how field theory can inform strategy research
The field of strategy research could learn something from field theory. Ed Walker and I make this point in a forthcoming paper, “Winning hearts and minds: Field theory and the three dimensions of strategy,” now published online at the journal Strategic Organization. We argue that strategy researchers too narrowly conceptualizes strategy, focusing almost exclusively on financial performance and ignoring firms’ (or elites’) motivations to attain status and power. When strategy scholars pay attention to status they usually only do so as an independent variable – a precursor to financial performance. Field theory forces us, we think, to consider the broader struggles for control and dominance that propel firms, elites, and other actors to take action. Shaping public perceptions is one of the main ways in which social actors improve their status and attain more power, and so an important component of strategy involves actively managing impressions – i.e., what people think and how they feel about key issues and actors.
Strategy research—and to some degree social movement theory as well—portrays organizations as resource-accumulating machines. The ultimate measure of success is financial performance. Another way to conceptualize organizations is as social actors whose primary function is to manage the impressions and perceptions of their various audiences. Their ultimate goal is to maintain positions of dominance. Resource accumulation depends on the ability of an organization to gain favorability and esteem. Shaping public perceptions about why one organization deserves favor is key, then, to long-term survival. But there exists an alternative and more long-term rationale for shaping public perceptions: for organizations to gain positions of prominence and power in society, they must be able to influence the rules of the game and the cultural norms and belief systems that shape who wins and who does not…
What role does strategy have in this conflict-ridden view of the world? In our estimation, strategy can be conceptualized as having three dimensions. We take inspiration from the ideas of Max Weber (1922 ) in his classic essay on “Class, Status, and Party” in order to understand the features of strategy. We argue that strategy research has focused almost exclusively on financial performance (“class,” in Weber’s resource-based view of economic positions) and management’s role in shaping it. However, Weber’s conceptualization suggests that firms ought to be at least as concerned with prestige or esteem (“status”) or on the relative leverage of various stakeholders and policymakers upon firms’ actions (“party”). ..
[W]e find three major limitations in strategy research. First, it is far too focused upon firm performance at the expense of understanding strategic elements of relative status and sources of power/vulnerability. Second, its perspective is often far too short term and does not pay enough attention to all three of the aforementioned aspects of strategy, especially in the context of the “long game” of business maneuvering. Third, it downplays the extent to which businesses’ capacities for accumulating resources, maintaining reputations, and obtaining political leverage are all subject to conflict with other actors whose own relative position depends on their ability to convince the public of their alternative ideologies and worldviews.
In the paper we talk more about research focused on political influence, in particular, ought to shift away from the specialty areas of “nonmarket strategy” or “political strategy” and move to the forefront of strategy research.