Business Planning as Pedagogy: Language and Control in a Changing Institutional Field

By Oakes, Leslie S.; Townley, Barbara et al. | Administrative Science Quarterly, June 1998 | Go to article overview

Business Planning as Pedagogy: Language and Control in a Changing Institutional Field


Oakes, Leslie S., Townley, Barbara, Cooper, David J., Administrative Science Quarterly


Business planning has traditionally been thought of as a mechanism to implement direct and explicit controls through formally established goals and, as such, has been promoted as a central tenet of good management (Ansoff, 1965; Anthony, 1965). From this perspective, business planning is a rational and neutral instrument that can encourage managers and employees to conform to organizational expectations. The decision process and the outcome of business planning is seen as a powerful and important force for change and control (Porter, 1980). Further, the business planning process is regarded as one of neutral transcription that works primarily by informing those in the organization. Planning failures are then seen to result from politics, inadequate process, inflexibility, and, often, lack of commitment (Quinn, 1980; Miller and Friesen, 1984). So, at the same time, planning has also been criticized for generating rigidity and other unintended consequences and for not delivering the control desired by managerialists (Wildavsky, 1974; Van Gunsteren, 1976; Gray, 1986; Mintzberg, 1994).

There has been considerable research on the role of controls in strategic change, with an increasing emphasis on the significance of language, ritual, and culture. Following Wittgenstein, language has been seen as an agreed way of speaking and carrying out activities, rather than a reflection of reality (Astley and Zammuto, 1992; Mauws and Phillips, 1995). For example, Berry et al. (1985), Dent (1991), and Munro (1995) have examined the interpenetration of language, the social and the technical components of accounting and budgeting systems in organizations undergoing change. Similarly, the literature on the control of work has increasingly examined "the complex ways in which we, as human beings, form our subjectivity and reproduce/change the labour process" (Knights and Willmott, 1990: 39). As Alvesson and Deetz (1996: 192) argued, "objects for management control are decreasingly labor power and behavior and increasingly the mindpower and subjectivities of employees." Such research suggests we take power, language, and subjectivity more seriously when examining controls such as business planning.

Bourdieu's work stresses what is at stake in control and change. Business planning should be seen as a profound mechanism of control, a pedagogic practice that can fundamentally change organizational identities by changing what is at stake: the capital - in Bourdieu terms - of an organizational and institutional field. Like many other social theorists, Bourdieu sees power as central to understanding how control works in modern society and organizations. Bourdieu's understanding is closer to views of power and control that focus attention on the constitution of interests and the shaping of values (Lukes, 1974; Clegg, 1989). In this version, power can be at its most effective when there is no visible conflict (Foucault, 1980). While there is no doubt that control can be directly coercive (for example, by threatening people's jobs) and can be executed through organizational hierarchies, it is also important to understand how control works more subtly through language and the construction and use of knowledge. Regarding planning as coercive and hierarchical is incomplete; it also provides and sanctions legitimate forms of discourse and language and thus serves as a mechanism of knowledge that produces new understandings of the organization. As a form of pedagogy, business planning is not a neutral mechanism of transcription but, rather, has significant implications for the forms and amounts of capital within a field and for organizational identities. Business plans not only announce that change is coming, but it is through the activity of business planning that change actually occurs. In this paper, we argue that business planning is indeed "effective" in introducing change but that the process through which this occurs is more complex than much of the current literature suggests. …

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