French by immersion or study? The epistemological dichotomy in management teaching.

3 02 2009

In two previous posts I have dipped into the debate regarding teaching of management. One of the papers I read this week has been “The Nature of Knowledge in Business Schools” by Chia and Holt has been the hardest read since the closing chapters of War and Peace. Trust me on this one; once you get to the end of the story itself, forget the philosophy!

The central theme of the paper is that there are two types of  teaching in management:

  1. knowledge by representation
  2. knowledge by exemplification

In the former there is emphasis on episteme and techne, generally held in western philosophy as the pinnacles of knowledge. Episteme is the concept that management is scientific, explicit  and universal and so can be defined and recorded  by concepts or theories. Techne then measures and quantifies that behaviour such that together management may be taught by learning of theories and their effect; knowledge by representation.

Chia and Holt  suggest that this method of teaching is the basis of sterility in the practice of management highlighted by many but crystalised by (amongst others) Mintzberg, Bennis and Ghoshal. Whilst the models and descriptions provided are elegant and seem apposite, the thrust of thought is that this teaching does not represent the reality of existence merely the reality of the teaching. It isn’t real but it, in itself, becomes the reality.

Conversely the authors suggest that teaching knowledge by exemplification will move away from the sterility of the academic approach taken into practice and supplant that with skilled and quintessentially practical managers. Surely the consummation devoutly to be wished?

So what is this knowledge taught by exemplification? It speaks of a knowing garnered by living, the practice of management defined by phronesis and by metis. Phronesis is the learning that happens by being an active part of something and internalising that practice without reference to a formal structure or knowledge. Metis is the use of that knowledge with subtlety and flair.

It strikes me that this may be what it is like learning a new language. In knowledge by representation, we seek episteme and techne beginning with simple phrases and vocabulary but building through grammatical rules, lessons on declension and subjunction and tenses and vocabulary until we have a rigid knowledge and but ultimately stilted French. Contrast that to the small child who is thrown into a foreign country and learns the language rapidly. With no knowledge, perhaps even no reading or writing skills, but by immersion, the child soon speaks with a fluency and flair beyond that of study. This is the phronesis and metis of learning by exemplification.


This language of fluency and relevance is surely what is required in the conversation of management. Defining it is one thing, but can it be taught?


The Nature of Knowledge in Business Schools Robert Chia and Robin Holt. The Academy of Management Learning and Education (AMLE) Issue: Volume 7, Number 4 / December 2008 Pages: 471 – 486




4 responses

4 02 2009

maybe the point is it can’t be taught (bad news for academics) but experiences can be facilitated and reflected upon (throw learner into new environment, follow up with coaching or supervision)…. to be continued?

4 02 2009

thank you for the comment

to be continued i’m sure!

i suspect, as with so many of these things, it is fair enough to theorise but the reality is slightly different. in practice however we must accept that probably the vast majority of managers are in fact uneducated in management prior to commencing but do go on to perform at least passably in thei roles. moreover, there must be a group who go on to excel, again without the formal education.

does this therefore lend more weight to the idea of such courses being designed for those with some experience that might be honed by those greater experience? (intentional non use of the word “knowledge”)

4 02 2009

I can’t comment very much on the managment side, but have a fair understanding of the learning the new language bit. I think (and that works for me with most things, not just language) that a mixed approach might be the solution here. You may need a bit of solid (boring) knowledge to start with and a bit of just watch and see what others do. But you will never learn it propperly until you are forced to use it, make your own mistakes, get laughed at and grow with it.

So may be, as so often in life, there is no right or wrong, no black or white, just a bit of gray in the middle.

4 02 2009

Thanks B.

That said, I’m sure your boys spoke two languages before they could read and write and could easily switch from one to the other. And their learning would be more rapid and ultimately more fluent than yours was it not?

as for the gray? i’ve just got that at the sides so far, none in the middle!

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