Theory and Practice

Marketing chair offers insight culled from a 25-year search for balance

Theory and practice. Professors live in both worlds, especially professors in a college of business. Dividing up the world between theory and practice takes most of our time. While considering this split, I reviewed the things I have done in my career in industry and as a professor of marketing looking for patterns and some transferable insight.

BeliefsI believe we ought, wherever possible, to measure our output. We should do this even when the measurement is imperfect and partial. We should make decisions based on measurement rather than prior belief. This is arguable, and some would say that we should only measure things for which we have ideal measures. Some decision makers might even say that their faith in the outcome is so strong that measurement is a waste of resources or that that taking a measure of results indicates a lack of confidence. I am not one of that group.

I believe that it is possible to consider location and its implications better when we make business decisions. We, too frequently, assume it away. The phrase we learn in Economics, ceteris paribus - everything else being equal, too frequently covers locational decisions.

I believe that people are different, but that it is possible to make some sense of the differences. Marketers tend to share this belief. It leads them to the concept of target markets. Professors hear about and react to the concept of different learning styles. I try to avoid the extremes of assuming that everyone is like me and shares my tastes and its opposite, the assumption that everyone is so different that no comparison is valid.

Areas of InterestThese beliefs have shaped my research and teaching to a large extent. As a bank marketing researcher and a financial economist, I published and did research in the area of bank location theory and practice. As a survey researcher I worked to try to reduce bias in surveys of financial assets and to improve my skills in questionnaire design. Finally, because I was personally interested in the differences between individuals and because St. Thomas was a center of research and practice surrounding the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator when I came here in 1981, I have worked with my colleague Sally Power in applying that instrument to our students.

Business is an applied discipline. To be useful to practitioners, theory must lead to improved decisions. It must avoid the opposite ends of the spectrum of, at the one end, elaboration of the obvious and at the other extreme, the Ivory Tower where reality is a stranger. If we set the right balance, there is no need to apologize for theory. Theory provides the skeleton for practice to put the meat on.

I believe that marketing courses can be enriched by a discussion of theory, and because of my personal interests, I favor discussion of location theory. From location theory to retailing is a small step for me. I think that retailing can add special value in the marketing classroom, since we all have firsthand knowledge of it.

As a survey researcher, I believe that survey research can reduce our ignorance and add valuable information to the making of decisions. Survey research is a perfect example of the marriage of a craft and a set of theories. Areas such as question wording and response maximization are from the artistic and craft side, and sampling and determining the significance of results are from the scientific and theoretical side. I have enjoyed conducting, with my colleague Dave Brennan, the annual Holiday Shopping Survey of the Twin Cities, which combines several of my interests.

I believe that there is enduring truth in schemes such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Hermann Brain Dominance Instrument for describing and dealing with differences between people. We are in error when we reduce them to fads and run after the next blinding insight before we absorb the value of the last one. We should improve them, not replace them.

Impact on StudentsI believe that insights from retailing and location analysis can enrich the experience for students and that my classes are improved when I provide a specific point where theory and practice meet. These insights also provide a place where students can see how to make decisions based on data, rather than on prior assumptions alone. Of course, my colleagues may have different interests and insights and they may choose to enrich their classes according to their interests. My fondness for survey research and mathematical modeling allows me to pursue these things in the classroom. A realization that people differ in interesting and describable ways helps in teaching and also in my chores as a department chair.

The Business CommunityThese preferences and styles of problem solving make their way, I hope, into the business community in two ways. When I am asked by businesses to consult with them on a business problem, my sensibilities and preferences apply directly. When businesses hire St. Thomas graduates whom I have taught, I like to think that some of their practices have been affected by what I taught them.

I have been an avid fan of the television show "Star Trek." On the show, Brent Spiner's character, Commander Data, has an evil twin, Lore. The two are opposites in many ways and their conflict was highlighted in several episodes of the show. I am sure that the writers were amused by the contrast between Data and Lore, the concrete and verifiable and the emotional and intuitive. I seek for a balance between data and lore and suggest that we might be better with more data and less lore.

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