What is Strategy-As-Practice and why is it important?

What is Strategy As Practice?

We all know what business strategy is, right? But how do you do it? How does strategy get made? How does it get enacted? Who does the making of strategy? Who implements it? When does strategy making happen?

Well, as it turns out, ‘strategy as practice’ (SAP) scholars are working to try and answer these questions and others just like them.

Strategy as practice is a rapidly growing branch of research in the business strategy discipline that seeks to understand how it is that strategists work by focussing on the micro-activities of strategists rather than strategy at the organisational level. Researchers who practice in this field are interested in the micro-practices of strategists as they go about making strategy and how these micro-practices contribute to the creation of organisational strategy. It is a fascinating area of study that accepts a plurality of ideas and methodologies. For example, researchers have looked at the way in which material artefacts influence the creation of strategy including the role that powerpoint has to play in creating strategy, or how the use of everyday objects can help practitioners re-conceptualise important aspects of their organisation and environment, or how the use of “transient plans” (the drafting process of strategic plans) can lead to “…the emergence of new strategies, not just the programming of predefined strategies” (p.291). As the field develops, more and more innovative approaches to examining the strategy making practices emerge.

It should be noted that the strategy as practice field is young. It was first articulated in 1996 by Richard Whittington in his article Strategy As Practice and then brought back to prominence again in 2006 where the question of a practice turn in strategy research was examined. A review of the strategy as practice literature shows that most activity in the field occurred after 2006 – a trend revealed in the frequency of search term “strategy as practice” used on Google. The relative youth of the field means that researchers and practitioners are still trying to figure out what it means to do SAP and this promotes wide-ranging methodological approaches to understanding strategy. This brings a vibrancy to the research agenda and means that debates within the field are vigorous and thought provoking.

It is generally understood that the initial framework constructed by Whittington of “praxis, practices and practitioners” provides a consistent way of defining the unit of analysis that SAP researchers can follow. Praxis refers to the actual micro-activities that strategy practitioners undertake, while practices, on the other hand, “…refer to shared routines of behaviour, including traditions, norms, procedures for thinking, acting and using ‘things’” (p. 619). These practices may have been learned in MBA courses; through reading of the strategy literature; by participating in strategy sessions; or by interacting with other strategists. The point here is that these routines are learned and then performed again at the appropriate times. Finally, the term practitioners refers to “those who do the work of making, shaping and executing strategies” (p.619). What is interesting about this definition is that it doesn’t locate the strategy practitioners at the top of the organisation, but allows for practitioners to be present at all levels of the organisation. This, then, raises the interesting question of whether or not someone who is executing strategy on the front-line thinks of themselves as a strategy practitioner or not. Who makes strategy?

Why is Strategy As Practice Important?

The findings from the strategy as practice research agenda can help practitioners understand better what they are doing and why they are doing it. By focussing closely on the praxis of strategists and uncovering the tacit knowledge embedded within, practitioners can become aware of how what they do is connected to the strategy routines (practices) that they may be unconsciously following. A reflective practitioner will therefore be able to understand how her praxis is unique (or not) and then begin to adjust what they do as part of a larger attempt to create organisational value throughout the strategy making practices that she enacts. From the organisation’s perspective, strategy as practice is important as it helps managers to understand that ‘how we do strategy around here’ can be seen as a unique set of activities that can be examined and potentially developed into a set of core competencies that allow the organisation to succeed in the face of competition.

Understanding the link between what practitioners do and how strategy gets made and executed can give rise to all sorts of creative approaches to managing a business. That’s why the diverse research methodologies adopted by strategy as practice researchers is so important and yet, at the same time, challenging. Strategy as practice researchers are looking at strategy formulation through a new set of conceptual lenses and they are bringing a range of approaches to understanding how strategy gets made. Mostly these approaches are about exploring how strategy gets made; trying to figure out how it gets done; which routines are successful and which less so and why that may be the case and what to do about it. Methods of inquiry are being drawn from across the social sciences and this is providing remarkable results. Empirical studies are being produced that delve into analysing the minutiae of practitioners’ praxis and this in turn is shining a light on the practices that are socially embedded as part of undertaking business strategy. Ultimately, though, as the research progresses, attention will turn to exploiting the findings of the strategy as practice research agenda and managers will be able to make decisions about how they choose to make and support strategy in their organisation.

The research being undertaken by strategy as practice scholars is also driving a renewal of the ways in which we are able to understand strategy and the role it plays in creating value for businesses and society. For example, it appears that there is a turn towards what is becoming to be known as ‘open strategy’. The strategy as practice research agenda has turned a sociological eye upon strategy and the results are sometimes astonishing. By understanding what it is that strategy practioitners do in their day to day praxis, researchers are then able to generate theory that can help exaplin what is going on. The gap between academic and practitioners thus becomes narrowed – practitioners are able to apply and adapt theory that is coming straight out of practice and academics are finding new and better ways to help practitioners understand why what they do works (or not).

That’s why I like researching, practicing and teaching in this particular space. The scope for creativity is large. The questions we can still ask about strategy and how it is done are broad. The opportunity to make a difference in the way organisations understand what they do and how they do it leads us to better outcomes for society.

For me, this is why strategy as practice is important.