top of page

PhD - Reframing Strategic Thinking: Emergence Beyond the "Box"

A 'Critical Management Study'


Business strategy is a complicated matter. A considerable amount of academic and practitioner effort has been invested in the subject since the end of the World War II, and yet a consensus of opinion is lacking. In this thesis, I argue that there are three fundamental issues that must be examined in order to resolve the conundrums of business strategy. First, the semantics; second, the structures; and, third, the epistemology and ontology of the subject.


A lack of specific definitions of the terminology of strategy has led to a problem with determining what type of strategy is being undertaken. Several schools of thought with different opinions about the nature and conduct of strategy can be discerned from the literature. While there is considerable disagreement between schools, there is often agreement within schools. The issue of semantics is important because when reviewing the literature of business strategy it is often extremely hard to ascertain exactly what strategic process is being described and consequently it is very difficult to assess the efficacy of the strategic process.


The ideas of the different schools of thought are often sophisticated and in many cases the schools are in complete disagreement. For scholars of strategy, this disagreement presents little difficulty. An environment of robust debate and disagreement may be very healthy but for practitioners the various different strategic methodologies present obstructions. For the small business principal, who generally lacks tertiary business education, the sophisticated debate has passed them by and consequently there is no model of the strategic process that they can access.


In order to appreciate the different ideas from the different schools, a structure is required to facilitate the examination of the strategic concepts. I discuss the ideas of several scholars who propose specific structures and then justify a seven-school model, for which there is evidence in the literature.


The current dominant ways of thinking, debating and teaching about management and economic theory are squarely based on Newtonian notions of efficient and formative causality in which good enough long-term prediction is possible. This is what allows the classical concepts of Plan/Control Theory to work. The efficacy of the whole process of choosing objectives, goals, and visions, which in philosophical terms is known as Rationalist Teleology, in order to be ‘in control’, is totally dependent on the foundation of predictability. If a system’s specific long-term behaviour is unpredictable, then setting specific goals for it is a questionable activity. In the current turbulent business environment long-term prediction may not be possible (Stacey, 2000). Complexity Theory models lead to the conclusion that long-term states cannot be predicted, making it impossible for humans to stay in control. If Complexity Theory does have relevance to human action, then the current dominant ways of thinking about management are severely undermined.


The seven-school model is re-structured to include consideration of the epistemological and ontological ideas extant in the literature. Two philosophical paradigms are considered—the first based on system theory and the second on epistemological considerations. An argument is made that almost all the academic work extant in the literature of strategic management is embedded in a Modernist epistemology.


Parker (2002: 106) describes a Modernist world as one that is “knowable and certain ‘machineries of judgment’ guarantee some form of certainty about the entities and relations within it”. Much of the work of Modernist scholars can be seen as “an attempt to develop knowledge about how we and others should behave through employing some version of the scientific method”. The scientific method is employed in understanding the ideas of each of the first five of the schools of strategy. The scientific method is also required to understand some of the ideas of the seventh school, Emergence. However, the Modernist concept that all things are knowable is not rational in the Complex System paradigm within which non-linear ideas of emergence occur. In a Complexity paradigm, answers to questions such as what the future might be like cannot always be known. There are other epistemological philosophies that cannot be constrained by the creation of the system boundaries that are necessary to contain the Positive ideas within the first schools concept. In the wider literature of organisation theory, two bodies of knowledge are understood that require a different epistemological approach to the schools model: Postmodernism and Critical Theory, especially Critical Management Studies (CMS).


Postmodern and Critical epistemological ideas are discussed and a proposal is made that Complexity Theory and CMS are congruent with the ideas of Emancipatory Action Research and the philosophical ‘anti-managerial’ constructs that are identified in this thesis. As a result, an Emancipatory Action Research methodology is applied.


Complexity Theory in a ‘Critical’ epistemological paradigm is explored, particularly the concept of emergence. A Complexity Theory of Emergence is applied to firms and justified by applying von Bertalanffy’s (1969) Isomorphic Laws of Related Systems. Emergent strategy is appended to a hybrid model of strategic management. A system of strategic thinking is created (the deductive frame) and two hundred and sixty small business principals participate in seminars where they use the new strategic frame to generate strategy for their firms. The premise is that small business principals rely on superior operational skills to run their business. They know little or nothing of the content or conduct of strategy. To make the ideas of the strategy scholars accessible to small business principals, a model of strategy is required. Consequently a research aim is developed: To examine critically the theory of business strategy and reframe strategic thinking in order to develop and test a viable small business strategic process.


To achieve this aim strategic thinking is reframed. An Inductive Frame is created to develop a model to help small business principals understand the need to think strategically about their business. The concept that better strategy can be generated if answers are found to quality questions rather than quality solutions found for poorly posed questions is examined. A Deductive Frame of fundamental questions is created based on this concept and finally a Reflective Frame, which is ‘critically anti-management’, provides the mechanism for the Inductive and Deductive Frames to be applied to small business.


Thus, strategic thinking is (Critically) reframed and emergence explored beyond the (Modernist and Postmodernist) “box” of traditional strategic management.

bottom of page