Blog of the GREITM resarch group, with a focus on generation and dissemination of knowledge in Innovation, IT Management and Entrepreneurship. 

29 June 2022 | Posted by Editorial Team GREITM

Generating theories by abduction in Collaborative projects

Juan Nihoul, Ph.D. student at GREITM, examined how abductive reasoning could help to generating new management theories.

Introduction

In a volatile, complex and uncertain world, the need for generating management theories to explain unusual problems encountered in rapidly changing organizations, has never been greater. Two main traditional reasoning modes -such as deductive or inductive- have been extensively applied to management research. However, other approaches might also help us to generate theories and plausible explanations of abnormal social phenomenon, which is called “abductive research”.

Abductive research

“Deductive, inductive, and abductive reasoning each have a role to play in understanding the world” (Kay & King, 2020), and as our world becomes more dynamic, interconnected, and uncertain the role of abductive reasoning becomes increasingly important (Saetre, 2021). Generating theory by deduction implies moving from general principles to specific instances, if the major and minor premises are both true, the conclusion must be true. In an inductive approach we move from specific instances towards general principles, in which we find probabilistic functions about the relationship between variables. In the first one, we “validate” theories based on logical validity, while in the second one, based on empirical trust. For instance, we might hypothesize that all balls are white, and all the balls are in the table, we therefore conclude all the balls in the table are white, following a deductive reasoning. On the other hand, we are walking on the table, and we only see white balls, therefore we infer that all the balls on the table are white.        

However, reality is much more complex to understand, and we need different reasoning modes to explain what is happening in the world. In this way, what happen if we see a black ball on the table? This would be an anomaly, that would reject the hypothesis of deductive reasoning and would limit the generalizability on inductive reasoning. Anomaly means a novel or unexpected phenomenon that cannot be explained or is poorly understood using existing knowledge. We use an abductive approach as a systematic method of generating explanations based on creativity that at the end, ends up with plausible explanations of what happen in this anormal case. Peirce (1998) noted that “deduction proves that something must be, induction shows that something actually is, and abduction merely suggests that something may be” That is, deduction is a logical process, induction is an empirical process, and abduction is a generative process. 

Generating theories by abduction in Collaborative projects

Collaborative projects -developed by a consortium of companies from different sectors with different backgrounds- are considered one of the main vehicles to foster innovation and technology transfer from universities to the society. In this type of project, each partner understands information, tasks and goals differently and also, they have different interests and implications in the project. The diversity of interpretations and perspectives helps to generate more innovative and novel ideas. On the other hand, this diversity produces also tensions and conflicts between partners, and to some extent, might lead the project to fail. According to the literature, misunderstandings (called as equivocality) produced by the diversity of perspectives, reduce the collaborative capacity of the team and the performance of the project.   

However, there are other cases, considered as anomalies, in which these misunderstandings act as the trigger for learning, leading to a better collaboration between partners. Therefore, following an abductive approach, we aim to provide plausible explanations of what is happening in these cases. This approach enables as to be creative and to apply theories from different knowledge areas -such as complex systems- far from the traditional project management body of knowledge.    

Conclusion

By increasing our understanding of these cases, we contribute to practitioners (such as project managers) with a set of explanations and good practices that have led some projects (anomalies) to succeed. That is possible thanks to the novel method of abduction, where we generate plausible explanations of the complex reality of the world.   

Authors: Juan Nihoul & GREITM editorial team

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