verbal theorizing, the mike ryall challenge and ezra zuckerman

So, the most provocative presentation (easily) at this year’s UTAH-BYU Winter Strategy Conference was given by Mike Ryall (University of Toronto).  Mike argued that “verbal theorizing” has problems, serious problems.  He reiterated the Ryall Challenge (originally issued at last year’s AOM session on the Strategy Research Initiative, SRI), for any scholar to submit a natural language paper that meets the following criteria:

  1. Unambiguous – meaning does not vary from scholar to scholar.
  2. Rigorously derived – conclusions logically consistent with premises.
  3. Measurable – empirically refutable.
  4. Plausible – consistent with researcher’s priors.

OK, so, it’s hard to disagree with the need for increased clarity, fine.  Yes, jargon can be a problem.

But, ambiguity and grand theorizing also leave room for additional work – thankfully so.  And jargon in fact can be a very efficient way to communicate.  In short, I think the Ryall Challenge is sort of meaningless, it seems to unfairly use the criteria of formal modeling to assess natural language theorizing.  Of course both types of work have their purposes.  When pushed, Mike does not seem to deny this either (see his last slide).

In fact, I think we might live in the best of all possible worlds (which is always the alternative hypothesis) – we have people who do more “ambiguous,” natural language-type theorizing, others model, others do empirical work of various sort, mixed-methods, etc.  These approaches complement each other.  And the good stuff floats to the top, gets attention, cited, etc.  Put differently, the market — over time — sorts the wheat from the chaff.

Now, it gets more interesting.  Ezra submitted a paper to try to meet the Ryall Challenge, his RSO paper “Speaking with One Voice: A Stanford School” Approach to Organizational Hierarchy.”

In the presentation, Mike spent quite a bit of time thrashing unpacking the verbal argument in Ezra’s paper.  Mike wrote a paper-length response to Ezra, Ezra is responding and each is posting their respective responses onto their web site.  I told Mike that we’d be thrilled to have him and Ezra guest blog on this issue.

Here are Mike’s slides (the sanitized, public version).

UPDATE – here are some additional resources related to Mike’s presentation.  The SRI Strategy Reader.  A list of the two dozen+ top, mid-career strategy scholars involved in SRI.  Upcoming, joint SRI and Administrative Science Quarterly paper development workshop.

Written by teppo

February 26, 2011 at 6:04 pm

11 Responses

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  1. Can you repost those slides? They don’t seem to be a proper file.


    Joshua Gans

    February 26, 2011 at 6:14 pm

  2. The Ryall challenge gives too much credit to formal theorizing. The meaning of formal theorizing isn’t unambigious, because there exist many mappings from variables in the model to objects in the world, and one can also take a model more or less literally.

    I say this as a practitioner of formal theorizing.



    February 26, 2011 at 7:04 pm

  3. Does Ryall’s paper meet his own criteria? If not, why does he think we should pay any attention to it?



    February 26, 2011 at 7:56 pm

  4. Thanks – I fixed both links.



    February 26, 2011 at 9:18 pm

  5. Teppo, the link still doesn’t work for me.

    What bugs me about Mike’s general position (as expressed elsewhere) is that he doesn’t seem to realize these issues have been argued ad nauseam by philosophers of science for decades. There’s, like, a whole academic field dedicated to these issues, and the consensus is exactly the opposite of Mike’s view — namely, that formal methods are neither better nor worse, per se, than informal theorizing, according to the Ryall Criteria. Mike is just rehashing the (somewhat shallow) arguments offered by neoclassical economists from Walras to Samuelson to the present, without offering any new insight (or even recognizing that these are tired, old debates).


    Peter Klein

    February 26, 2011 at 10:43 pm

  6. What Peter said.



    February 27, 2011 at 12:42 am

  7. OK, slides can now be viewed (sorry!).



    February 27, 2011 at 2:31 am

  8. As a non-philosopher os science, I wonder how an equation, say x+y=z can be any clearer than its verbal equivalent when the terms (x, y, z) must be defined in plain words at some point anyway. To me, they are the mathematical equivalent of jargon – they save time, space and repetition to the initiated but do not incorporate less ambiguity than its natural language equivalent.



    February 27, 2011 at 4:48 pm

  9. I was thinking almost the same thing as “Reader”:

    One thing you (hopefully) learn while on the road to getting a Ph.D. is the concept of Operational Definitions. Without them, the research that follows is, at best, self-referential. It is the use of operational definitions that allows a new piece of research to be compared, contrasted, etc. _meaningfully_ with the body of work done previous.


    Mike Nomad

    February 28, 2011 at 10:28 pm

  10. My work on rent appropriation has been criticized as being less rigorous than Mike’s related work. However, the unrealistic assumptions in cooperative game theory take their toll as well. I am convinced that both approaches to theory development are absolutely necessary.

    Here is what I wrote about the limitations of cooperative game theory in exploring rent appropriation (SMJ, 2010):

    “The cooperative game theory literature posits that a stakeholder’s ability to appropriate rent depends on the potential value of alternative coalitions (DeFontenay & Gans, 2008; Lippman & Rumelt, 2003a; MacDonald & Ryall, 2004). Thus, a stakeholder’s ability to appropriate rent depends on the value that could be created by the next best configuration of stakeholders. This approach has two important limitations for the purposes of this essay. First, the models are static in that they are not designed to explore how the value of different coalitions might change as a capability emerges. For example, a given stakeholder may be essential early in the development of a capability but, having made his or her contribution, may not be needed later. A second limitation is that the approach assumes the value of all possible stakeholder combinations is known – there are no knowledge asymmetries. Since this essay explicitly explores dynamic knowledge asymmetries, it marks a significant departure from this literature.”

    Eventually, cooperative game theory may incorporate these critical facets. However, I feel that the challenge from verbal theory is needed to prompt those advances.



    March 3, 2011 at 8:08 pm

  11. […] you have seen Mike present, you’ll know that he has an opinion (we posted about this earlier this year).  […]


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