Paula Jarzabkowski (Cornell University/University of Aston)
In discussion at SAP conferences and workshops, the question often arises; ‘is this strategy?’ This is particularly the case when papers deal with actors outside the C-suite and phenomena outside strategic planning, strategic decision-making and formally designated strategic change programmes. That is, outside those phenomena that the organisation itself labels as strategic and those actors who are either designated by others, or self-identify, as strategists.
On the one hand this query is relevant. If we go beyond what can clearly be labeled as strategy, we run the risk that everything, and hence nothing, is strategy. However, if we look at the broad remit of the SAP movement and some of the initial and recent agenda-setting papers, it is clear that the field set out to do more than apply a practice lens to the usual suspects and existing strategy phenomena. For example, Whittington et al (2003, Journal of Management Inquiry) identify a wide range of producers and consumers of the strategy discourse whose role in strategy-making is critical but under-explored, including gurus, ratings agents, and consultants that could not be considered strategists by traditional definitions. At the other end of the spectrum Johnson et al (2003, Journal of Management Studies) advocated a focus on the micro activities of people who do strategy inside organisations. Their criteria, consistent with that of Hendry (2000, Journal of Management Studies) is those activities that shape the survival of the firm, many of which may not be labelled as strategic, particularly a priori. Indeed, even in the strategy process tradition from which some strategy-as-practice research stems, it is hard to believe that Burgelman’s (1983, Administrative Science Quarterly) project managers at Intel would have been either labelled or have self-identified as strategists.
Yet, as Jarzabkowski et al (2007, Human Relations) noted, most SAP studies still examine actors at the C-suite level, or those middle managers with clearly defined roles in strategic planning and strategic change. Hence, there are still few studies that examine other types of actors, such as those outside the firm (Jarzabkowski & Spee, 2009, International Journal of Management Reviews). Furthermore, because of our dominant focus on activities obviously labeled as strategic, we still have insufficient explanations of strategic emergence (Vaara & Whittington, 2012, Academy of Management Annals). This is partially an ontological problem, as there are few accessible theoretical frameworks with which to conceptualize emergence. It is also a methodological problem because an emerging unit of analysis cannot be precisely defined in advance. Indeed, if we adopt practice perspectives on strategy without design (Chia & Holt, 2009, Strategy Without Design, CUP), and strategic activities as practical coping (Chia & Mackay, 2007, Human Relations), then it will be nearly impossible to identify in advance which actors and activities are strategic. Rather, it will be necessary to immerse in phenomena that seem to be important to the firm, and examine what emerges.
Meeting the SAP remit to broaden the phenomena of interest and the explanations for strategic outcomes beyond the usual suspects and typical activities thus remains challenging. A first step in rising to this challenge may be to acknowledge the limitations of ill-defined units of analyses and partial theories, and to press on regardless, in order to develop studies that bridge the links between activities that are seemingly inconsequential at their origin, and yet strategic in their impact.