Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Classic ‘Chicken-and-egg’ Puzzle: Does Theory Lead Practice or Practice Lead Theory?

"In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is."  - Jan L. A. van de Snepscheut

Theory is designed from actual contexts, practice is governed by theory. All practice is rooted in the theory of some kind, in the sense that human behavior is predicated on some kind of cause and effect model that resides somewhere inside one’s brains. We may not be aware of these theories. models, and if asked to imagine them may have considerable difficulty in articulating them, but that does not mean they do not exist, nor do they "go away" or become unnecessary when they become internalized so that it no longer necessary to make explicit reference to them in deciding what to do or how to do it. 

Theory and practice are interactive and interdependent. Both are required. Each is sorely limiting without the other. It may well be that practice preceded theory, but then theory evolved and was used to modify practice and a cycle was initiated. A convincing theory also helps if you want to sell an idea. A practical standard helps if you just want to claim you did the job (independent of results). Some say: Theory = thinking. Practice = doing 

Theory and practice are not opposites -- they are more like orthogonal to one another. A good sense of theory for architecture is "the body of generalizations and principles developed in association with practice in a field of activity and forming its content as an intellectual discipline". The key elements are an ongoing association with reality through inductive reasoning that creates and justifies the abstractions, relationships, patterns, and principles that describe the general elements of the architecture and ongoing deductive reasoning to apply the theory to the practical problem at hand.

If the theory is sound, then it can help the practice achieve repeatability of the outcome. The "theory" of phenomena should always be open to interpretation and understanding of the theory should rightly be questioned, when it fails to account for what actually happens. When looking for results, it is not a question of knowing what the best answer is based on theory, but what actions will lead to desired outcomes that matter.

Theory and practice are inextricably linked. We don't get to decide that one is better or more important than the other. Repeatability re-enforces theory but practice and tinkering is what leads to innovation and insight. It is not a question of which leads (theory or practice) what, but neither can be ignored as both are equally important.

EA framework is the “expression of theory”: If the theory is a 'system of ideas explaining something, based upon general principles independent of the facts', one of the challenges is to establish a vocabulary / terminology that can be used across the organization (not just EA) to describe this theory. In the EA environment, a framework is the expression of "theory". It purports that its use will enable the practitioner to achieve their EA objectives in their enterprise situation. Some frameworks prove more effective than others. Frameworks have varying degrees of completeness, integrity, ease of use, etc

The theory gets developed based on continuous practice improvement. Improvement in practice can be achieved through many different means - self-reflection, sharing of experiences, comparison with a reference model (framework), and formal review by an external party. While strategies value is often offered through a different perspective - that can be experience based, opinion based, analysis based, etc., an alternate perspective offers the opportunity to test one’s perspectives, and then practitioners advance the discipline and develop the new theories.   


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