"If a man starts noticing ANYthing, there is no telling what he mayn't notice next." (Ezra Pound)
A common reason that editors and reviewers give for rejecting a manuscript is that its "theoretical contribution" is either unclear or non-existent. They may grant that the subject matter is relevant and even that the empirical material is interesting, but the paper is unpublishable because it does not "make a contribution to theory development", as the phrase goes. This criticism is worth taking seriously. And to do that we must understand what it means.
The Academy of Management Review is probably the most highly regarded place for publishing theory in the managerial sciences. It is special in that it allows purely theoretical or "conceptual" work, i.e., work that does not present empirical results. But even the other major journals, such the Administrative Science Quarterly or the Academy of Management Journal only publish research that carries a significant theoretical punch. That punch is the subject of this post.
While they were editors of AMR, David Whetten and Martin Kilduff each wrote a brief statement of what counts as a theoretical contribution. (Here are links to PDFs of Whetten 1989 and Kilduff 2006.) I prefer Kilduff's because it is more current and more practical than Whetten's. But both give you a good sense of what theory means for management scholars.
It may surprise you to learn that "the route to good theory leads not through gaps in the literature but through an engagement with problems in the world that you find personally interesting" (Kilduff 2006: 252). This is a very important point. Although theory development rarely succeeds in isolation from the writings of our your peers, a mere gap in the literature, i.e., the fact that your peers have not previously theorized a particular phenomenon, is not, in and of itself, an occasion for theoretical work. There is no merely "formal" justification for a theoretical paper, and the best way to be sure that you have a substantial contribution to make is to ask yourself whether you find your own conclusions interesting, not whether your peers should find them interesting.
That said, a theoretical contribution is precisely a contribution to the form, not the substance, of research. One (non-theoretical) thing that a good research paper does is to inform readers about what is going on in the world of (in our case) management practice. But, in order to transmit information, the sending and receiving station must agree about the form that the communication takes. A theoretical contribution is one that reconfigures, if sometimes only slightly, those protocols. A theoretical contribution transforms the way we look at things and the way we talk about them.
This is why Kilduff emphasizes those "problems in the world". You cannot contribute to theory if you don't have something to say about what is going on "out there" in real life. Our theories need to be transformed in so far as our current theories are unable to grasp the problems that managers deal with today. Your theoretical contribution is the change you are demanding in the way your reader understands empirical information. This is true even in purely theoretical articles where you don't, properly speaking, present empirical results. Likewise, even "purely empirical" work needs to have some implicit impact on how we see things. After reading your paper, your readers should begin to notice things they hadn't noticed before.