Academic journal article Advances in Competitiveness Research

Understanding Strategy: Why Is Strategy So Difficult?

Academic journal article Advances in Competitiveness Research

Understanding Strategy: Why Is Strategy So Difficult?

Article excerpt

"Everything in strategy is very simple, but that does not mean that everything is very easy. "

--Clausewitz (1976: 178)

As academics, our first responsibility is to teach strategy to students who are then expected to use their skills out in the real world. A key concern we have recognized is that the word strategy means different things to different people. These differences in the meaning and conceptualization of strategy affect both academics as well as practitioners. According to Bongiorno (1993), there is neither a pattern in the way the subject is taught, nor is there any consensus on the definition of strategy. As Bongiorno (1993) points out, top universities in the country have entirely different methods of teaching strategy to business students. Some universities require MBA students to take a number of courses, while others require a single capstone course, and yet others have no strategy courses at all. The confusion surrounding the definition of strategy is another case in point.

In this paper, we do not aim to resolve all the differences that currently exist, nor do we make suggestions about how strategy should be imparted. Rather, we seek to highlight some of the difficulties that beset strategists in the field. Overall, we set ourselves two tasks in writing this paper. One is to have a better understanding as to why strategy is so inherently difficult. Two is to develop a framework at a fairly high level of abstraction from which strategizing can be conceptualized and extended. In order to develop the paper, we will (1) discuss learning and learning to learn; (2) examine the factors that make strategy so difficult; (3) the complexity, themes, and contexts of strategy; and finally (4) develop a framework to strategize. We end with a discussion section that summarizes the main points of this paper.


In addition to differing definitions of strategy and the way the subject matter is taught, it is useful to examine the frameworks that have been popularized. Given that the field is highly dynamic, fluid, and complex, we take a critical view of the subject and examine some of the structures that the discipline leans on. To start with, we note that almost all strategy textbooks have a standardized way of presenting the discipline. The typical format starts with a general definition of strategy, followed by an examination of the internal and external environments, corporate strategy, portfolio management, business unit strategy, implementation, and control, and so on. Vital issues in the field like the internet, technology, globalization, domestic and foreign regulations, social forces, culture and history, the WTO, domestic and foreign interest groups, local and national politics in the international environment, and a host of relevant factors are either glossed over or simply not addressed. We do not pay enough attention about how to think about the thinking process itself.

The content of strategy that is taught does not address the many factors that exist in the real world. In the absence of an understanding of the impact of these vital issues, students are imparted a simplistic knowledge about how the world of business works. We do not create conditions to more fully incorporate the factors that take into account how the world works. Finally, we do not pay enough attention about how to think about the thinking process itself. Our knowledge, as a consequence is limited. It is important, at this point, to examine our knowledge of strategy, how it is taught, and how it is used.

From an epistemological point of view, work in cognitive psychology (Gaskins & Elliot, 1991; Palinscar & Brown, 1989; Liedtka & Rosenblum, 1998) has identified three distinct categories of knowledge. These categories are:

1. Content knowledge--How the world works;

2. Cognitive knowledge--How to think about how the world works; and

3. …

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