Book Club notes: Changing practices – or practicing change?

Text by: Jaakko Luomaranta

For anyone interested in renewing how strategy work is done, it might be useful to understand how it has been done in the past. How have the shared ways of doing strategy – its practices – changed over time?

In his 2019 book, Richard Whittington explores these changes and the organizational, cultural and technological forces driving them. From the long-range planning of the 1950s to the open strategy of the 2000s, there have always been specific needs in the organizations, changing trends and values in the society and new technologies in the marketplace that have pushed and pulled new practices into being.

Nonetheless, changing practices was never easy. It required hard work by corporate strategists, consultants and – sometimes – academics. CEOs and clients had to be convinced, old practices ridiculed, positions defended, new tools innovated and middle management involved.

Interestingly, many of these difficulties can be traced to the precariousness and permeability of the Strategy field. Whittington analyses Strategy’s practices and practitioners based on Gidden’s structuration theory, and identifies an ill-defined professional field. Fields like law or medicine have well-established norms and bodies to govern. Strategy, by contrast, is characterized by short tenures in corporate strategy roles and brief consulting engagements. The field is easy to enter without formal education and there is no authority to define its boundaries or its acceptable practices. As a consequence of missing the field, we rarely acknowledge the significant impact strategists have on our societies, even when they guide the actions of major corporations, institutions and even nations.

In the end, the book’s main thesis is present in its name already: the gradual progress of opening strategy. Since the shift from long-range planning towards strategic planning, more and more people have become involved in strategy work. First the top management more widely and with the emergence of new practices, extending to middle management, whole personnel, and at times, even until customers and other stakeholders.

As members of the Human Sciences in strategy, we would have a lot to learn from past changes in strategy practices, and a lot to contribute to its opening.

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