IS8004(M) Seminar 9 - Department of Information Systems

Theory, Theorising and Theory Development
To sensitize you to theory
 What it is good for
 What are the problems with theory
To explore how theories are developed
 Theorising
 Theory construction
To present a process model for theory
The critical importance of theory in our
research is well recognised
 Much has been written about what
theories are – and are not
 Yet the process of crafting a new theory
is seldom documented or explained
 Further, there are concerns that we are
too focused on theory and insufficiently
reflective about this
Journal Perspectives
MISQ: SEs require a large theoretical
 ISJ: Need to emphasise the theoretical
implications of findings
 AMJ: All articles must make strong
theoretical contributions
 ASQ: “If manuscripts contain no theory,
their value is suspect”
Theoretical Contributions
This is a major expectation for journals
 Here is a typical reject letter (Hambrick,
 “The reviewers all agree that your paper
addresses an important topic and is well
argued; moreover, they find your empirical
results convincing and interesting. At the
same time, however, the reviewers believe
the paper falls short in making a theoretical
contribution. Therefore, I’m sorry . . . etc.,
etc., etc.”
Theories in IS
In IS, we have a reputation for borrowing!
 Notably, we borrow theories, from
 Marketing, Psychology, Economics,
For example
Transaction Cost Economics
Adaptive Structuration Theory
Theory of Planned Behaviour
Transactive Memory Theory
Punctuated Equilibrium Theory
Theories Developed in IS
There are a few…
Straub, in an MISQ editorial, claims that
there are a number of native IS theories
 But still, most theoretical work is
incremental, not radical
Thoughts on Theories 1
“Many nice things can be said about
theory. Theories help us organize our
thoughts, generate coherent explanations,
and improve our predictions. In short,
theories help us achieve understanding”
(Hambrick, 2007).
 “Nothing is so practical as a good theory”
(Lewin, 1945)
 “Nothing is so dangerous as a bad
theory”(Ghoshal, 2005)
Thoughts on Theories 2
“Good theory is practical precisely because
it advances knowledge in a scientific
discipline, guides research toward crucial
questions, and enlightens the profession of
 “Whetten suggests that the essential
ingredients of a value-added theoretical
contribution are explicit treatments of:
Who? What? Where? When? Why? and
How? And the greatest of these is Why”.
 Van de Ven, 1989.
Thoughts on Theories 3
But theory must always serve the goal of
achieving understanding. Theory is not a
goal in itself.
 Hambrick, 2007
“Theorists often write trivial theories
because their process of theory
construction is hemmed in by
methodological strictures that favor
validation rather than usefulness”
 Weick, 1989
Thoughts on Theories 4
“Theory cannot be improved until we improve
the theorizing process, and we cannot
improve the theorizing process until we
describe it more explicitly, operate it more
self-consciously, and decouple it from
validation more deliberately”
 “By theory we mean "an ordered set of
assertions about a generic behavior or
structure assumed to hold throughout a
significantly broad range of specific
instances" (Sutherland, 1975, p. 9).”
 Weick, 1989
Thoughts on Theories 5
“A good theory is a plausible theory, and a
theory is judged to be more plausible and
of higher quality if it is interesting rather
than obvious, irrelevant or absurd, obvious
in novel ways, a source of unexpected
connections, high in narrative rationality,
aesthetically pleasing, or correspondent
with presumed realities”
 Weick, 1989.
Theory and Laws
Theories are most unlikely to be laws in
the social sciences (unlike pure
sciences), since there are too many
conditions that may affect any outcome.
 This means that any theory must have
some social boundaries – yet we still
expect some degree of generalisation.
Gregor’s Types of Theory
Grand theories
 With sweeping generalisations relatively
unbounded in space and time
Meta theories
 Written at a very high level of abstraction and
providing a way of thinking about other theories
(e.g. structuration theory)
Substantive theory
 Developed for a specific area: programmers,
Types of Theory
Formal theory
 Developed for a broad social area
○ Power, deviance, socialisation
Mid-range theories
 Moderately abstract
 Limited scope
 Can lead to testable hypotheses
Aspects of Theory
 What is the cause? What was the result?
Explanation and Prediction
 Why did it happen? May be causal.
 What will happen next?
Gregor’s Classification of Theories
Analysis and Description
 Explanation
 Prediction
 Explanation and Prediction
 Design and Action
Analysis and Description
“Says what is.
 The theory does not extend beyond
analysis and description.
 No causal relationships among
phenomena are specified and no
predictions are made.”
“Says what is, how, why, when, and
 The theory provides explanations but
does not aim to predict with any
precision. There are no testable
“Says what is and what will be.
 The theory provides predictions and has
testable propositions but does not have
well-developed justificatory causal
Explanation and Prediction
“Says what is, how, why, when, where,
and what will be.
 Provides predictions and has both
testable propositions and causal
Design and Action
“Says how to do something.
 The theory gives explicit prescriptions
(e.g., methods, techniques, principles of
form and function) for constructing an
Theory Selection 1
DeSanctis (1993) “believes that
researchers' assumptions about
organizations, concerning the role of
people, management and technology in
organizational change, influence the
choice of theories which researchers
use in their work”.
 Olesen and Myers, 1999
Theory Selection 2
If one takes an individualist perspective,
and one views the organisation as being
made up of individuals, then one tends
also to assume that technology is
designed for individuals – and then to
select a theory that is premised on this
focus on individuals.
 The same is true for the collectivist
Individualist or Collectivist or…?
 Social Network/Capital/Exchange
Theory, Transactive Memory Theory
 Adaptive Structuration Theory
 Institutional Theory? Resource Based
 Media Richness Theory? Punctuated
Equilibrium Theory? Task Technology
When selecting a theory, it is important that
its basic assumptions are appropriate for
the research context and your units of
 Some theories may not be specific to
individuals or groups at all
 But theory selection must be handled
carefully. Perhaps several theories could
apply, but which one is better? Also, we
need to be aware of the need to theorise,
to develop our own theories.
The process of generating theoretical
ideas, of thinking about cause and effect
and relationships, of identifying
parsimonious explanations to describe,
analyse, predict or explain, or design for
 A good start is a set of theoretical
propositions – which can later be
developed into formal hypotheses
A good source of propositions is
unexpected findings
 The theory did not predict as expected
 You found something strange
 An interesting and novel phenomenon was
revealed – that cannot be explained by existing
But to realise this, you must have an open
The Theorising Process
In recent work, I theorised how Chinese
employees share knowledge – in ways
different to those encountered in the
 We had a lot of qualitative data, some
new ideas, and evidence that existing
theories did not explain employee
behaviour well.
 We developed propositions, and refined
them – with feedback
A Process Model of Theorising
1. Abstract
First we have to abstract an interesting
research question based on pretheorising experiences – so as to
address a problem or mystery
 To build a new theory, we don’t just add
a few bricks to an existing one – that’s
theory refinement
 Instead a new theory requires a new
overarching architecture (cf. Mintzberg,
2. Identify
After abstraction, we need to identify
which variables are relevant to the
phenomenon of interest.
 This requires talking to stakeholders as well
as examining the literature.
 It is good to identify a long list of possible
constructs at this stage
3. Select
Now we had to fine-tune the scope of
the theory, which constructs to include
 This is a process full of serendipity and
guess-work, especially in early
iterations. Chance conversations
sparked ideas.
 Not all made it into the final theory, but
all played a role in the theorising
 We did want to include Chinese
4. Explain
The selected constructs/variables need
to be defined precisely
 They also need to be supported by
existing theory, by strong sources of
evidence or both
 The pillars of the theory should be clear
by later iterations of this stage
5. Synthesise
The variables now need to be connected
together logically
 First create propositions, later
 Cause and effect relationships are
 A formal structural model (diagram) can
be created as a pictorial guide to the
emerging theory
6. Validate
Early stage validation may involve expert
feedback from academics, practitioners
 Thorough debates of contentious issues
are preferred – silent acquiescence brings
little value
 In later stages, the theory will be stronger
and better able to resist criticisms – if the
researchers reflect carefully on feedback
 Later stage validation will require more
thorough testing with detailed data
collection, not simply thought experiments
based on subjunctive reasoning
An Iterative Process Model
Continuous Reflection
 We
can’t emphasise this too much
 We need to engage in constant
challenges of our assumptions and
biases, and invite challenges from others
 A new theory will struggle to be accepted
– humans resist change
 Some early ideas won’t make it into the
final theory – but they were still important
sparks and should be acknowledged
The Limits of Theory
In the 1930s, smoking was perceived to be
fashionable, stylish – even healthy!
 A German epidemiologist (Dr Franz Müller) found,
through a series of matched-sample studies, that
smoking is associated with a number of serious
 He had no theory. He was not a biologist, so he
did not fully understand all the underlying cause
and effect relationships. But he was very
 So, can he publish? Is there any benefit to
publishing? Or does he have to wait a few years –
and how many people will die in the meantime?
Data before Theory?
Yes, sometimes we need to publish the
data first – and the theory will emerge later.
The effort – to find the cause and effect –
may require the efforts of many
It may be a lifetime’s work
But the data, if carefully presented and
analysed, does have value.
So, the journals have to be open-minded
enough to accept theory-free research.
The Value of Theory?
Theory must always serve the goal of
achieving understanding. Theory is not a
goal in itself.
 Hambrick, 2007
Theory must add value, not take it away
 The path to understanding can be a long
and tortuous one – and so the path to
the appropriate theory as well.
Avison, D.E. and Malaurent, J. (2014) Is Theory King? Questioning the Theory Fetish in
Information Systems, Journal of IT, 29, 4, 327-336.
DeSanctis, G. (1993) Shifting Foundations in Group Support Systems Research, in Jessup, L.M.
and Valacich, J.S. (Eds), Group Support Systems: New Perspectives, Macmillan, New York.
Ghoshal, S. (2005) Bad Management Theories are Destroying Good Management Practices,
Academy of Management Learning and Education, 4, 1, 75-91.
Gregor, S. (2006) The Nature of Theory in Information Systems, MIS Quarterly, 30, 3, 611-642.
Hambrick, D.C. (2007) The Field of Management’s Devotion to Theory: Too Much of a Good
Thing?, Academy of Management Journal, 50, 6, 1346-1352.
Lewin, K. (1945) The Research Center for Group Dynamics at Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, Sociometry 8, 2, 126-136.
Mintzberg, H. (2005) Developing Theory about the Development of Theory, In K.G. Smith and
M.A. Hitt (Eds.), Great Minds in Management: The Process of Theory Development, Oxford
University Press, New York, NY, 355-372.
Olesen, K. and Myers, M.D. (1999) Trying to Improve Communication and Collaboration with
Information Technology, Information Technology & People, 12, 4, 317-332.
Sutherland, J. W. (1975) Systems: Analysis, Administration, and Architecture. New York: Van
Van de Ven, A. (1989) Nothing is Quite so Practical as a Good Theory, Academy of
Management Review, 14, 4, 486-489.
Weick, K.E. (1989) Theory Construction as Disciplined Imagination, Academy of Management
Review, 14, 4, 516-531.

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