The role of general strategy concepts in the practice of ...
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Munich Business Research
The role of general strategy concepts in the practice of
Munich School of Management
The role of general strategy concepts
in the practice of strategy
Institute of Business Policy and Strategic Management
Ludwig-Maximilian University Munich
Ludwigstr. 28 Rgb.
Phone: ++49 (0)89 2180 2988.
In this paper we analyse the role of general strategy concepts as provided by influential
institutions (e.g. business schools or consulting firms) in the strategic practice of business
organisations. We analyse why such general concepts are drawn upon, what challenges one is
facing when trying to introduce them into an organisation, how the ‘introduction’ can be
conceptualised and what consequences this has for the reproduction of the concepts. For this
purpose we will draw on new systems theory, neo-institutionalism and discourse theory.
Recently there have been calls for a closer attention to the ways that strategizing in
organisations is influenced by macro-social institutions (e.g. Whittington 2002; 2002a;
Jarzabkowski forthcoming). Organisations are perceived as part of a wider community made
up of other organisations, consultants, business schools and business media. Within this
community strategic practices, like strategy tools or general strategy concepts, are produced
and reproduced. In other words, organisations are conceptualised as taking part in a general
strategy discourse. By drawing on the general strategic practices in their concrete
organisational circumstances the organisations are perceived as reproducing the strategic
practices. For example, reengineering or lean management are two strategy concepts or
practices featuring in the wider strategy discourse. By applying reengineering or lean
management to their own organisations managers are perceived as reproducing these
concepts. But these concepts are also reproduced by business schools when they teach them to
their MBA students; or by the business media when they write about them. Each member of
the strategy community contributes to the reproduction of these practices by applying them to
their concrete circumstances. Many writers emphasise the importance of analysing this link
between the so-called macro and micro context for an appropriate understanding of
strategizing. This link between “micro” and “macro” however seems very difficult to
conceptualise. In this paper we will try to provide a systems theoretical account of the
relation. We will focus particularly on the role of general strategy concepts. Four central
questions will guide our analysis: Why are such general strategy concepts drawn upon? What
challenges is one facing when trying to introduce them into an organisation? How can the
“introduction” be conceptualised? What consequences does this have for the reproduction of
2. Strategizing as complexity reduction
Organisations are complex systems. They possess more elements than can be practically or
even conceptually related to each other (Luhmann 2000). Or in other words, they possess
more possibilities than can be (cognitively or practically) realized. Any action within the
organisation is thus necessarily selective; it actualises some possibilities leaving other ones
unactualised. The greater the complexity the more difficult the selection becomes. If the
complexity is too great action becomes paralysed. In order to make action possible complex
situations have to be simplified, or better: the complexity has to be reduced. There has to be a
pre-selection of possibilities. This pre-selection is the function of structures (cf. Luhmann
1995; Giddens 1984), for example rules, norms, goals or resources. Structures do not
necessarily eliminate possibilities but they make it possible to handle the possibilities. A norm
for example structures the possibilities into norm-conform and norm-deviant possibilities. The
norm, thus, “transforms” the original situation with many possibilities into one with two
possibilities to select from: conformity and deviation (Luhmann 1995). In this sense the
complexity is reduced and the selection as such made much simpler. Baecker (1999) in this
sense speaks of a transformation into a “simple complexity”.
One important means of reducing organisational complexity is strategy. Strategy reduces the
complexity of the organisation and of (its relation to) its environment to a degree that can be
handled both cognitively and practically (Schreyögg/Steinmann 1987; Baecker 2003). On a
cognitive level one speaks of a reduction of ambiguity (Daft/Lengel, 1985) or the elimination
of equivocality (Weick, 1979). For example, a strategy in the form of a goal (more or less)
blinds out those possibilities that are not contributing to the achievement of that goal. Every
strategy reduces the complexity in a different way; it highlights and blinds out different
possibilities. Strategizing in this sense can be understood as the activity of selecting, and
selectively combining, forms of complexity reduction.
While almost every activity in an organisation in one way or other is involved in some kind of
complexity reduction, the selectivity of strategizing is in two respects particular: First, in the
field of strategy one is dealing with a complexity that cannot be grasped in its entirety. Not
only the environmental but also the organisational complexity is usually beyond the grasp of
the strategist. This problem is aggravated as organisational and environmental complexity and
dynamism permanently increases (Ernst/Kieser 2003). Second, in addition to not being able to
comprehend the entire complexity, one doesn’t possess independent criteria for evaluating the
selection. In other words, part of the selection is the selection of criteria for making the
selection. Logically this leads to an infinite regress. Ultimately, any criterion is itself part of
the complexity reduction (Dietel/Seidl, 2003). Thus, strategizing can be understood as ‘blind’
selection. The strategist neither knows what possibilities he has selected from nor what he has
ultimately selected. Schreyögg and Steinmann in a similar vein write:
So what planners actually do is to construct a simplified model of the strategic situation.
This is done primarily by explicitly or implicitly setting assumptions designed to
transform ambiguous signals into clear-cut information. Making these assumptions is
risky because although the resulting strategy may be sound, no one can be sure, since
there is no way to find ex ante the single correct solution. (Schreyögg/Steinmann 1989:
94; references omitted)
What strategy is selected, however, is not irrelevant. Different strategies have very different
effects on the organisation. Some might be very successful1, other ones might put the survival
of the organisation at risk. In other words, different strategies differ considerably in their
effects on the viability of the organisation. Thus, we can summarise, the ‘blindness’ stands in
stark contrast with the risk associated with the selection of the strategy. Strategic control as
continuous evaluation of the strategy as suggested by Schreyögg and Steinmann (1989)
reduces the risk of the selection. It can’t however eliminate it. Often strategic decisions cannot
be reversed anymore even if they prove detrimental to the organisation.
In face of this situation one would expect organisations to be fairly reluctant to change their
strategies while the existing strategies are still viable. At most one would expect rather
incremental changes to the existing strategy; in small and thus reversible steps (cf. Quinn
1980; Kirsch/Seidl 2004).
3. The function of general strategy concepts
Empirically however one finds that strategists usually experience great pressure both from
within and particularly from without the organisation to develop new strategies from time to
time. March in this sense writes:
The ideology of good management […] associates managers with the introduction of
new ideas, new organisational forms, new techniques, new products, or new moods.’
(March, 1981: 573)
Continuity in strategic concepts is not very highly valued. A manager who doesn’t develop
new strategies is perceived as lacking leadership, creativity and initiative. Thus, in order to
prove themselves, managers are forced to constantly look for new strategies. Often the
strategy isn’t even completely implemented yet, when already a new strategy is expected. The
…whatever ‚success’ means for the organisation. (On the question of defining success see Kirsch 2001)
standard model of the organisation is nowadays the “reforming organisation”
(Brunsson/Olsen 1993; Brunsson 2000). Ultimately the pressure isn’t so much on doing
something “better” than merely of doing something different, something new (which then, of
course, has to be presented as “better”). Paradoxically it is particularly of new strategists that
initiatives for new strategies are expected; that is to say, of those who have the least grasp of
the concrete organisational complexity. Often new CEOs are called into the organisation
particularly in order to change the existing strategies. Thus the selection of the form of
complexity reduction is based on particular blindness.2
Strategists in this situation ultimately have two options. They can either develop new
strategies themselves or they can draw on strategy concepts already existing in the
environment of the organisation. Both options have their specific problems. When developing
the strategy oneself one has to deal with the problem of finding some point of reference from
which to “deduce” the strategy. As we said above this is already part of the complexity
reduction. From a logical point of view a systematic development of a new strategy would
lead to an infinite regress of reflections (Dietel/Seidl 2003) paralysing any real action (cf.
Brunsson 1982). In order to prevent such paralysis the starting point has to be chosen more or
less arbitrarily, which then might bear some problems of legitimacy. The further the new
strategy is away form the existing strategies the less likely it is to be accepted.
Instead of developing new strategies oneself, one can also draw from the stock of general
strategy concepts existing in the organisation’s environment. At any one time there usually
are lots of such general concepts being developed and propagated by institutions in the
organisation’s environment; in particular consulting firms and management schools. Many
authors also speak of these general concepts as management fashions (e.g. Abrahamson 1996;
Kieser 1997). All of these concepts seem to be particularly geared towards solving exactly
such kinds of problems. A major advantage of these general concepts is that they usually
provide the rationale for selecting the concept together with the concept. They usually give
explicit reasons why one should draw on them. As Kieser writes, “the new principles are
linked to highly treasured values – besides efficiency, the enrichment of jobs, the competitive
edge of the national economy, full employment, customer satisfaction, flexibility, creativity,
innovativeness of the company etc. “ (1997: 58; references omitted). In other words, the
One can of course argue that managers who have been involved with the organisation often lose sight of
alternatives to the current way of organizing. Thus, somebody from outside might bring in a new perspective.
This is certainly true to some extent. It is however questionable whether this can compensate for their lack of
experience of the organisation.
general strategy concepts are self-substantiating. Thus, for the manager drawing on such a
concept the reason for adopting the concept comes together with the concept. This relieves the
managers drawing on the concepts from detailed reasoning (Kieser 1997: 65). In addition to
that these concepts often are developed and/or propagated by highly reputable consulting
firms. Their reputation can itself serve as a source of legitimacy for the concepts. In other
words the legitimacy of the consulting firm is transferred onto the concept itself. Kirsch
(1997) in this sense speaks of “secondary knowledge”, i.e. knowledge not about the concept
itself but about something connected with it. Similarly to the reputation of the consulting firm
legitimacy for the concepts is also often provided through an explicit connection of the
concept to academia or science in general. The concepts are either supported by some kind of
empirical tests, which as Kieser (1997: 60) writes might be more or less adequate. Or
university professors are propagating these concepts bestowing the concepts with legitimacy
through their own position (Kieser 1997: 63).
In addition to that many of the general strategy concepts are part of a ‘public discourse’ on
management. These concepts often become generally accepted norms of good management;
they often come to be seen as describing some kind of “best practice”. As the neo-
institutionalist studies have shown, such general management concepts often are not only
perceived as legitimate forms of management, but they are also expected to be adopted by all
organisations. Organisations rather have to justify if they do not adopt them (Meyer/Rowan
1977; Powell/DiMaggio 1991, Abrahamson 1996).
For the strategist the choice between developing strategies himself or drawing on existing
strategy concepts seems fairly easy to be made. On the one hand he is under pressure to
change the strategy; on the other hand there are strategy concepts that are almost forced onto
him. Adopting the general strategy concepts, thus, seems a natural thing. The risk associated
with the new strategy seems not too great. As Kieser (1997: 63; similarly Astley/Zammuto
1992: 457) writes:
Through management fashions managers can fight their fears without having to take the
risk of provoking criticism or even ridicule, because they are members of a recognized
4. The problem of idiosyncrasies
While general strategy concepts are very attractive for managers under pressure to change
their strategies, they have a fundamental problem: they cannot account for the idiosyncrasies
of concrete organisation. As many authors have pointed out, organisations develop
idiosyncratic contexts within with the world is experienced and actions are undertaken. For
example Kirsch (1997), drawing on Habermas, argues that every organisation possesses an
organisation-specific lifeworld (Lebenswelt); consisting of a specific culture (conceptualised
as a set of interpretative schemata), a specific institutional order (conceptualised as a set of
taken-for-granted rules) and specific personality structures. This lifeworld is itself manifested
in a multiplicity of organisation-specific forms of life and language (“Lebens- und
Sprachformen”). The lifeworld determines the way that the organisational members act and
interact. Everything going on in the organisation is interpreted by the organisational members
against the background of this lifeworld. In this sense new ideas - like new methods, concepts,
or systems - coming from outside the organisation only become relevant internally to the
extent that they in some way or other can be connected to the organisational lifeworld. This,
as Kirsch argues, is very restrictive.
Other authors highlighting particularly the recursivity of organisational life take a similarly
critical view towards the possibility of external ideas entering into the organisation. Luhmann
(2003) even goes so far as to conceptualise organisations as self-referentially closed systems.
Based on the assumption of a self-referential closure, all external references used in the
system must be understood as internal operations. Thus, there are no examples of
external ‘sources’ of authority… Likewise, no additional criteria, i.e. goals (“Zwecke”),
are at play…. There is no such thing as an independent reality that may influence an
organization directly. (pp. 32-33; emphasis added)
Whatever takes place in an organisation is determined by the operations that have taken place
in the past. Or the other way around, every operation determines what other operations will be
possible in the future. The organisation in this sense is history-dependent (von Foerster 1991).
Through its own history it individualises itself (Seidl 2003: 131). Other authors would speak
of path dependence. Thus, for external concepts to be able to be applied internally it would be
necessary for them to fit exactly the momentary conditions of that organisation.
Against this background it seems highly questionable how strategy concepts could be both
general enough as to refer to a wide range of organisations and specific enough to fit the
idiosyncratic conditions of each particular organisation. In addition to the problem of general
strategy concepts having to be able to account for different organisational contexts, some
authors have pointed out that such general strategy concepts are originally embedded in
discourses very different from the organisational discourse. Kirsch (2002) in this sense speaks
of different spheres of communication which cannot so easily be translated into each other.
Academics, consultants and clients speak “different languages” (p. 321), which often are
incommensurate. Attempts at translating between the different spheres are usually very
“distressing” (p. 321). Similarly Astley and Zammuto (1992) speak of different “language
Luhmann in a similar vein speaks of the discourses belonging to different functional systems
which follow different logics; in particular: the systems of science, education (in particular in
business schools) and economics. Each of these systems possesses its individual code
according to which the communications become meaningful. Scientific communications for
example are guided by the code true/false while economic communications are guided by the
code revenue/expense (Luhmann 1995). In each of the different discourses the strategy
concepts possess a different meaning. Communication across these systems is not possible.
As Luhmann and Fuchs (1989) write, in order to transfer a scientific communication into a
discourse within a different functional system it would be necessary to transfer also the entire
background of theories in which the communication is embedded. And even if that was
possible, the meaning of the communication would be a different one as the entire complex
would be interpreted according to a different logic. Organisations are not interested in
scientific truths as such; they are mostly interested in performance improvements. This
however is not part of scientific reasoning (Kieser 1999; Nicolai 2003). As Nicolai points out,
even where science deals with the question of performance it is dealt with in a scientific way
that cannot be transferred to individual organisations. Kieser (1999) in this sense speaks of a
‘decoupling’ of the scientific and the practical discourses. One could even speak of consulting
forming a separate system following a specific system logic. Luhmann and Fuchs (1992: 215)
in this sense speak of an eigen-language (“Eigensprache”) of consultants. Astley and
Zammuto (1992) describe organizational science and managerial practice as different
“language games”. This as Kieser writes, leads to communication barriers between them:
Management science, consulting and management praxis […] are highly autonomous
systems that have developed different criteria of success and different languages;
because of that they have erected considerable communication barriers between each
other. (Kieser 1999: 77; my translation; see also Kieser, in print)
Thus, to summarise, the transfer of general strategy concepts into concrete organisations
seems in two respects particularly problematic. First, the individuality of organisations seems
to exclude the possibility of one concept fitting several organisations. Second, the general
strategy concepts are usually embedded in scientific, educational or consulting discourses,
which differ considerably from the concrete organisational discourses. A transfer of the
concepts from one discourse into the other, thus, seems problematic.
In contrast to our theoretical reservations toward the transferability of general strategy
concepts, empirically these concepts seem very well widely distributed. The same concepts
are analysed in academic journals, taught at business schools, discussed in consulting circles
and applied to business organisations. Examples abound: portfolio management, lean
management, quality circles, business process reengineering, boundaryless organisation,
fractal company… How can this be explained?
What we observe here, as can be argued, is just a seeming diffusion of strategy concepts.
These ‘general’ strategy concepts are not, and cannot be, introduced into individual
organisations. Rather, what we find in the different organisations are very different concepts
and related practices. The impression of the diffusion of the general strategy concepts,
however, is created through the organisations’ using the same (complexes of) labels for their
practices. In other words, the concrete practices behind the labels in different organisations
are very different. But why then are the same labels attached to the different concepts? In
order to answer this question we have to go back to the starting point of our discussion. There
we identified the dilemma of strategists having to come up with new strategies from time to
time although not having a clear picture of the organisational complexity. Because of that,
drawing on the general strategy concepts discussed in the organisation’s environment seemed
a natural solution. However, what ultimately is drawn upon is not the strategy concept as such
but the (complex of) labels attached to it. In other words what is transferred is not the concept
but the label. Instead of the strategy concept being applied to the organisation the organisation
is stimulated to develop, or better: to invent, its own concepts and practices. For the strategist
this at first seems to contradict the original purpose of drawing on the general concepts, i.e. to
take the bourdon of having to develop the new strategy himself. However, the strategist
mostly isn’t aware of his own contribution to the invention of the strategy. He rather is under
the illusion of just applying the general concept. This provides him with the necessary
confidence for making his ‘blind’ choices.
How can we conceptualise this process of organisations inventing their own strategy
concepts? As we pointed out above, the same semantics have different meanings in different
contexts or within different language games. In this sense the transfer of a label from one
discourse into another, in our case from a scientific or consulting discourse into the
organisational discourse, goes hand in hand with a re-interpretation of that label. Internally
this introduction is experienced as an ‘irritation’ that leads to system-specific reactions to it.
In other words, the organisation starts developing new practices trying to accommodate the
new labels. Whenever organisations proclaim to be applying a new strategy concept one finds
long discussions – initially amongst senior managers, later also amongst other members of the
organisation – about the interpretation of the labels and how they can be related to the existing
organisational practices. In these discussions new (organisation-specific) concepts are
developed from organisational practices already in place. The use of the same label for the
organisation-specific concept however gives the impression of a direct correspondence with
the external concept.
The invention of the new strategy in response to the proclaimed introduction of the new
concept isn’t however completely arbitrary. Rather, the labels and ‘sub-labels’ guide the
development of the new concept, however, the way that it is guided depends itself again on
the existing organisational practices. In other words it is again the organisation that constructs
a guide from the labels. Kieser (1997: 59) quoting Champy (1994: 99) in this sense writes:
[T]he manager who wants to implement a new management concept ‘joins a journey
whose duration no one really knows and for which there are no maps’.
As Luhmann (2003) points out anything coming from outside the organisation is processed in
a system-specific way.
What strategy concept ultimately is invented on the basis of the introduced label cannot be
predicted from outside. In some cases organisations will accomplish a fundamental change. In
other cases the existing structure will hardly be affected; what is taking place instead is
merely a re-labelling of the existing practices. In this sense Brunsson and Olsen note with
regards to reforms in general:
It is quite possible not only to launch, but also to implement reforms at the level of talk
[…] Consistency between the talk of the reformers and the reformees makes the reform
seem implemented (1993: 87).
Thus, it might be that the actual organisational practices remain unchanged despite the new
labels. For the strategist under pressure to change the strategy from time to time the change of
label might be enough as long as the illusion of an associated change of practices is preserved.
Such practices of just changing the labels have been widely observed (e.g. Brunsson 1989,
Ashforth/Gibbs 1990; Elsbach 1994). While this is often portrayed as intentional deception
there are many cases where the involved actors themselves believe that they have changed the
organisational practices. Through the new label they experience the same practice differently.
In order to conceptualise the process of ‘general’ strategy concepts giving rise to the invention
of a system-specific strategy concept we can draw on the concept of the ‘co-evolutionary
knowledge creation’ by Kirsch and Eckert (Kirsch/Eckert 2002; Eckert 1998). According to
this view knowledge is never transferred from one person to another. This is not possible as
knowledge is always context specific. Rather what is happening is that when a person draws
on ‘external’ knowledge in actual fact he constructs new context-specific knowledge. As
Kirsch and Eckert (2002: 336; my translation) write:
Any transfer of knowledge implies a context-specific new production of knowledge
Applied to the case of ‘general’ strategy concepts this would mean that whenever such
concepts are made use of inside an organisation they are in actual fact newly constructed
according to the organisation-specific context. Thus, the internal and the external concept are
different concepts. This, however, doesn’t mean that there is no correspondence between the
internal and external concepts. Rather - as expressed with the word “co-evolutionary” - the
internal process of creating the new concepts in some way or other co-evolves with the
development of the external concept.
The system-specific re-invention of the ‘general’ strategy concept is, however, only possible
if the organisation finds some point of connection to the label. That is the different labels and
sub-labels must in some way or other be open to be interpreted according to the existing
organisational practices. Indeed, one finds that the most popular strategy concepts leave great
“room for interpretation”. Many authors have commented on the ambiguity and vagueness of
general strategy concepts (e.g. Kieser 1997; Ernst/Kieser 2003; Clark/Salaman 1996;
Astley/Zammuto 1992). While some authors see this ambiguity fairly critically, other authors
have pointed out – in accordance with our line of reasoning - that only by being ambiguous
and vague there is a chance of ‘general’ strategy concepts to be able to be ‘fitted’ to the
concrete organisational practices. Also Astley and Zammuto emphasize the flexibility of
concepts created through linguistic ambiguity.
Linguistic ambiguity […] gives conceptual terminology great flexibility of application,
allowing words to take on new meanings in the context of a different language game.
(Astley/Zammuto 1992: 453)
A particularly important linguistic device for increasing the flexibility of the concepts is the
use of metaphors. Many of the ‘general’ strategy concepts are put in the form of metaphors
(cf. Kieser 1997; Ernst/Kieser 2003; Astley/Zammuto 1992): reengineering, lean
management, fractal company, network organisation etc. The important point about these
metaphors is that they taken for themselves are almost devoid of meaning and only develop
meaning in the concrete context to which they are applied. As Debatin (1995:97) points out,
the meaning of a metaphor is recursively created in the interaction with the other semantic
field - in our case the organisation to which it is applied to. What becomes particularly clear
in the case of metaphorical concepts is that it is the organisation itself that determines – by
way of bestowing the metaphor with meaning – how it is guided by the strategy concept. For
the organisational members however it seems as if the concept is coming from outside
together with its particular meaning.
In addition to their linguistic flexibility ‘general’ strategy concepts often leave completely
open how they should be implemented. In other words they leave it to the organisations to
make with it what they want. Kieser in this sense writes:
Ambiguity is also created by the lack of a precise description of the implementation
process. (Kieser 1997: 59)
[Usually] the author [presenting a new management concept] does not instruct the
manager, instead he simply points out outstanding solutions that were achieved by
extraordinary managers. (Kieser 1997: 58)
Thus, what the strategists do with the general strategy concepts is completely left open. The
less there is in way of concrete descriptions of how to implement the strategy concepts the
easier it is to re-invent a corresponding internal strategy concept.
To summarise our argument so far; the idea that organisations apply general strategy concepts
to their concrete organisational practices is illusory, as, first, such general concepts cannot
account for the idiosyncrasies of individual organisations, and, second, the discourses in
which these concepts originally are embedded follow a different logic than the organisational
discourses. However, while the concepts themselves cannot be transferred the labels and ‘sub-
labels’ attached to them can very well be. Thus, rather than introducing a new strategy
concept strategists introduce new (complexes of) labels which give rise to the invention of a
context-specific new strategy concept. This reinvention of the strategy concept usually
remains latent. That is to say, the strategists themselves are not aware of the difference
between their own and the general strategy concept. The context-specific re-invention of the
strategy concept is facilitated by ‘general’ strategy concepts usually being vague and
ambiguous. Particularly important in this respect are metaphorical labels as their meaning is
dynamic in that their meaning is determined by the concrete context to which they are
5. The reproduction of general strategy concepts
So far we have focused our discussion on the individual organisation drawing on general
strategy concepts. In the following we want to widen our focus and analyse the relation
between all actors involved in the production and reproduction of ‘general’ strategy concepts.
Assuming that every organisation invents its own strategy concept, one might ask: what is it
that actually gets reproduced? Or when people speak of management fashions (e.g.
Abrahamson 1996; Kieser, 1997): what is the fashion if every organisation is inventing its
The picture gets even more complex if we acknowledge that the discourse outside the
organisation isn’t a homogenous one. Not only do we have to distinguish between scientific
and consulting discourses as two different discourses, but the two are themselves not
homogenous. Rather, science and consulting are themselves made up of many different
discourses. As Kuhn (1962) and others have argued we have to distinguish different scientific
communities that are formed around different scientific paradigms. These paradigms shape
the scientific discourses. The relation between the scientific discourses is one of
incommensurability. This incommensurability between different co-existing paradigms in
organization and management theory has been noted by many academics (see e.g.
Burrell/Morgan 1979; Burrell 1996; Scherer 1998). The important point about the
incommensurability is that elements of one scientific discourse cannot be transferred into
another one. With regard to our general strategy concepts this means that the ‘scientific
meaning’ of the concept is not the same throughout science. Rather, we again have to
acknowledge that the ‘same’ concept is a different one in the different scientific discourses.
For the consulting discourse the same holds true. Instead of one discourse we are dealing with
multiple consulting discourses often following very different logics. Kirsch and Eckert in this
[O]ne cannot assume a single consulting discourse. Rather, one has to acknowledge the
multitude of different consulting traditions. (Kirsch/Eckert 2002: 335; my translation,
Thus, even in the field of consulting we cannot assume that the ‘same’ concept is the same
across different discourses.
Also the direction of ‘diffusion’ of the general management concepts is more complicated
than mostly acknowledged. While we so far have analysed the issue as if the ‘diffusion’ of the
general strategy concepts was unidirectional, from the consulting to the management practice,
the actual practice looks quite different. Very often consultants draw on strategy concepts
developed in concrete organisational contexts (Kieser 1997; see also Whittington et al. 2003);
or to be precise: consultants invent new concepts in reaction to developments in concrete
organisations. In addition to that consultants often revise and develop further their general
strategy concepts in the interaction with the organisational practice. Kirsch and Eckert in this
[T]he image of the consultant as knowledge producer and the focal organisational
practice as recipient of this knowledge is increasingly abandoned in favour of a
symmetrical relation of the two observers. (Kirsch/Eckert 2002: 336; my translation)
Similarly, the relation between management practice and science has to be viewed
symmetrically. Many strategy concepts discussed in scientific discourses were originally
stimulated through management practice. Galbraith famously wrote:
I know of no new form of organization that was invented by organization theorists while
advancing theory. Instead, the researchers record what the inventive practitioner creates
and give it labels like grids, systems 4, or matrix organization. (Galbraith 1980: 162; on
this issue see also Kiser 1995)
These scientific discourses, however, then might stimulate again the organisational discourses
leading to new strategy development there (cf. Astley/Zammuto 1992: 454).
We can generally say that all discourses can, and do, stimulate each other. The relation
between all types of discourses, i.e. scientific discourses, consulting discourses and
organisational discourses, as well as the different discourses within science, consulting and
organisational practice should thus (a priory) be conceptualised as symmetrical.
Although the different discourses are clearly differentiated from each other they are at the
same time highly interrelated. In this sense we can conceptualise the different discourses
forming an ‘ecology’ of discourses (in analogy to Vickers’s (1968) and Kirsch’s (1997:
chpt.3) concept of an ‘ecology of knowledge’3) in which the different discourses are
interrelated in such a way as to mutually stimulate each other. Vickers (1968: 34) writes about
the concept of ecology:
[The ecologist] develops first the idea of interdependence. In a field of variables so
closely and mutually interrelated, any change anywhere will in some degree affect the
The entire field of different organisational, scientific and consulting discourses is not viewed
as one single (macro-) discourse but as an ecology of many different (parallel) discourses
which stimulate each other but are autonomous with regard to their logic of reproduction. The
important point about the concept of the ecology is that it forces us to think in circles (cf.
Kirsch/Eckert 2002). Developments in one discourse (might) give rise to developments in
other discourses, which ultimately again (might) stimulate developments in the initial
In order to conceptualise the way that the different discourses stimulate each other, we
suggest conceptualising them as observers (cf. Luhmann 1995; Kirsch 1997; 2003; Von
Foerster 1981) - to be precise, as communicative observers: The participants of such
discourses observe (i.e. perceive) what is going on outside the discourse. When they try to
communicate their observations within that discourse the perceptions have to be transformed
into communications that conform to the logic of that particular discourse. That is to say, the
participants give rise to ‘corresponding’ communications that are determined in their form
and their meaning by the logic of the specific discourse. In this sense the resulting
communication can be said to be a product of the discourse rather than the individual person
involved in it (cf. Hendry/Seidl 2003)4. To the extent that this is the case we can speak of the
communicated observation as the discourse’s observation. Or in other words, a discourse
observes its environment by producing communications about it. Due to their different logics
different discourses produce different communications about the ‘same’ environmental
In contrast to Kirsch (1997), however, we do not assume a ‘pool of ideas’ or ‘pool of knowledge’.
As communication always involves at least two persons – one that produces the utterance and the information
and the other one who contributes the understanding - the communication cannot be reduced to the product of
one person. Rather, a communication (or better: communicative event) is the product of the interaction of these
persons or, in other words: their discourse (Luhmann 1997: 81).
phenomena, i.e. every discourse observes – and in this sense ‘constructs’ - its environment
Following this suggestion, we can also speak of discourses observing each other. A scientific
discourse might for example observe what strategy concepts feature in a consulting discourse
(e.g. a scientific article analyses the strategy concepts presented by consultants at a consulting
seminar). Or a consulting discourse might observe what strategy concepts are communicated
about in a specific scientific discourse (e.g. consultants speak at a consulting seminar about
the strategy concepts presented in a scientific article). Or a consulting discourse might
observe what strategy concept is communicated about in another consulting discourse (e.g.
consultants from one consulting firm discuss the strategy concepts of another consulting
firm). The important point here is that the different discourses do not ‘import’ the
communications of the other discourses, but they produce their own construction of the other
communication. In other words the communication in one discourse about the communication
within another discourse is not a copy but a completely different – however corresponding –
construct. In addition to observing each other the different discourses can also observe how
they are being observed by other discourses and how other discourses observe each other. In
this sense we get a dynamic picture of mutual observations between the different discourses in
the course of which the different discourses create, refine, revise, change and recreate
different constructs in their different contexts.
While any discourse is involved in a network of mutual observations with other discourses, in
our specific case the different discourses have a common point of reference: the general
strategy concepts. The different discourses observe each other with regard to (apart others)
particular general strategy concepts. The labels attached to these concepts serve as orientation
for the observations. Thus, the different concepts of the different discourses are treated as the
same due to the same labels (and sub-labels) being attached to them. To the extent that the
different discourses are perceived as treating the same concepts (due to using the same labels)
the illusion of these discourses forming one (macro-) discourse about the same concepts is
created. The participants of the different discourses in this sense are perceived as contributing
to a (macro-) discourse on the particular concepts, while in actual fact they are just
reproducing their specific (organisational, scientific or consulting) discourses.
Ultimately observation is construction (Spencer Brown 1979)
The different discourses are sometimes interrelated in such a way as to mutually amplify their
communications about their respective strategy concepts – resembling an amplifying feedback
loop (Maruyama 1963). In this sense, if one discourse observes that another discourse
communicates about the (allegedly) same strategy concept this might encourage a more
intensive treatment in the initial discourse. This again might, if observed by the second
discourse, increase their efforts and so on. As noted above, the effects of this amplification
also depend on the way that the different discourses observe each other. For example the
discourse of a reputable firm is more likely to stimulate communications in other discourses
than the discourse of an unknown organisation. Often the observation is even indirectly; one
only observes other discourses observing other discourses. For example, an organisation
might observe a scientific discourse (e.g. a scientific article) that observed a consulting
discourse (e.g. a McKinsey report) observing that a particular strategy concept featured in a
high percentage of organisational discourses (e.g. ‘60% of US companies have been
reengineered’) . This, then, might increase the own efforts at ‘implementing’ this concept also
in the own organisation (i.e. they invent their own strategy concept to which the particular
label can be attached). To the extent that such mutually amplifying processes can be observed
the literature speaks of the development of a ‘management fashion’ (e.g. Kieser, 1997;
Abrahamson 1996). Ernst and Kieser write about such processes:
The wave of a management fashion gains momentum through adoptions. The more
companies that are reported as having achieved competitive advantages through the
implementation of a management concept […] the higher the propensity of non-adopters
to get on to the band-wagon […] (Ernst/Kieser 2003: 14-15)
This mutual amplification is supported by the fact that the evaluation of different strategy
concepts proves very difficult, if not even impossible. Apart from the problem of selecting an
appropriate performance measurement (cf. REF.) the number of factors involved in the
organisational processes is usually so high that the strategy concept’s contribution to the
performance outcome cannot be calculated.6 Kiser in this sense write: “An ‘objective’
evaluation of some exactness of a complex restructuring project is impossible” (Kieser 1997:
67; see also Nicolai/Kieser 2002; Ernst/Kieser 2003). This fact combined with the strategists’
having to justify their strategic choices tends to produce predominantly positive reports about
This has to do with the problem of complexity noted at the beginning of the paper.
applications of general strategy concepts independently of their ‘true’ effects. As Kieser
referring to Brunsson and Olsen (1993) writes:
The managers who initiated a restructuring programme have a fundamental interest in
presenting it in seminars or magazines as a successful application of a new management
concept, as an additional reference case. (Kieser 1997: 67)
Sometimes (more and more often) the mutual amplification of communications about strategy
concepts in the different discourses is also actively encouraged - one could almost say:
engineered - by certain interest groups (particularly strategy consultants) who profit from the
‘dissemination’ of certain strategy concept (or better: the dissemination of certain labels for
strategy concepts). This includes in particular the encouragement of mutual observations
between different discourses (on other mechanisms see Kieser 1997): On the one hand they
offer themselves as ‘observational intermediaries’ in that they (selectively)7 observe the
application of certain strategy concepts in a number of organisations and offer this
observation to other organisations. For example, they present success stories about concrete
organisational applications. On the other hand they create spaces for (selective) mutual
observations of different discourses, for example in the form of seminars in which
experiences with certain strategy concepts can be ‘exchanged’.8 Such seminars tend to have
an amplifying effect as they additionally support the efforts in the different discourses. As
Events like this do not serve enlightening, critical discourse. They are the opposite:
rituals of confirmation, sometimes even celebrations […] The central function of a
seminar or congress ritual is to confirm the participants’ convictions that they are on the
right track. (Kieser 1997: 65)
Often such amplifying feedback processes gain considerable momentum until they finally
slow down when the concepts are either replaced by new concepts or the strategy labels
simply lose their attraction (on reasons for the down-turn of management fashions see e.g.
Kieser 1997; Abrahamson 1996).
These observations are mostly ‘selective’ as they only observe predominantly ‚positive’ cases.
The seminar itself can be seen as a discourse which again stimulates developments in the discourses the
participants of the seminar originally came from.
At this point we want to summarise our re-conceptualisation of the reproduction of general
strategy concepts before we then attempt to contrast it with the ‘classical’ social practice
perspective (see figure 1). We have suggested conceptualising the ‘organizational field of
strategy’ (Whittington et al. 2003) as an ecology of different (organisational, scientific and
consulting) discourses. While the discourses are autonomous in that they reproduce
themselves on the basis of their idiosyncratic logics they are related to each other through
mutual observations; observations of the communications of other discourses, observations of
one discourse of how it is being observed by other discourses and observations of how other
discourses observe the mutual observations of third discourses. All these observations are
constructions of the respective discourses and, thus, lead to idiosyncratic developments in
these discourses. The labels (or complexes of labels) that are attached to the different strategy
concepts in the various discourses serve as orientation for these mutual observations. By
different discourses attaching the same labels to their idiosyncratic strategy concepts the
illusion of shared strategic practices is created. Externally this illusion provides legitimacy;
internally it facilitates the invention of new (organisation-specific) strategy concepts, as the
invention is experienced as ‘application’ of an established general strategy concept.
In contrast to our conceptualisation, the ‘classical’ social-practice perspective on strategy (e.g.
Whittington 2002; 2002a; Whittington et al. 2003; Jarzabkowski 2003; forthcoming) assumes
- in our terminology - a unified macro-discourse on strategy on the societal level. This macro-
discourse provides a “stock of practices” (Whittington 2002a) - in our specific case here:
general strategy concepts - that strategists in their local and situated praxis draw upon. In
other words, strategists apply – ‘use’ or ‘consume’ (de Certeau 1988) – the general strategy
concepts to their concrete organisational circumstances. While any application is a ‘creative’
application, in which the strategy concept is interpreted in a context-specific way, there is no
doubt that it is the same concept that is applied. The ‘practice’ (here: the general strategy
concept) and the ‘practice-in-use’ (Jarzabkowski forthcoming) are conceptualised as different
categories, nevertheless it is the same practice that ‘features’ in the practice-in-use. In this
sense when strategists draw on such general strategy concepts they reproduce (or amend) that
very concept. Whittington writes:
As they follow, synthesise or interpret these strategic practices, strategy practitioners
reproduce, and occasionally amend, the stock of practices on which they will draw in
their next round of strategising praxis. (Whittington 2002a)
Drawing on Giddens (1990) this issue is often portrayed as one of ‘disembedding’ and
‘reembedding’ of strategy practices. The ‘stock of strategic practices’ is conceptualised as
disembedded from the concrete praxis in which it was developed. When these disembedded
practices get drawn upon, they get reembedded into a new local and situated praxis. The more
similar the praxes in which the practices get embedded are, the more similar the outcome of
the practice-in-use will be (cf. Brown/Duguid 2001). But even if the praxes are very different
it is still the same strategy practice that is embedded.
‚Classical’ practice perspective Systems perspective
Stock of disembedded
Recursive irritations Discourse II
reembedding reembedding disembedding through the use of
Discourse I Discourse II Discourse III
Figure 1: ‘Classical’ practice perspective and systems perspective
Thus, comparing our conceptualisation above with (our description of) the ‘classical’ social
practice perspective the most important difference seems to be that the latter assumes a stock
of disembedded general strategy concepts which get applied to the different strategy
discourses, while we see this as illusion.9 Any strategy discourse – whether scientific,
organisational or consulting - is idiosyncratic and produces its own strategy concept; there is
no higher, ‘trans-discoursive’ level or meta-discourse providing disembedded strategy
concepts to be drawn upon in the concrete praxis. There is neither an exchange of general
strategy concepts between different discourses; only the (complexes of) strategy labels are
‘exchanged’ leading to the (re-)development of the system-specific concepts.10
However, from our perspective, we agree with the existence of an internal ‘stock of practices’ within the
organisation, but not beyond its boundaries.
If one still wanted to stick to the ‘classical’ practice perspective, one could at most conceptualise the
(complexes of) labels as the disembedded practices that are drawn upon in the different strategic praxes. This
would also fit with the conceptualisation of practices as ‘texts’ and the application of these practices as context-
Ultimately the two perspectives might not be so far apart; they merely put different emphasis
on the issue. While the ‘classical’ practice perspective emphasises the identity of the strategy
concepts and then goes on to analyse how the concepts-in-use differ in the different contexts,
we emphasis the difference between the strategy concepts and then go on to analyse what
types of ‘correspondence’ there exist between the different concepts.11 Nevertheless the
different emphasis tends to focus the researcher’s attention on different aspects of strategising
6. Summary and conclusion
In this paper we have presented a new perspective on the role of general strategy concepts in
the practice of strategy. We started off with a description of strategising as an activity of
complexity reduction. This reduction is necessary in order to make organisational action
possible. Due to the risk associated with new strategies strategists tend to prefer drawing on
concepts already established amongst their peers. Externally this provides them with
legitimacy and internally with courage for action. However, the introduction of such general
strategy concepts into the organisational practice, as we argued, is due to the idiosyncrasies of
the organisational contexts not possible. Instead of introducing the general strategy concept
strategist inadvertently develop new (context-specific) strategy concepts, to which they,
however, stick the same label. Moving to a higher level of analysis we suggested
conceptualising the ‘organisational field of strategy’ as an ecology of many different
discourses that mutually observe each other with regard to their strategy concepts. As the
different discourses use the same label for their own strategy concepts the illusion of an
identity of the different strategy concepts is created. Based on this illusion the different
discourses stimulate their respective activities regarding the development of their own
strategy concepts. We finished with a comparison of the presented perspective with the
‘classical’ social practice perspective on strategy. The two perspectives seem to offer
complementary approaches to the same issue, however highlighting different aspects of it and,
consequently, leading to slightly different research questions. While the latter focuses our
attention on how the same concepts lead to different processes in the different discourses, the
specific ‘reading’ of these texts (cf. La Ville/Mounoud 2003).
Compare in this respect the distinction between input-type description and closure-type description by Varela
latter focuses our attention on how different discourses despite their differences still influence
each others strategising.
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