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  • FRONTIERS OF E-BUSINESS RESEARCH 2004 Executive Use of Strategy Tools: Building Shared Understanding through Boundary Objects Sari Stenfors1; Leena Tanner2; Ilkka Haapalinna3 1 Researcher, Helsinki School of Economics, sari.stenfors@hkkk.fi 2 Researcher, Helsinki School of Economics, leena.tanner@hkkk.fi 3 Researcher, Helsinki School of Economics, ilkka.haapalinna@hkkk.fi Abstract This article presents an empirical study of over 250 company executives. The study focuses on their use of strategy tools (management tools that support strategy-work). The most com- mon strategy tools are SWOT-analysis, Balanced Scorecard applications and spreadsheet ap- plications, but also EIS (executive information systems) and BI (business intelligence) were mentioned. The executive level strategy-work is found to be complex, embedded in social processes and contextual. In order to find and maintain strategic advantage, individual and collective learning processes need to take place. Hence, the function of strategy tools is most often to support interaction between individuals and groups. Furthermore, there are various ways to use a tool, some of them just cognitive, nevertheless they contribute to shared under- standing. In sum, the actual ways of using strategy tools and the needs of the executives are not often taken into account when designing tools. Our study concludes with suggestions for future strategy tool design. Keywords strategic management, management tools, decision support, collective decision-making, boundary objects Acknowledgements We gratefully acknowledge Helsinki School of Economics, the Foundation of Helsinki School of Economics, Marcus Wallenberg Foundation, Foundation for Economic Education, and Jenny and Antti Wihuri Foundation whose financial support made this work possible. Introduction Executives’ workdays consist of short disjointed segments of activities (Kotter 1982). Mintzberg (1973) showed that over half of the managers’ activities last less than nine minutes and only 10 % exceed an hour. More recently, Nyström (2000) and von Krogh & Grand (2000) describe, how in the rapidly changing global markets, managers need to both develop and apply new knowledge creatively and flexibly ‘on the run’. This type of management is characterized as a more open, dynamic and flexible approach to management with more em- phasis on intuition, entrepreneurship, enacting and developing visions (Nyström 2000). These findings suggest that a modern managerial workday is fast-paced, and surprisingly little time is used for individual focused planning. 635
  • FRONTIERS OF E-BUSINESS RESEARCH 2004 Furthermore, many of the recent studies emphasize that the workdays of the higher manage- ment are full of social activities (e.g. Weick 1995). Different forms of networking, project meetings, phone calls, mails, and conversations fill the executives’ daily schedules. Brown and Duguid (1998) describe how knowledge is created out of people collectively working together, and accent the importance of collective and social interaction. Knowledge creation, in general, is seen to be intrinsic to creating strategic advantage in a corporation (e.g. Spender 1996), and the main function of the higher management is seen to be in finding and main- taining strategic advantage (e.g. Porter 1996). Hundreds of different strategy tools (management tools that support strategy-work) are of- fered to support the executives in their quest for strategic advantage (Bain & Company 2005). These tools are designed to support knowledge creation by enhancing efficiency and/or crea- tivity. According to a recent survey (Haapalinna et al. 2004) large corporations in Finland use approximately 5 different strategy tools in strategic management. Strategy tools, for example Balance Scorecard applications, SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis, and EIS (executive information systems) applications, are generally offered by an array of disciplines. Traditionally, they have been promoted by con- sultants and management scholars geared towards practical solutions. However, the recent improvements in IT (information technology) have accelerated the development of strategy tools and also the scope of disciplines offering strategy tools has broadened. In general, the strategy tool market consists of heterogeneous products. The tools are usually claimed to solve practical problems. They may provide diversity by creating points of views, like Balanced Scorecard. They may balance planning and intuition, like scenario planning. They may clarify the processes, like Six Sigma. They may aid individual and communal communication, like facilitation and dialogue tools. Sometimes strategy tools turn out to be management fads, or trends. Sometimes the notions and names in the strategy tool field are unclear. For example, BI (business intelligence) is a trendy name for a set of systematical in- formation gathering procedures and analysis tools that can often be used as strategy tools. Overall, there is an abundance of strategy tools that are claimed to support solving a wide range of strategic problems. It is not clear how the strategy tools are used by the executives in the organizations. The tools claim to be designed for executives to make decisions, analyze environment, understand rela- tions, predict future, and find solutions to management problems. However, these executive activities in reality seem to take place ‘on the run’ in social context and not in isolated mo- ments between the tools and the executives. The research on how the tools are actually used by the highest management level is not conclusive. Morecroft (1992) claims that executives use tools as micro-cosmoses of reality, and collective or individual learning environments, maps and diagrams, frameworks to organize and filter knowledge, and tools for cooperation. Thus, he emphasizes the instrumental role of the strategy tools. Building on Morecroft’s understanding of the tools being instrumental to creating knowledge, we further the argument by studying the strategy tools as ‘boundary objects’ (Star 1989) in the executives’ everyday social and cultural strategy-work environment. 636
  • FRONTIERS OF E-BUSINESS RESEARCH 2004 The concept of boundary objects was developed by Susan Leigh Star (1989) in the field of sociology. The original concept fits well unclear, complex and collective field of strategic management, as boundary objects are seen to be intrinsic for heterogeneous problem solving in ill-structured environments (Star 1989). Boundary objects form a common ground of inter- action and serve as an interface between diverse parties. Artifacts, documents, set of informa- tion, rules, plans, and contracts can act as boundary objects to help people with different per- spectives to build a shared understanding. Hence, also strategy tools can be seen as boundary objects. Boundary objects form a common point of reference that can be interpreted differently by different parties. It is the acknowledgement and dialogue around these differences that enables shared understanding and growth of new meanings. Good boundary objects enable navigation of conflicts by finding connections, by emphasizing relations, and giving means to navigate. They have a brokering role, allowing translation, coordination and alignment between differ- ent perspectives. Furthermore, they embrace heterogeneity, aid negotiation between diverse groups, allow different types of uses, support learning, enable social creativity (e.g. Bennis & Biederman 1977), and help collaboration. These are all important aspects of collective strate- gic management that should also be supported by strategy tools. In summary, we maintain that strategic management today has a collective nature and bring- ing different parties together is intrinsic for finding and maintaining sustainable strategic ad- vantages. Thus, we study modern executives’ use of strategy tools through the concept of boundary object. Furthermore, we contemplate on the challenges that the executives find in using strategy tools and suggest tackling these challenges by developing strategy tools to be boundary objects and by organizations choosing strategy tools that function well as boundary objects. Thus, our paper looks at executive strategy tool use from a social, collective, point of view that highlights the modern strategic management support tool needs. The paper is organized as follows. Underneath we describe the methodology behind our empirical study. We then present the results in two parts, first describing the executive strategy tool use and then con- templating on the challenges the executives reported. We conclude the paper by elaborating on development of strategy tools as boundary objects. Research design and methodology The main goal of this paper is to depict executives’ use of strategy tools and identify areas that are not adequately supported by currently used strategy tools. Our empirical study consists of three different sets of data: survey of 182 executives, 92 e- mail interviews with executives, and ten face-to-face interviews with executives. The diverse sets of data present different levels of analysis. The objective of our research design was to provide a fresh perspective to the strategy tool field. The qualitative data was analyzed by using grounded theory (Strauss and Corbin 1998) as basic methodological framework. Grounded theory was selected to capture complexity and link theory with practice (Bryman & Bell 2003, 427-435). To deepen our findings, we used 637
  • FRONTIERS OF E-BUSINESS RESEARCH 2004 discourse analysis (Potter 1997) to interpret the face-to-face interviews. Overall, the idea was to have a balanced yet innovative research design. Level 1 The first level of analysis consists of studying 182 questionnaire answers from executives of 500 largest companies in Finland (Talouselämä 2002). A short questionnaire (paper and web form) was sent out to the executives involved in strategic management. The questionnaire was filled out by 172 companies. In some companies, more than one executive answered inde- pendently to the questionnaire making the actual number of the returned questionnaires 182. Approximately 70 percent of these respondents were identified to be company executives (higher level management). The objective of the questionnaire was to get a general idea of the strategy tools used in the companies and acknowledged by the executives. The executives were asked to list all strategy tools used to support major decision-making in their companies. They also listed different purposes for the strategy tools. Furthermore, they were asked to connect the names of the tools, they were using, to a list of methods the tools were based on. Finally, the respondents listed the advantages and the disadvantages of the use of these tools. The results of the entire study are reported in Haapalinna et al. (2004). The purposes, the advantages and the disadvantages were coded by using open coding (Strauss & Corbin 1990, 61) to first group and then to categorize the data. All researchers were involved in this process. Level 2 Not all executives wanted to respond by the questionnaire or they wanted to give additional information on their strategy process, hence, 92 executives from the 500 largest companies in Finland, sent open e-mail answers or phoned their answer. This data varied from one line an- swers on why strategy tools were not used to lengthy descriptions on strategy processes. The categories from the survey data suggested that social aspects and collective knowledge creation are intrinsic issues in strategy tool use for the executives. Hence, 92 e-mail inter- views, on strategy tool use, were selectively coded (Strauss & Corbin 1990, 116) to form a core category. The core category was interpreted to correspond to the concept of boundary object (Star 1989). Iteration back to the survey data was performed and the data in Level 1 was re-analyzed through the concept of boundary object. Re-analyzed disadvantages are presented later in the paper, as they provide insight for the future development of strategy tools. Level 3 Furthermore, ten additional face-to-face interviews with company executives were conducted. Seven interviews were recorded and four of them were fully transcribed. Notes were taken of three interviews. All interviews were partly structured; general topic being the use of strategy tools. In all interviews, at least two interviewers were present, and notes were compared. These interviews were analyzed through a constructionist frame in order to offset the objec- 638
  • FRONTIERS OF E-BUSINESS RESEARCH 2004 tivist position of the grounded theory and to provide a more colourful general overview (Charmaz 2000). Statements made by the executives during the interviews were studied through two research questions: 1. How are strategy-work and the use of strategy tools described? 2. What are the currently discussed problems and needs in strategy-work? The corresponding statements were further analyzed both individually and collectively by the authors of this paper. The results are presented in the next section. Strategy tools as boundary objects According to the survey data, the executives report that they use, on average, approximately five different strategy tools. Also, Näsi and Aunola (2002) report finding, on average, five different tools. Hundreds of strategy tools were reported, but the most frequently named tools are SWOT analysis, spreadsheet applications and Balanced Scorecard applications. From our data, it is quite clear that the executives, in general, do not know the names of the theories, methods, or methodologies behind the strategy tools. However, about six percent of the re- spondents of the survey reveal spontaneously that the strategy tools have an essential or even a vital role in their companies’ activities and that they cannot manage without the tools. (Haa- palinna et al. 2004, 8-13) Looking more closely into the advantages presented in the survey data (Level 1), it is clear that the tools are related to social activities of the executives’ work. The respondents (182 executives) of the survey describe 493 different advantages for the tools. The advantages were coded and grouped in several different ways, but the most describing theory to interpret the advantages was found to be Mingers’ (2001, 289-309) three different worlds. Out of the 493 advantages, 482 could be categorized into social, material and personal world (modified from Habermas 1984, 1987 and Popper 1979) classes. The social world constitutes of appreciation of roles, norms, social practices, and power relations; the material world includes appreciation of material and physical processes and arrangements; and the personal world contains appre- ciation of individual beliefs, meanings, values, and emotions. Almost half of the classified advantages of all the tools belong to the social world (Table 1). This is a surprising result, as most of the strategy tools concentrate on describing the material world and there is generally little emphasis on the social effects of the tools. The most fre- quently reported benefits related to the social world were: i) changed or improved work proc- esses and ii) better communication, visualization, reports and improved control. According to the survey, the executives saw strategy tools as well-structured systematic procedures that offered clear and consistent ways to present ill-structured problems to other team members. They especially appreciated the help of strategy tools in meetings and negotiations when dis- cussions of strategic issues were to be opened up or different insights were to be presented. Also, strategy tools were understood to contribute to social and individual creativity that im- proved and changed the organizational work. 639
  • FRONTIERS OF E-BUSINESS RESEARCH 2004 Advantages of strategy tools Social Freq. Material Freq. Personal Freq. • changed or improved 78 • easier benchmarking 34 • executives’ sharpened 24 work processes and evaluation focus on strategy and • better communication, 50 • improved efficiency 31 key issues visualization, reports • financial benefits 23 • wider perspectives 6 and control • better management of 22 • improved quality of 5 • organizational general 33 risks 21 executives’ work view • more streamlined • better organizational 25 strategic planning and understanding implementation 19 • enhanced commitment 18 • improved innovation 17 and motivation • added accuracy and 15 throughout the clarity company 14 • help in analyzing 15 • common language and masses of quantitative 12 collective thinking 11 data • mutual goals & 9 • better defined future procedures goals • increased credibility • clearer material overview Total sum 482 238 209 35 Table 1. Advantages of the strategy tools classified into three different worlds (Mingers 2001). The frequency of each advantage notes the number of times a separate advantage was mentioned. The importance of the social world in the strategy tool context led us to study the social as- pects of the free form descriptions from 92 executives (Level 2). In this data, the strategy tools were often described as communication and negotiation tools that were not imperative as such but supported organizational learning. This corresponds to the notion of boundary object (Star 1989). In the next three paragraphs, we first note a characteristic of a boundary object and then show how the same aspect is evident in our Level 2 data. The boundary object, itself, is not the main priority but only becomes meaningful through the context that each participant attaches to it. Boundary objects are flexible enough to adapt to local needs and have different distinct identities in different communities, but at the same time they are robust enough to maintain a common identity across the boundaries to be a place for shared work (Star 1989). In our data, the Level 2 respondents describe their use of strategy tools through the strategy process. They often note that the strategy-work itself is far more important than the use of fine tools. In general, the specific purposes of the tools are reported to depend on the context as different tools are described to be used in different phases of the strategy process. In addition, sometimes the same tools are used in several phases. Furthermore, the executives report that the companies have tailored their strategy processes to suit their needs and often the strategy tools are customized to serve these needs. In sum, the executives emphasize the flexibility and the context orientation of the strategy tools: “[The business units] use independently different decision-making tools in different contexts and for different purposes… It is also very typical in our corporation that the 640
  • FRONTIERS OF E-BUSINESS RESEARCH 2004 use of the [strategy] tools is flexible – we can use the same tools at different times or use a completely new set of tools...” (Executive description S131RK, 1) Boundary objects are mediation agents that function as interfaces between parties. The ac- knowledgment and discussion of the different interpretations of a boundary object enable the formation of shared understanding (Star 1989). When talking about the strategy tools, the Level 2 respondents emphasize the importance of working together and having social con- tacts. They report that communication, negotiation and discussions are the key issues in the strategy-work. Furthermore, in these social situations they view the tools as important sources of background information that advance the strategy process itself. They comment that strat- egy tools facilitate teamwork, make meetings more efficient, help in communicating the strategy in a suitable manner, and support communication between different interest groups. Thus, the strategy tools are used as a common point of reference, means of translation and social platform. In addition, boundary objects provide opportunities for organizational learning and social creativity (Star 1989). Also the Level 2 respondents report broader understanding, changed views and innovative ideas that emerge related to the use of strategy tools. However, it is not easy to detect social creativity in short written statements. Further analysis of this characteris- tic of boundary objects was carried out using the Level 3 interview data. In our interview material, (Level 3) strategy-work is described to be collective. When asked about the strategy tools and the strategy process, the executives talk about communicating, discussing, meeting, and engaging in a dialogue. In general, participation and the role of net- works and teams are emphasized as well as the need for collaboration. One of the interviewed executives depicts strategy-work as follows: “Interaction between other people is extremely important for the executives, also in strategy-work. Very often strategies emerge through the organization and the top man- agement should sustain the ongoing development process.” (Executive interview HSN2,34) Overall, the importance of organizational learning and support of social creativity for effec- tive operations and sustainable strategic advantage is a key theme in the executive talk. Strat- egy tools are described to be an important part of this process, but they are only seen playing a supportive part. Repeatedly, the executives explained that the importance of strategy tools does not lie in the names of the tools but in the ways that the tools guide to handle issues sys- tematically and promote shared understanding and dialogue. Thus, social interaction for the executives in strategy-work is intrinsic. Social aspects have an essential role for the executives. Similarly, the role of strategy tools is described to be medi- ating, thought provoking and communication oriented. Tools helped people incrementally structure the frame of thinking and collaboratively form shared concepts. Overall, the execu- tives reported that the use of the tools had a positive effect on their strategy-work. Challenges with strategy tools In the literature on strategy tools, different aspects of the material world dominate. This is also evident in our data as the executives’ talk revolves mainly around material concerns. Un- derstandably the material world at strategy level is intrinsic, but material aspects in strategy 641
  • FRONTIERS OF E-BUSINESS RESEARCH 2004 tools (which are often demonstrated through mathematical models or financial calculations) cannot yield advantage themselves without the support of social connections. Their worth rouses through communication and interaction between different parties. However, strategy tools are in many cases built to support material world leaving behind the significance of social context, i.e. ignoring the role of the strategy tools as boundary objects. In order to understand the challenges more clearly, we asked the executives (Level 1) to re- port disadvantages of strategy tools. Altogether 222 disadvantages, shortcomings, dangers, barriers and problems (Haapalinna et al. 2004, 13) were reported. The data reveals three im- portant features that make strategy tools applicable: 1. Simplicity (easy to understand and learn). The beauty of sophisticated and accurate mathematical functions or the glamour of the latest technology may fascinate the designer of a tool while the executive sets a great value on the simplicity of the tool. To the executives, the reliability of and the confidence in the tool depend on the transparency of the strategy tool. One executive expressed this by writing: “…no “black boxes” = in-depth [complicated] methods are in use. Instead, all parties are able to understand how the tool functions.” (Executive description, L102H1, 2). 2. Support for social interaction. The executives describe that the main challenges for social use of the tools are restrictions to creativity, vulnerability for errors and misuse, as well as lack of empathy from the tools. Majority of the tools are not built for social interaction. 3. Connections to the actual context. The executives in our study complain that the strategy tools are often built without true understanding of the strategy-work context. This can be one of the reasons for tools being used in a different manner than originally intended. Many strategy tools today are IT applications. We were interested in the challenges that have to do with the IT part of the strategy tools. In general, the complaints of IT are not numerous, but illustrative of the possible barriers of use. Some executives note the unnecessary stress caused by IT problems, some criticize the unfamiliar IT jargon, and some are disappointed at the integration possibilities of the tools. From the organizational point of view, the executives state that IT can create change resistance and lack of commitment. On the whole, these are typical complaints of new technology, but added to the shortcomings that strategy tools al- ready post, they can further diminish the motivation to use strategy tools. A great challenge to information technology designers as well as to strategy tool developers is that the executives do not want to work with technology or learn complicated tools. They want to concentrate on strategy-work, which is a social activity. On the other hand, the development of information technology has opened up many new pos- sibilities for the development of modern strategy tools. We supposed that in Finland, a coun- try with high technology penetration rate, the executives (Level 1) would report many of these tools, but out of the 865 strategy tools only 14 are modern IT applications (EIS, ERP (enter- prise resource planning) or BI applications). The reason might be that the modern IT applica- tions are often operated in functional or operative levels of management, or that these tools are seen as technologies to achieve other means. Furthermore, none of the executives in our data made any reference to Internet as a strategic support, but in the interviews (Level 3), ex- ecutives mentioned phones as important tools for strategic decisions. Overall, strategy tools 642
  • FRONTIERS OF E-BUSINESS RESEARCH 2004 and IT are important means of supporting strategy-work, but they do not solve strategic problems automatically or work by themselves. Hence, more diversified and powerful ways to help social communication at strategy level need to be developed. Despite the challenges the use of strategy tools in the companies was quite high. On average, the companies used almost 5 strategy tools (also median and mode were 5) and standard de- viation within the 172 companies was only 2.2. However, it is important to note that 13 % of the companies informed us that they did not use any kind of tools for strategic issues. These included organizations whose company culture did not support or even prohibited the use of tools. Furthermore, 236 companies did not respond to our survey, and it is likely that the overall percentage of companies that do not use any strategy tools is higher. (Haapalinna et al. 2004, 13) Strategy tools in collective strategy-work Companies strive for sustainable strategic advantage, a better and longer-lasting market posi- tion compared to competitors. The race is never-ending and search for the strategic advantage in the companies is ongoing. In the recent academic literature, knowledge is frequently por- trayed as a key source of competitive advantage (e.g. Hall 1992; Teece 1998; Spender 1996; Stewart 1998). Also, many companies emphasize the importance of knowledge creation and learning, not only at individual level but most importantly at organizational level. Collective learning is seen to be in an important position in creating organizational strategic advantages (e.g. Brown & Gray 2003). Strategy tools present an intrinsic category of learning tools to companies. In our paper, we have demonstrated that strategy tools are seen as boundary objects by the executives. The executives expect that strategy tools support, in addition to material effectivity, shared under- standing, enhancement of perspectives, organizational innovation, and social creativity. How- ever, majority of the strategy tools are not designed to support this type of modern collective strategy-work. Drawing from the results of our study, and looking at strategy tools as bound- ary objects, we conclude this paper by discussing four characteristics of a good strategy tool. Significance Good boundary object contains enough detail to be understandable to all; however, full under- standing of the other parties’ context is not required. A good boundary object serves as com- mon point of reference and will be interpreted differently by the different parties. Yet, it satis- fies the informational requirements of each. Furthermore, it is also strong enough to retain a common identity but is nevertheless flexible enough to adapt to local needs. The mostly used strategy tools fit this description. SWOT-analysis, Balanced Scorecard and spreadsheet appli- cations have meaning in different context, yet they serve as a common platform for discus- sion. The significance to everyday context enhances general acceptance and trust in the strat- egy tool use. 643
  • FRONTIERS OF E-BUSINESS RESEARCH 2004 Underrepresentation Important to the concept of boundary object is that the power of the object comes from differ- ent understandings. The points of views of the different parties are discussed and new under- standing emerges. Hence, successful strategy tools need to be simple. This enhances also un- derstanding of the tool. Brown and Duguid (1996) describe the same thought in the field of IT: “The future of design in information technologies lies not in developing means of in- creasingly full representation, but in allowing increasing amounts to be underrepresented; not by increasing what is said, but by helping people to leave more unsaid; not in refining ab- stractions, but by making use of their inevitable impurity; not by making more explicit, but by leaving as much as possible implicit, and in the process keeping things simple.” The simplic- ity of the tool gives room for dialogue and creativity. Flexibility In our study, there were many different ways to use the strategy tools. Some of the executives used the tools only cognitively, some actually used the tools with their computers, and some only got print-outs from the tools. A good strategy tool should support different types of use, and emphasize also the necessity of this in building different perspectives and embracing di- versity. Also, the need to use a strategy tool can depend for example on the market situation. Furthermore, the use of a strategy tool is always an intervention, and that might not always be needed. The tool should be flexible enough to use when necessary. Social interaction Furthermore, a good strategy tool is built to enhance communication and discussion. Today, there are many disciplines building social and collaborative strategy tools. However, in our study, the executives did not report any that were in use. The collaborative tools can act in two meaningful ways, in a brokering role to communicate and coordinate perspectives, or in an idea provoking way to enhance creativity and innovation. Both ways contribute to collec- tive learning and emergence of strategic advantages. In summary, executive strategy-work needs to be supported with new kinds of strategy tools. Strategy tool developers and information technology designers are still far away from pro- viding the needed support. However, the new trends for more social tools seem promising, but other demands of good boundary objects should also be taken into account in order to provide organizations with tools to support the quest for sustainable advantages. References Bain & Company. Management tools. <http://www.bain.com/management_tools>, January 15, 2005. Bennis, W. & Biederman, P.W. 1977. Organizing genius: The secrets of creative collaboration. The United States of America: Perseus Books. Full stops at the end of references missing! Brown, J.S. & Duguid, P. 1996. Keeping it Simple. In Winograd (ed.): Bringing design to software. USA: Addison Wesley Instead of country, a printing place should be mentioned. See template! Brown, J.S. & Duguid, P. 1998. Organizing Knowledge. California Management Review. Vol. 40. No. 3, 90-111 Brown, J.S. & Gray, E.S. 2003. Creating a learning culture: Strategy, practice, and technology. USA: Cambridge University Press 644
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