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Critiquing the Language of Strategic Management


In the academic specialty of strategy, the corporate sector and the consulting world, strategic theory and practice has become so fragmented and complex, with views as to what represents strategy often being diametrically opposed, that strategy or strategic thinking has often been replaced by an operational focus. Even some highly regarded academics have suggested that firms should no longer practice strategy (Pfeffer & Sutton, 2006). However, some problems with this work become immediately obvious, their book is entitled ‘Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense’ and this title points to problems with semantics and epistemologies. In the chapter on strategy, Pfeffer and Sutton (2006) quote Anne Mulcahy, the CEO of Xerox and how she led her company back from the edge of Bankruptcy. “…the company’s turnaround didn’t really stem from a brilliant strategy. Rather, she asserts, it happened because Xerox’s people worked toward common objectives, especially, pleasing customers, selling products and cutting costs (Pfeffer & Sutton, 2006, p. 145). The authors and their subject appear to be completely unaware that they have enunciated in a simple fashion the Strategy that Xerox undertook. They are confused because they do not know what strategy is. They believe that strategy is some form of Planning, or Positioning process. It is the intention in this series of papers to question some of these central tenets.


The argument is made that it is difficult to expand and develop the scope of the strategy specialty without a clearer consensus of what terms such as strategy, planning, management, and thinking mean. In recent years there has been a growing body of opinion amongst scholars in the field of strategic business management that some of the central tenets of classical strategic theory are no longer as appropriate as they might once have been (Thompson, 1967; Westley & Mintzberg, 1989; Whittington, 1993; Mintzberg, 1994; Hamel & Prahalad, 1995; Camillus, 1996; Hamel, 1996; Kouzmin et al., 1997; Mainwaring, 1997; Mintzberg et al., 1998; Kouzmin & Jarman, 1999; Parker, 2002).



Hussey (1994) suggests that “strategic management suffers from conceptual misunderstandings concealed under a semantic smokescreen” (Hussey, 1994, p. 3). This is because, as the subject develops over time, “new terms are coined to explain new nuances of emphasis, old terms are used in a slightly different way, and because there is no standard dictionary of management terms various authors attach different meanings to each of the various terms” (Hussey, 1994, p. 3).


The problem that this lack of definition creates is, that in trying to assess the strategic process in the literature and in practice, it is often impossible to know exactly what strategic methodology is being expressed (Boyd & Reuning-Elliott, 1998). MacCrimmon (1993) reaches the same conclusion, suggesting that when studying the subject of strategy, one naturally takes the term for granted and consequently has no reason to question whether the concept is meaningful. He concludes that the term does need to be examined if deeper insights are to be made.


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 semantic disagreement between schools, there is often agreement within schools. 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.


It is suggested that some of the problems of nomenclature can be mitigated if the ideas of the strategy scholars are allocated to a frame of ideas. If strategic theory ideas are discussed in a frame where the semantics are similar, then it may be more appropriate to draw conclusions about the ideas of the scholars. In order to understand better the concepts developed by the scholars and practitioners of strategy, a methodology to organise their ideas is required. A frame of schools of strategic thought can be discerned from the literature and several scholars have attempted to organise the ideas into a coherent model, or group of schools. Those with an organisation/management background are: (Chaffee, 1985; Whittington, 1993; McKiernan, 1996; Feurer & Chaharbaghi, 1997; Mintzberg et al.1998) and those from an economics background (Jacobson, 1992, Teece, et al., 1997; Rindova & Fombrun, 1999; Foss, 1999; Phelan & Lewin, 2000). However, much of the academic exploration of strategic management has been conducted in an epistemological paradigm that is essentially Modernist. Parker (2002) suggests that two further paradigms, Postmodernism and Critical Theory, should also be explored. Whilst several scholars have attempted the process of creating an acceptable structure within a Modernist epistemology, little work specific to business strategy has been published in the Postmodern or Critical paradigms (Parker, 2002, p. 123)


Perhaps a better approach than seeking definitions is to allocate the ideas of strategy into a ‘schools’ model and then to describe the ideas of the subject to try to identify the development of the ideas that are accepted and ultimately rejected (at least by some). Strategies must be crafted according to the process that is identified in the Ginter et al. (1985) Model but the process of crafting strategy is not described or defined. In order to appreciate the different ideas from the different schools, a structure is required to facilitate the examination of the strategic concepts. The ideas of the scholars who have attempted this task should be critiqued. The epistemological issues will be discussed in French (2009b) and a schools model in French (2009d).


1 This Hussey (1994) quote requires further emphasis, because when the literature of strategic management is investigated it is often difficult to discern what strategic concepts are being discussed. The terms do need to be examined if deeper insights are to be made.