Mantere & Vaara on what it takes to get people to contribute to strategy making processes (2008)

I’m reading: Mantere, S. & Vaara, E., 2008. On the problem of participation in strategy: A critical discursive perspective. Organization Science, 19(2), pp.341–358. Available at: http://orgsci.journal.informs.org/cgi/doi/10.1287/orsc.1070.0296

Why is it that people disengage from organisational strategy? What can be done to encourage people to contribute?

Summary: In this paper the authors tackle the issue of non-participation in strategy processes by organisation members. They propose that strategy processes can be viewed through the lens of a critical discourse analysis and it is the way in which people talk about strategy within the organisation that encourages or discourages participation by organisational members. After visiting 12 organisations, interviewing 301 individuals and examining extensive documentation, the authors conclude that there are “…three central discourses that seem to be systematically associated with non-participatory approaches to strategy work…” and "…three strategy discourses that promote participation… This paper sits squarely within the strategy as practice perspective and it helps to explain how some of the micro-practices that occur in strategy making processes can influence organisational outcomes.


Quotes and Notes:

p.341: “While there is no consensus on the degree to which organizational members should participate in strategy formulation, most scholars agree that a lack of participation easily leads to poorly developed strategies (Floyd and Wooldridge 2000), dissatisfaction among those who are excluded (Westley 1990), and consequent difficulties in implementation (Mintzberg 1994).” – Highlighted 2015 Dec9

I don’t think this would surprise anyone who has worked in a large organisation and who has had to suffer through the annual ‘strategy retreat.’ Often at these things the agenda is set by others, individuals have little control over the design or execution of the activities that are required to be done and as the ‘output’ is collated, analysed and summarised by others (usually a ‘facilitator’).

p.342: “…we see discourse as one part of the complex set of social practices constituting strategy as organizational praxis. However, we argue that discourses play a central role in the reproduction and legitimation of participatory or nonparticipatory conceptions of strategy. Discourses are thus an important part of organizational praxis that should be taken seriously if we want to better comprehend the problems and challenges around participation.” – Highlighted 2015 Dec9

There are many ways that a discourse can occur and the different forms offer different affordances. It strikes me that the way an organisation structures its strategy conversations (discourses) will have an impact on the way in which people choose to engage with the process (or not). While the authors, here, are talking about discourse as part of a larger organisational/social milieu, the strategy as practice crowd would argue that the specific micro-practices chosen will matter.

p.342: “Classical strategy literature is based on a managerialist foundation. In the early work, strategy formulation was envisioned as the task of top management. Others were involved only in implementation.” – Highlighted 2015 Dec9

p.343: “We emphasize that the causal powers of discourse are important but that their concrete effects are mediated through cognition and material practices (van Dijk 1998, Fairclough 2005). This means that the concrete effects of strategy discourse are often subtle, difficult to detect, and often pass unnoticed in social life.” – Highlighted 2015 Dec9

This is one of the challenges and critiques of strategy as practice. It’s relatively easy to see how the actions of strategy practitioners affect the setting of organisational strategy, but its much harder to ascribe a cause and effect relationship in terms of organisational performance. This, I suspect will be one of the challenges the authors face in this article – how, exactly, does someone tease out those elements of discourse that are important in effectively designing and executing strategy?

For those interested in how many qualitative interviews it takes to be successful in case study research, you should read this report by Baker and Edwards (2012).

p.343: “Discourses are both socially conditioned and socially constitutive, that is, discourses are influenced by social conditions but also construct social reality (Giddens 1984, Fairclough 2003).Accordingly, language does not merely reflect social reality but is the very means of constructing and reproducing the world as it is experienced. In our present context, strategy discourses not only mirror existing social and material practices but also reproduce and at times transform these practices (Fairclough 2003).” – Highlighted 2015 Dec9

I think this is very important – the ‘act of strategising’ can bring strategies into ‘reality’. If (and this is a big IF) reality is socially constructed and strategists are social actors, then combining techniques from the field of psychology with strategy making – especially in the areas of persuasion – can have significant organisational consequences.

p.344: “All interviews followed a semistructured interview outline. The main idea was to follow a “storytelling” approach, that is, to let the interviewee describe as freely as possible his/her views on strategy (for a similar approach, see Vaara 2002). However, there were specific questions that directed the interviewees’ attention to the key themes of strategy processes and strategizing activities. The questions in the outline focused on the following:• The interviewee’s role in the strategy process and the role of strategy in the interviewee’s daily work (e.g., How do you participate in your organization’s strategy process?).• The interviewee’s conceptions of strategy in general (e.g., What do you understand by the term “strategy”?). • The interviewee’s perception of organizational practices in implementing strategy and their effectiveness (e.g., What kinds of practices are involved in the com-munication of organizational strategy? Do they work?). • The interviewee’s working environment and the impact of strategy in it (e.g., Have there been changes inyour work lately? What kinds of changes?).”– Highlighted 2015 Dec9

p.345: “As is usually the case in this field, our analysis followed an inductive logic (Phillips and Hardy 2002, Wodak and Meyer 2002). This meant an exploratory approach vis-à-vis our data and an attempt to continuously structure the data to form a “grounded” understanding of the phenomena in question. Such a grounded approach is useful for producing “mid-range theory,” high in accuracy and specificity but lower in generality and simplicity (Langley 1999). As this kind of analysis also involves constant input from theory, it may more accurately be described as “abductive,” where “a constant movement back and forth between theory and empirical data is necessary” (Wodak 2004, p. 200).” – Highlighted 2015 Dec9

Mystification:

p.347: “Strategy discourses tend to endow strategy work with special status (Knights and Morgan 1991, Hendry 2000). This can, however, lead to the problematic tendency of “mystification”: the obfuscation of the activity so that its meaning is only open to privileged actors (e.g., Marx 1999, Fairclough 2003).” – Highlighted 2015 Dec17

p.348: “They saw that they were left to do the “dirty work” while their superiors spoke of “grand things.”” – Highlighted 2015 Dec17

p.348: “The notion of an “inner circle” is an illustrative example of assigning specific power to a few “enlightened” leaders: It is their responsibility to produce the strategies. As the interviewee explains, the end result (“one spectacular slide”) was then communicated to others who were not able to challenge the statements, not even given access to the reasoning behind the official strategy statements.” – Highlighted 2015 Dec17

p.348: “Mystification created specific subject positions for the people involved in strategy processes. Those in charge were given a special authority position, resembling what Foucault has called “pastoral power” (Foucault 1982, pp. 213–215). In fact, some top managers in these organizations explicitly portrayed themselves as “preaching the gospel” in the sense of trying to convince others to follow their ideas. Sometimes, the mystifying discourse seemed to serve primarily as an attempt to strengthen the power position of top managers. This could, as in Vignette 1, lead to strategy work that was “grandiose” but “empty of real content.”” – Highlighted 2015 Dec17

Clearly, here, the authors are referring to the process of mystification as one of the discourses that discourage participation by organisational members in strategy processes. This refers back to the historical position of strategy making as the “…task of top management…” (page 342). For a very good overview of the development of the strategy discipline up until the year 2000 I recommend this article by Hoskisson, Hitt, Wan and Yiu (1999).

Disciplining:

p.349: “Discipline denotes the ever-present structures and techniques that govern individuals (Foucault 1994). Importantly, discipline can be both facilitative and constraining. In strategy work, some degree of discipline is probably always needed for meaningful concerted action (see our discussion on the discourses promoting participation). However, here we focus on how discipline may impede participation in strategy work. We define “disciplining” as discursive construction of organizational hierarchies and command structures that impede participation in strategy processes.” – Highlighted 2015 Dec17

p.349: “It was typical in this organization’s strategy discourse to emphasize the ideal of top-down control (e.g., “not collective” and “men in the field,” above).” – Highlighted 2015 Dec17

p.350: “Disciplining means the imposition of clear-cut managerial authority.” – Highlighted 2015 Dec17

This is clearly connected to the discourse of mystification, above. While each of these discourse practices can be thought about and analysed individually, there are clearly areas of overlap. Some discourse practices may serve to reinforce the participation/non-participation effects described.

Technologization:

p.350: “Strategy is often linked to specific systems and technologies. While such technologies may aid participation in some cases, we will focus on the constraining aspects. Drawing on Heidegger (1977) and Foucault (1977), we see “technologization” as a discourse that tends to impede participation by imposing a technological system to govern the activities of individuals.” – Highlighted 2015 Dec17

p.351: “However, in these organizations, the focus was more on the processes of how and why specific missions or visions were “found” or “created,” rather than on the final outcome.” – Highlighted 2015 Dec17

I wrote extensively about this in my thesis. While the authors here have chosen to focus on the negative impacts of technologization on strategy participation, I argue that adopting a clear epistemic technology can assist in strategy making efforts.

Self-Actualization:

p.351: “The process of discovering objectives together was often seen as more important than any final definition of joint aims.” – Highlighted 2015 Dec17

p.351: “We define self-actualization here as a discourse that focuses attention on the ability of people as individuals to outline and define objectives for themselves in strategy work.” – Highlighted 2015 Dec17

p.351: “Strategy as collective mapping.” – Highlighted 2015 Dec17

This is the power of sharing and ‘mapping’ together the strategy ‘landscape’. – Written 2015 Dec17

Dialogization:

p.351: “In many ways, strategy was seen as a collective search for meaning in this organization. Typically, both top managers and operating personnel portrayed strategy as a resource for organization members, useful for making sense of their work in a larger context. In their strategy discourse, the focus was very much on individual reflection on how their specific interests and goals would or would not fit the more overall strategy of the organization.” – Highlighted 2015 Dec17

p.351: “Whereas self-actualization concentrates on the ideal of emancipation, participation can also be promoted through an integration of top-down and bottom-up approaches. By paying attention to the roles and rights of various groups of people to participate in decision making and negotiation, the dialogical view reflects the ideal of organized social dialogue of Habermas (1981).” – Highlighted 2015 Dec17

p.351: “Self-actualization portrays strategy as a search for deeper meaning in the organizational activities. Typically, this involved language describing strategy work as a collective “journey” or a process of collective “mapping,”…” – Highlighted 2015 Dec17

p.351: “Importantly, in this kind of discourse, strategy could only be found through in-depth reflection concerning the identity of the organization and one’s role in it.” – Highlighted 2015 Dec17

Thus, the opposite of ‘mystification’ above. – Written 2015 Dec17

p.352: On the other hand, continuous work to make the strategic ideas and guidelines concrete and transparent was deemed crucial. This included a constant specification of various kinds of action plans in different parts of the organization. Such specifications did not “arrive” from the upper echelons, but were actively “constructed” or “crafted” by practitioners at all levels. In fact, new rules and procedures were often developed by the people engaged in the activities in question. In this sense, strategizing was seen as everyone’s right and responsibility." – Highlighted 2015 Dec17

I wonder if this process was mediated by technology – for example, how did they get so many people to contribute, and as a result, what are the implications given the ‘technologicalisation’ deterrent to participation mentioned above? – Written 2015 Dec17

p.352: “This kind of strategy discourse represents a pragmatic way of allowing for participation and different views. Interestingly, in most of our cases involving strong dialogical elements, the authority position of top management was not challenged. On the contrary, it was often taken for granted that corporate management would play a central role in outlining the overall objectives. However, at the same time neither was the right of the organizational members at various levels to participate in strategy work questioned. In fact, it was most often seen as a requirement for effective collective decision making. In some cases, dialogical elements had become an institutionalized part of organizational decision making. However, in many cases, such dialogue was not reality but something that specific persons spoke for to promote participation.” – Highlighted 2015 Dec17

Concretization:

p.352: “Concretization is a pragmatic discourse that seeks to establish clear processes and practices in and through strategizing to ensure meaningful social and organizational action. This kind of facilitative discipline is needed to create a sense of “ontological security” for the people involved in strategy work (Giddens 1984, Mantere 2005). However, concretization also serves to demystify ambiguous and vague practices that often impede participation.” – Highlighted 2015 Dec17

Hmmm. Concretisation sounds an awful lot to me like technologization – which indicates that these terms are still not clearly defined. Both concretization and technologization can be used in positive, as well as negative, ways. I believe that strategising is a deeply human process that requires considerable, deliberately practiced, skills by individuals. Let’s take the concept of ‘timing’ for example: an idea, carefully constructed, yet shared at the wrong time, can fall flat. The same idea, shared with less élan, but at the right moment, can garner considerable support.

p.353: “Mystification, disciplining, and technologization are the very means through which hegemony is established and legitimized in strategy work.” – Highlighted 2015 Dec17

"Hegemonic” = top down; leader led. – Written 2015 Dec17

p.353: These discourses are not the only factors having an impact on actual participation or nonparticipation in our case organizations (e.g., Westley 1990, Floyd and Wooldridge 2000). Rather, they play an important role as a part of the organizational praxis (Whittington 2006): the widespread use of these discourses reproduces and legitimizes concrete participatory or nonparticipatory social and material practices in organizations. These discursive effects are, however, usually subtle and often pass unnoticed in organizational interaction (Samra-Fredericks 2003, 2005).As our case analysis shows, taken-for-granted assumptions are easily legitimized and naturalized in organizations to the extent that it becomes very different to think or act otherwise. This is the very reason why we need to pay special attention to discourses when dealing with participation." – Highlighted 2015 Dec17

p.355: “However, organizational members may also resist managerial hegemony and exclusive modes of participation. As is vividly shown in our first three vignettes, this can involve distancing and cynical attitudes. The problem is that while such resistance does not legitimize managerial hegemony, it does reproduce nonparticipation. That is, the cynical managers or organizational members easily become sidelined in strategy work and reproduce such exclusion by their own resistance.” – Highlighted 2015 Dec17

p.355: “This is a significant observation as it helps us to understand how hegemonic strategy processes may become self-destructive in contexts calling for wide organizational support.” – Highlighted 2015 Dec17

p.355: “As Table 3 illustrates, the ways in which information is spread, meetings and workshops are organized, technologies are used, or control is exercised are the very practices that discourses can reproduce or legitimize.” – Highlighted 2015 Dec17

p.355: “While a lack of participation is not always a problem in organizations, it is widely acknowledged that a lack of engagement often tends to decrease the quality of strategic planning and create various kinds of problems for the implementation of strategic plans (Westley 1990, Floyd and Wooldridge 2000, Balogun and Johnson 2004, Laine and Vaara 2007).” – Highlighted 2015 Dec17

This article strengthens the claim the strategy as practice advocates make: that the study of the micro-practices of strategists can shed light upon what is often considered a ‘black-box’ activity. However it falls short, I feel, along with much of the strategy as practice literature in explaining exactly what the mechanisms are that contribute to successful strategy making. Nevertheless, paying attention to the ways that strategy is (socially) constructed can assist reflective practitioners to identify, experiment and notice what works and what doesn’t.