SAP studies

By Ursula Plesner

It should come as no surprise that Strategy-as-Practice is not just a set of principles for doing research, but has also produced countless empirical studies of practice. They range from detailed conversation analytic and ethnomethodological studies to longitudinal approaches.

At one end of the continuum, Dalvir Samra-Fredericks is a proponent of close-up observation of strategists’ talk-based interactional routines. To go beyond the prescriptive strategy schools and arrive at an understanding of how strategists ’think, behave and feel’, he suggests doing ethnographic studies with a focus on talk. In a study of a manufacturing company (Samra-Fredericks, 2003), he presents a very fine-grained analysis of strategists’ real-time deployment of relational-rhetorical skills and links these micro episodes to strategic outcomes on a macro level.  His analysis documents the moments where one strategist succeeds at creating the foundation for strategic directions – in specific moments, the strategist shapes the attention of others and creates the facts on the basis of which they act. The strategist does this through question and query, through the display of appropriate emotion, and through the use of metaphors and history. Samra-Frederick analyzes interruptions, choice of words, tone of voice, and other elements of talk, and argues that all these types of linguistic evidence document the way that strategy is shaped though persuasion.

Another corner of the Strategy-as-Practice research has looked into how strategy tools (for instance concepts or models) are used by practitioners. In strategic management, tools are developed and applied to ensure competitive advantage, but from a Strategy-as-Practice perspective, it is more interesting to look at how these tools are used in practice (see e.g. Jarzabkowski & Kaplan, 2015 or Jarzabkowski, Spee & Smets, 2013). To take one example, Paroutis, Franco & Papadopoulos (2015) studied how managers interact visually with strategy tools during workshops. The researchers participated in a six-hour workshop and analyzed video data. They chose to analyze just one workshop in depth to closely examine group interactions – and the video method allowed them to study micro-behaviors and interactions that they consider key to understanding strategy practices. The aim of the specific workshop was to create a shared understanding of the organization’s strategic context, and to support this process, a particular tool was put to use. This was a computer system allowing participants to collectively create a ‘strategy map’ on a common screen, based on contributions from the individual laptops of each participant in the workshop. Examining the video material, the researchers first identified the strategic themes presented in the workshop and then examined the types of meaning negotiation and visual interaction associated with the themes. They could observe how the tool could both constrain and enhance visual interactions during the workshop and used the conclusion of the study to argue for more attention to how workshop participants interact visually around tools in order to develop more reflexive strategy practices.

powerpoint-presentation1The focus on tools has also been extended beyond the single episode. In 2011, Sarah Kaplan published an article with the title ‘Strategy and PowerPoint: An Inquiry into the Epistemic Culture and Machinery of Strategy Making’. As the title indicates, Kaplan studies strategy as linked to culture and knowledge practices, and in this particular article she reports on a study of how PowerPoint has become a dominant element in strategy practices. Kaplan carried out a large ethnographic study in a single organization. Through 8 months, she observed daily project activities, conducted 80 interviews, observed team meetings, participated in teleconferences and got access to emails. Although the goal of the study was relatively broad – understanding strategy making as knowledge production – PowerPoint emerged as a pressing theme. She observed how PowerPoint – as a technology and a genre – was able to mobilize conversation and knowledge production in specific ways. PowerPoint worked to structure conversations both during strategy meetings and outside them. Basically, PowerPoint created spaces for discussion, simply because strategists needed to use them in specific ways when they drafted and presented strategies. The fact that PowerPoints are modular implied that they allowed for recombinations and adjustments of various kinds of material, and the fact that they could be shared among a wide range of actors and edited by a document owner made them a central site for negotiation of meaning. Another example of looking into a specific tool and its use over time can be found in Martin Giraudeau’s study of strategic plans in practice. Giraudeau shows that by examining strategic plans, i.e. opening them up, reading their contents and studying how business actors use them, it becomes possible to see them as specific visual and textual representations of contexts and strategies that in practice enhance strategic imagination (Giraudeau, 2008).

At the other end of the continuum, we see more macro oriented, longitudinal studies of strategy-making. When the City of Sydney embarked on a strategy project resulting in the Sustainable Sydney 2030 report, Martin Kornberger and Steward Clegg followed the strategy-making process through a two-year period, from 2006 to 2008. The researchers set out to investigate not only how strategy was practiced, but also what kind of knowledge it was based upon and which power effects it had. They analyzed written documents produced as part of the strategy process, they conducted interviews with the core team involved in the strategy-making process, and they attended public events, strategy workshops and strategy meetings. They analyzed texts, transcriptions and notes by posing the questions; ‘how are different forms of knowledge mobilized in the strategy process’ and ‘what performative impact does strategy have’. Their analysis details how a city administration learns the strategy lingo, how economic language becomes the dominant voice in practicing strategy, and how strategy mobilizes people by inspiring them to ‘think big’. The analysis illustrates that strategy is also an aesthetic phenomenon – a storytelling endeavor to create ‘big pictures’ that are more convincing than technocratic planning discourses. The study contributes with knowledge about how strategy practice becomes performative over time through constituting particular subjects and objects. It offers a perspective on strategy as a sociopolitical practice aiming at mobilizing people, marshalling political will and legitimizing decisions (Kornberger & Clegg, 2011).

As we see, empirical studies from the Strategy-as-Practice tradition expose multiple aspects of doing strategy – often with a focus on either discursive interactions or interactions around material objects or conceptual tools. These are studied through various methods, which are often qualitative.

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