“us” and “them” in strategic management


Throughout my academic career, I have been a member of a community of scholars, who label themselves “Strategy-as-Practice” (it has also been called “activity perspective”, “micro-strategizing” and other things but this label seems to have stuck.) It all started when I stumbled into the EGOS conference as a fresh PhD student and noticed that among this group of people, I could pursue my interest in micro-sociological issues and philosophy and still do research on strategy (those interested in what strategy-as-practice, see, as well as here, here, here and here).

The S-as-P group meets at various conferences and meetings during the academic year. There is a PDW at the Academy next summer, a working group within the Strategic Management Society, and many other occasions. For me, a special event each year is the Annual EGOS conference, and its subtheme on S-as-P. Not only is EGOS a great conference – for me it is always the event where our org studies community celebrates the privileged position we are in, doing science for a living. The sub-theme is where my career as a scholar began.

This evening, I am faced with the daunting challenge and priviledge to start drafting the proposal for a the S-as-P theme for the year of 2009. I thought that maybe it would be fun to share some of my early ideas with you.

Individuals in strategic management

For me, the really fascinating thing about strategy work in organizations have been people: people at all levels of the organization. How they find roles in strategy processes (this was the topic of my PhD), how they formulate collective intent, or how they get included or excluded from strategy work (our forthcoming Org Sci paper). Organizations do not make or implement strategies, people do.

The focus on people has indeed been one of the rallying calls of strategy-as-practice research. The first formulation of Strategy-as-Practice that I know of was Richard Whittington’s research proposal in Long Range Planning, where he promoted a view on strategy, which he called strategy as practice. The paper was intended for opening a discussion on a new approach for studying strategy: “The focus of this approach is on strategy as a social ‘practice’, on how the practitioners of strategy really act and interact.” (Whittington, 1996: 731).

When I read Whittington’s paper, I seem to recall an impression of that paper being a call to integrate Mintzberg’s groundbreaking work on leaders with his descriptive approach to studying strategy processes. In my book, Mintzberg never fully applied the revolutionary approach to studying individuals in the Nature of Managerial Work to his work on strategy process. Anyway, while the focus on individuals has been extended to cover a wide area of topics at different levels of analysis, for me, this original framing of S-as-P holds the most interest.

Another key aspect to the phenomenon of individuals in strategy is that some people are strategists, and some aren’t. Drawing this distinction is not that easy, though, if we consider Mintzberg’s challenge of studying realized strategies instead of just planned ones. A middle manager may turn out to be as important for strategic success or failure of a firm than its top management. I recall Andrew Pettigrew’s warning at one the first EGOS I attended, that the S-as-P community should not contend to “studying people who flip hamburgers” if the want to understand strategy.

In any case, there are many ways of drawing the distinction within an organization between strategists and non-strategists; formulators and implementators; ‘us’ and ‘them.’ There are a number of theoretical frames which one might use to consider this issue.

Learning to strategize: roots in the business policy tradition

In the original business policy literature, the way strategists (or ‘general managers’) are as people, how they think and how they learn was considered to be quite important. While reading Kenneth Andrews’s Concept of Corporate Strategy a while back, I was struck by how much it was focused on teaching strategy, nurturing the strategists’s personality, challenging him or her to consider complex cases and so on. Much ink was not spilled on non-senior managers as strategists, though – indeed Andrews (1971: 238) argues that:

“Corporate purposes are by definition a projection in part of the leader’s own personal goals and a reflection of his character […] a corporation is essentially the lengthened shadow of a man.”

However, this personal and pedagogical tradition within strategic management was apparently lost during the Porter-revolution in the eighties. However, there has been a reinvogoration of this interest on how strategists learn, as for instance Greiner, Bhambri and Cummings argue in their 2003 paper, “Searching for a Strategy to Teach Strategy,” (AMLE, 2, 402-420).

Implementation, strategic change and strategy communication

The eighties was a time for an increased interest on strategy implementation and process. There were a number of important papers written in the eighties on implementation (Nutt, Bourgeiois & Brodwin and so on) and strategy process authors (Mintzberg, Pettigrew and others) also discussed different models regarding how strategies were realized.

In the early strategy literature, a clear demarcation between formulation and implementation was drawn. Chandler wrote in Strategy and Structure (1962, p. 11):

”Strategic decisions are concerned with the long-term health of the company. Tactical decisions deal more with the day-to-day activities necessary for efficient and smooth operations. But decisions, either tactical or strategic, usually require implementation by allocation or reallocation of resources – funds, equipment, or personnel.”

Structure was to follow strategy, the personnel was regarded as one kind of a resource, which could be “allocated” and so on. When the clear-cut demarcation between formulation and implementation was challenged, an implementation literature emerged, where a formulation and implementation where regarded to be more or less overlapping. One sign of this development was the reframing strategy implemementation as ‘strategic change’, where leadership and communication gained a renewed importance in the strategy process (one example is Gioia’s & Chittipeddi’s 1991 paper in SMJ).


Sensemaking is a tradition of theorizing with close connections to communication, and should thus be important for the study of strategy communication as well. Its connections to strategy literature are somewhat conflicted: Weick himself has written very little on strategy, and the only real paper on strategy that I know of, “Substitutes of Strategy” (1987/ reprinted in Making Sense of the Organization, 2001), is rather critical of the whole ordeal of strategy making.

However, when one studies a strategy process from the perspectives of the multiple individuals involved as strategists and/or implementers, sensemaking is a pretty attractive way of theorizing. For instance, Balogun and Johson (2004 in AMJ, 2005 in Org Studies) have focused on middle management sensemaking: how they make sense of strategy, change and their own activities in the absence of top management, the unintended consequences of middle management sensemaking and so on.

Role theory

The recognition of the involvement of middle management in strategy processes has also introduced the vocabulary  of role theory into the study of strategy. Floyd and his colleagues (Wooldridge and Lane) have published a number of accounts on middle management roles. Their approach has often been framed by a contingency assumption: organizational environments influence the role sets which you are likely to encounter in organizations. A very important notion from Floyd and Lane is that middle managers, upper or lower ones, may be “renewers” of strategy, as well as implementers. Here, the role-theoretical account is linked to the so-called “Bower-Burgelman” tradition in strategic management.

In a sense, I think Floyd et al’s work is continuing the path drawn by Miles & Snow in 1978 in their book Organizational Strategy, Structure and Process. In their terminology, “prospector” organizations have very different role sets than “defenders”, and so on.

The contingency approach to role theory makes heavy use of a functionalist view on roles. The roles that people play can be explained through the social system in which they are a part; in a contingency framework these social systems are in interaction with their environments, which thus have an impact on the roles. While this is a powerful argument, it downplays the possibility of agency for the middle managers, as it can be argued that they may seek to influence the roles that they play.

Non-functionalist approaches to middle management roles in strategic management include, for instance, Westley’s seminal 1990 paper in SMJ on the inclusion and exclusion of middle managers, where she builds a Goffmanesque account on middle management roles, and as well as my forthcoming JMS paper where I seek to augment the functionalist role view with a reciprocal middle-management perspective.

Strategizing as work

Many authors working within the strategy-as-practice group have been interested in strategy as a specific kind of work. There are a number of theoretical perspectives from which you can view work. Whittington (especially Whittington at al in JMI, 2003; and Whittington, Org Studies, 2006) has looked at strategy as a profession, with relevant perspectives at multiple levels of analysis: from the institutional level, where strategy is a semi-institutionalized profession with a number of relevant stakeholders (practitioners, consultants, academics, governmental actors, etc) to the very micro-level praxis of individual strategy professionals.

Jarzabkowski (Strategy as Practice, 2005; papers in Org Studies 2004 and Human Relations, 2003) has drawn on activity theory, developed by Engeström and others, to look at organizational strategy practice from the perspective of an activity system.

Textual and discursive views: identity, agency, subjectivity

The “us” vs. “them” setting between individuals in strategy processes is perhaps most explicitly drawn out in discursive views on strategy work. This is a result of the fact that the interconnection between discourse and subjectivity has been pretty well established at least since the work of Foucault and the resulting critique. Subjectivity in a strategy process involves the positioning of specific actors in the foreground with active identities and possibilities of agency, while others are “subjugated” or “objectified” (see Laine & Vaara in Human Relations, 2007).

Authors such as Knights & Morgan (Org Studies, 1991) and Oakes, Townley & Cooper (ASQ, 1998) have demonstrated the somewhat counterintuitive notion that in many occasions, managers don’t really create strategies – strategy discourse creates managers by disciplicining the managerial subject. According to Knights & Morgan, the resulting subject is a masculine warmonger. In our forthcoming Org Science paper, Eero Vaara and I are exploring the dual nature of strategy discourse in organizations in terms of participation: strategy discourse may impend wide-spread participation and turn organizations into hegemonies as Knights & Morgan suggest, yet it can also facilitate resistance, dialogue and self-actualization at the level of individuals at many levels of the organization.

Narrative authors have drawn on Bakhtinian views of dialogue in strategy work, in an attempt to build a polytonal view of strategy. Authors such as Barry & Elmes (1997 in AMR), Samra-Fredricks (2003 in JMS) and David Boje (ASQ 1991 and AMJ 1995)  have shown limitations in the banal view that organizational strategy narratives are classical, coherent narratives whereas a heroic CEO saves the day. Instead, they have shown us a multi-voiced network of small stories, which may at times resonate in coherence.

Another theoretical tradition to studying strategy text which has relevance to studying individuals in strategy process is the work of De Certeau, in particular the notions of “production” and “consumption” as they relate to strategy texts. In The Practice of Everyday Life, De Certeau draws a distinction between “strategy” as representing recognized authority, and “tactics” as representing the everyday life of ordinary individuals. According to De Certeau, “consumers” always make the sphere of life, created for them by strategists habitable through non-violent, creative ways. Indeed, here is one aspect of strategy often dismissed: an official strategy text can be useful and “at hand” to an implementer or “consumer”.


I realize that this text might confuse the reader and is likely to contain a number of gaps. However, as I am using my limelight as a guest blogger to develop the things that I am currently working on, I hope no-one expects a finished text. I would really appreciate any reactions, suggestions, critiques or any other comments which you might have.

And sorry, no list of references for now. If you’d like one, let me know. I can easily add one as a comment to this post later since I’ll have to write one anyway.

I suppose, to work as a research proposal, it should contain more specific research questions, information about the kinds of papers we are looking for and so on. But it’s Saturday night and I have better things to do for now. Over and out.

Written by smantere

November 10, 2007 at 10:32 pm

3 Responses

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  1. I too am interested in collective intent, and so I’m looking forward to reading the strategic intent paper. I’m curious as to how you reconcile the idea that organizations are created out of collective intent with the idea that “[o]rganizations do not make or implement strategies, people do.” From my point of view, “collective intent” implies that certain intentions, strategies, goals, etc. exist over which no single individual has control. Thus, it’s more conceptually clear to think of these things existing at the organizational level, rather than at the individual level. Am I misunderstanding the concept?



    November 12, 2007 at 2:56 pm

  2. Hi Brayden,

    Thanks for a very interesting question. I share your fascination with collective intent and indeed this was the philosophical theme that most compelled me to start studying strategy (and for watching soccer for that matter): can groups of people have strategies? How can you achieve this without making weird assumptions about “hive minds” or something of the sort?

    As I started browsing through philosophical theories of collective intent, I discovered a number of scholars with explicit theories of sociality, built on a notion of collective intent, e.g.:

    – Tuomela, R. & Miller, K. (1988) We-intentions. Philosophical Studies 53: 367-389.
    – Gilbert, M. (1989) On Social Facts. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
    – Bratman, M. (1999) Shared intention. In Bratman, M. (1999) Faces of Intention. Selected Essays of Intention and Agency. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    – Searle, J. R. (1991) Collective Intentions and Actions in Cohen, P. R., Morgan, J. & Pollack, M. (ed.) Intentions in Communication. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    The way I read them, Tuomela and Bratman are more reductionist in their theorizing, building their models based on compositions of indivudual-level concepts; whereas Gilbert and Searle argue for the individual (non-reducible) existence of collective intent.

    However, across the board, all these authors, either reductionist or holist in orientation, seem to be suspicious about large organizations having collective intent. This phenomenon seems to demand the ability all of the members of the collective to entertain beliefs about the intentions of all the other relevant members of the group. For instance, Gilbert, even though her theory is based on the holist notion of “a pool of wills”, argues is rather hesitant

    “Clearly, in some organizations there is a clear sense of what is being achieved by the firm and that it is being achieved by the efforts of all. There are firms in which it would be natural enough to members overall to refer to what we do in referring to the organization. I could argue, therefore, that it is this aspect of some organizations and firms which could lead organizations in general to be put on some list of social groups.”(Gilbert, 1989; 231.)

    As an organizational scholar, we see such organizational “plural subjects” in, e.g., Karl Weick’s work on organizations consiting of a small group of people with collective cognition of some sort.

    However, in most organizational contexts, when the organization is larger than a single social group, collective intention is a rather problematic. In our forthchoming paper, ( John Sillince and I argue that “strategic intent” is best regarded best as

    1. a property of organizations/organizational units small enought to be social groups
    2. a form of rhetoric in a larger organizations.

    So, for me, to argue that organizations do not do strategy, but people do makes sense, at least for most of the organizations I have dealt with.




    November 14, 2007 at 1:33 pm

  3. I am a big fan of the collective intention stuff – nice summary in your comment above! Org theory (and mgt more generally) could readily benefit from the theoretical intuition from that work (weird how they have, for so long, been separate…)



    November 14, 2007 at 11:31 pm

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