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Exploring the House Built on Sand!


Few writers have attempted the task of organising the ideas of business strategy into a coherent model. The background of the scholars who have attempted this task fall broadly into two categories; those from a management-organisation theory background (Chaffee, 1985; Whittington, 1993; McKiernan, 1996; Feurer & Chaharbaghi, 1997; Mintzberg et al., 1998) and those from an economic theory background based on the ‘Economic Theory of the Firm’ (Jacobson, 1992; Teece et al., 1997; Rindova & Fombrun, 1999; Foss, 1999; Phelan & Lewin, 2000).


The frame of ideas of each of these groups of scholars is discussed. The conclusion is drawn that none of the models or concepts developed is adequate to explain strategic theory from a Critical Humanist (French, 2008b) epistemological perspective.


The Management/Organisation Theory ideas:

As time passes and the strategic process is analysed and investigated by more and more scholars, there appears to be a recognition of the need to delineate ideas. In response the above mentioned scholars have developed various models or descriptions. However the process has become politicised to a certain extent. Kippenberger (1998, p. 11) reviews the work of Henry Mintzberg and maintains that “Henry Mintzberg leaves his audience in little doubt about his opinion of other peoples work. Although these three schools [the Classical schools] are, measured by the literature, by far the biggest, it is clear that he does not hold them in particularly high esteem. Partly this is his own prejudice against those who prescribe a theoretical ideal rather than research what actually happens in practice. And partly it may be his frustration that their very success means that other interesting possibilities remain unexplored”. In addition there is very little congruence between the ideas of the organisational-management scholars and the economists, despite the epistemological paradigm within which their ideas are set, both being Modernist.


Mintzberg et al. (1998) clearly see the debate as politicised with Mintzberg (1991) and Ansoff (1991) dueling intellectually in the academic press. McKiernan (1996, p. xiii) also recognises the political problems associated with delineating ideas when he declares that “…in a multidisciplinary area like strategic management, any consensus is likely to be limited”. In this paper, the ideas of the scholars are discussed and some consensus is sought. As the Mintzberg et al. (1998) work is the most extensive, it is used as the starting point, but it is important to emphasise that all of these ideas are set in a Modernist paradigm. None of the writers, with the possible exception of Chaffee (1985), who’s third school may require a different epistemological paradigm, discuss the need to explore strategy in the context of different epistemologies. There is no attempt in this paper to discuss at length the ideas of the different schools of the different scholars, but to explore the structures of the ideas. This is necessary because the semantics of the strategy subject have become so differentiated that rather than debate endlessly over definitions, congruence is sought in the ideas of the differing scholars (French 2008a).



If we are to practice strategy, we must completely ignore the background noise that derives from economic theory and concentrate on the ideas of the management and organization scholars. The argument is made (French 2009a) that one possible method to mitigate the problem of definition of the terms in the strategy lexicon may be to assign the ideas into a philosophical framework. The ideas of scholars from both management/ organisation and economic theory backgrounds have been discussed.


Whittington (1993), Feurer and Chaharbaghi (1997), and Mintzberg et al. (1998) suggest that the ideas are like a continuum of overlapping and developing concepts. McKiernan (1996) maintains that the “schools should not be seen as mutually exclusive. A better analogy is to see them as strands interwoven to form a strong rope” (McKiernan, 1996, p. xv). The assignment of ideas to one discrete school or another might be criticised; Whittington (1993), McKiernan (1996), and Mintzberg et al. (1998) recognise this issue but still assign their ideas. The allocation of a particular idea or set of ideas to an individual school is a convenience that allows the discussion of complementary ideas which have similar characteristics. The discussion of the ideas is more important than the allocation of those ideas to particular schools. However, almost all of the ideas of strategic management that have been canvassed have been explored in an epistemological paradigm that is essentially Modernist. This is because mainstream management thinking is a Modernist idea (Parker, 2002).


Harfield (1998) explores the history of strategic thought from a different epistemological perspective and concludes that the third of Chaffee’s (1985) models of strategy, the Interpretive model in which strategy becomes metaphor, is better understood if there is an assumption that “‘strategic management’ is a myth” (Harfield, 1998, p. 5). There is an explicit sense that strategic management should be viewed within a Postmodern or Critical sensibility of exploration. The currently accepted wisdom by some who claim a Postmodern identity is that the interpretation of the text by the reader is the actual seat of ‘power’ and authority.



Mintzberg et al. (1998, p. 4) expressly refute the idea of seven schools, quoting from Miller (1956) who suggests that we “tend to favor a quantity of about seven for categorizing things” (Miller, 1956 in Mintzberg et al. 1998, p. 4). Concepts such as the ‘seven wonders of the world’, the ‘seven days of the week’ and the ‘seven deadly sins’ are provided as evidence of the ability of the human mind to comprehend ‘chunks’ of information that can be comfortably retained in the short term memory of the human being. Mintzberg et al. (1998) provide a categorisation of ten schools, and because it is the most comprehensive model postulated by the strategy/organisation scholars, it was the first to be described. There may be evidence for ten schools of management behaviour, specifically Mintzberg’s more subjective schools, especially his Power, Cultural and Environmental schools, but whether ten separate schools of strategy exist is doubtful. Consequently it will be necessary for scholars to re-think the schools classifications and justify their models of strategic behaviour, taking into account that strategy is a modernist idea, but modernism may not present the best epistemology for the development of strategic thinking in an era where businesses are better understood as complex self-adapting systems.

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