The Value of Experience

Experience by itself teaches nothing… Without theory, experience has no meaning. Without theory, one has no questions to ask. Hence, without theory, there is no learning.

― W. Edwards Deming, The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education

fAnd yet I routinely hear people declare “I’ve been doing this for 30 years!” Experience is particular; shaped by chance causes; unique to an individual. It by itself cannot be generalized. To do that you need theory.

Theory links “what” (experience) to “how” (process). It can be tested in diverse circumstances. If it produces expected outcomes, it is useful. It can be shared and used with confidence. Theory builds understanding. Shared understanding, not shared experience, leads to individual empowerment, personal responsibility and accountability, and cooperation.

Declarations like that above are nothing more than chest-thumping meant to discourage inquiry and end debate. Instead of building faith they further mistrust. They ask obedience not understanding. They are an exercise of power and authority. Territorial. Protectionist.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that people who appeal to experience alone have no credibility with me. I view them as ignorant and hold them in the lowest possible regard.

4 responses

  1. Shriknant, I agree that experience by itself, teaches nothing. But this does not mean that everyone who has experience does not theory. What about the correlary, he who has only data without theory teaches nothing also. Where the problem lies is with those who overdepend on experience without theory and data to back it up, and those who over depend on data without theory and data to back it up. Each is a one legged stool.

    1. Hi Daniel,

      Sincerely, I’m not sure if you were responding to Dr. Deming’s quote or to my essay.

      Still, I believe we’re saying the same thing: whether it is experience or data, they are both outcomes of some process. They by themselves, without an understanding of the underlying process, have nothing to teach. Is this what you are saying?

      I couldn’t agree with you more that not everyone with experience is without theory. But those are the rare few in my experience. (And I have a theory about that.)


      1. Shrikant, my point is to address your article further to managers with no experience. As I see it they too can have no theory.

      2. Hi Daniel,

        That is so true. Most managers I have worked for or those I know have defaulted into the role of a manager. None of them understand what their job is. When challenged, they proclaim their years long experience doing something. They have no theory because they were never taught it.

        I appreciate your comments. Thank you.


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