I’m the one who can give you a quick and practical solution, not some egg-headed academician with their head in the clouds/sand.  Who can resist the allure of The Pragmatist?

While it involves equal shares of art and science, there is a scientific grounding to good communication practice.  In essence, every communication is basically an experiment backed by a hypothesis — for example, “I hypothesise that creating a newsletter will result in an increase in people’s understanding of an issue and their interest in it.”

The problem with a lot of so-called “pragmatists” is that they are often short-sighted.  They have a quick solution to every challenge, but they have forgotten their hypothesis and quite often miss the bigger picture.

This is why companies end up with intranets littered with hundreds of standalone, disconnected pages, dozens of newsletters, and inconsistent internal communications in general.  Pragmatism often means quickly plugging a hole in one part of the system while unknowingly blowing a gasket in another as a result.  But, out of sight, out of mind. Pragmatism often spawns initiative-itis.  Why? Because it’s easier in the short run to appear to be “doing something”.

Yet the most valuable pragmatic solutions, in my experience, usually come after a good think through of the context, the issues, the whole system … and having a theory to support your decisions.

I’m all for pragmatism.  I just don’t see why it’s always positioned as being in opposition to theory.

No one ever got fired for being pragmatic.  But many communicators fail terribly when their “pragmatism” comes back to bite them on the ass.

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2 thoughts on “Theory & Pragmatism: two sides of the same coin

  1. Couldn’t agree more, Kevin.

    It really busts my hump when I get labelled as a ‘theorist’, just ’cause I’ve done an MBA (something that smacks of inverse snobbery in my book).

    I didn’t do it to make myself look clever, or to blind people with jargon and management science. I did it so I could become better at what I do – by bringing a more a strategic, “systems” mindset to my work, just as you describe in your previous post.

    The golden rule of pragmatism is that “what matters is what works”, right? Well, in today’s era of rapid change, media fragmentation and audience overlap, you’re only going to be able to deliver that if you have the theoretical tools to organise your thinking and make sense of complexity.

    The irony will no doubt escape the hardcore pragmatists, but the truth of the matter is that – if you want to become a better one – you’d better get out there and learn some theory!

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