Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

A Hermeneutic Reading into "What Strategy Is": Ambiguous Means-End Relationship

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

A Hermeneutic Reading into "What Strategy Is": Ambiguous Means-End Relationship

Article excerpt


We apply epistemological and methodological insights from contemporary hermeneutics to understand authorial texts on "what strategy is". Our motivation is twofold: (a) to demonstrate how hermeneutics, little used in management research (Prasad, 2002), can be applied to understand complex organizational concepts; and (b) to gain insight into the notion of strategy, whose meaning continues to elude strategy academics (Ansoff, 1988; Bakir, 1998; Bakir & Bakir, 2006a, 2006b; Bowman, Singh, & Thomas, 2002; Markides, 2000; Mintzberg, 1987; Whittington, 2001).

The field of strategy has spawned a diversity of paradigms (Volberda & Elfring, 2001) focusing on how strategy is, or should be, formed. Additionally, the debate continues over the value of formalized strategic development approaches (Miller & Cardinal, 1994). In a historical review of the field, Bowman et al. (2002) find that, although the development of models to facilitate strategy has long been sought by academics and practitioners, there is no generally accepted definition or description of strategy tools. Two decades ago, Mintzberg (1987) declared that strategy was "a minefield," and Ansoff and McDonnell (1990) concluded that it was elusive. The mystery surrounding "what strategy is" remains with us today: "We simply do not know what strategy is or how to develop a good one" (Markides, 2000, p. vii). Yet, countless studies show that managers' view of strategy is a utilitarian one; a means to achieve a desired end; in the words of one executive director: "Strategy is, in my view, what one does to get to where one wants to be" (personal communication, April, 1996).

It also comes as no surprise to note that the views of many academics of strategy are not dissimilar to the practitioners': "A means by which individuals or organizations achieve their objectives" (Grant, 2008, p. 17). Nevertheless, prominent writers in the field have criticized the tools derived from strategy theory for their irrelevance to practice as managers have not found them useful (Partington, 2000; Starkey & Madan, 2001), particularly, under the knowledge economy (Venkatraman & Subramaniam, 2001). This is a matter of ongoing concern in academia, not least because strategic management is projected as an applied discipline whose purpose is to describe, predict and change organizational situations (Hambrick, 2004; Mahoney & McGahan, 2007). Thus, although, Bower (2008) and Grant (2008) see positive ways forward, academia is seriously concerned that the strategy field is a "troubled discipline" (Jarzabkowski & Whittington, 2008a).

It is this persistent ambiguity surrounding "what strategy is" which motivates our research. Needless to say, that, as strategy academics, we are concerned that in addressing the question: "what is strategy?", we often wade through a variety of competing conceptualizations that fail to offer satisfactory explanations. Our concern over the absence of a clear meaning of what strategy is among academics in the field of Management leads us to adopt an interpretive reading of the literature in an attempt to develop a better understanding of this elusive concept. Furthermore, as we are trying to solve an ontological problem of defining the notion of strategy, we believe that a qualitative methodology is best suited for this task. Starting from the premise that strategy is about designing the means to achieve a desired end, we argue that when the end is not achieved, our understanding of the means-end relationship is problematic. We explore the means-end relationship through a hermeneutic reading of authorial texts on what strategy is: how it is defined and formed, and what variables act as its determinants.

Recognizing the fragmented state of strategy (Hambrick, 2004) and responding to calls for linkages to be made across paradigms (Lewis & Kelemen, 2002); we undertake a multi-paradigm inquiry whereby we juxtapose and link conflicting authorial strategy texts--concepts and paradigm insights--into, what we hope, a more robust understanding. …

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