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European Management Journal Vol. 23, No. 5, pp.

507–519, 2005
Ó 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Printed in Great Britain
doi:10.1016/j.emj.2005.09.006 0263-2373 $30.00

The Field of Strategy:

In Search of a
Walking Stick
TAIEB HAFSI, H.E.C. Montreal
HOWARD THOMAS, Warwick Business School

The question of whether there is an academic field At a recent meeting of strategy researchers we posed
of strategy is important. It is the question that the question ‘‘How should we define the academic
defines the area of strategic management and all field of strategy?’’ The answers were somewhat ten-
the research and teaching that takes place under tative, to the surprise of everyone attending, includ-
its name. In this paper we argue that there is a field ing us. Apparently, we are not even sure if we
of strategy, but it is still underdeveloped despite an agree on the same definition of strategy. There is
incredible surge of research in the last twenty no lack of available definitions. Anyone with any
years. We believe that most strategy research does claim to recognition in ‘‘the field’’ has provided
not really address the defining issues and that it one; Andrews (1987) has traditionally been consid-
has become less and less relevant to practising ered one of the more complete definitions.1
managers. There has been a drift to traditional
social science approaches because of the complexity Yet all these definitions remain so vague and so gen-
of strategic issues. This has increased confusion eral that they provide little help. Most of the defini-
among practitioners and academics alike. Despite tions are either descriptive of the strategy-making
the fact that practice and theory are not well con- process or tautological in nature, saying basically
nected and that strategic management has so far that strategy is the set of decisions that makes an
failed to produce the volume of useful results organization successful, or strategy is what top man-
expected by managers, the search for truly useful agers do. Such a lack of clarity in the basic concept
‘walking sticks’ for strategists will succeed, thus, makes the search for meaningful research findings
enabling them to combine theory with practice. and hence theory construction difficult.
Ó 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
In probing further into definitions of strategy, one is
Keywords: Strategy, Strategic management, Field
faced with a multiplicity of strategies: some are cor-
of Strategy, Walking stick, Research in Strategy,
porate, others business, still others functionally-
Strategic practice, Corporate strategy
related. Each author has a different definition. To
compound the problem, each of the functional fields
of management has its own strategy arm – marketing
strategy, financial strategy, production strategy, and
Introduction so on, each have their own journals and set of dedi-
cated scholars. This proliferation inevitably leads to
After more than twenty years as dedicated research- the question: ‘‘What is strategy anyway?’’
ers in the field of strategy, the authors are wondering
if the academic field of strategy really does exist. The more convincing definitions are also the more
Excellent and exhaustive reviews by many distin- troubling for researchers. One manager at a Harvard
guished academics (e.g., Pettigrew et al., 2002 and conference argued that strategy is made up of
various authors in the European Management Review ‘‘messy, unsolved and perhaps undefined problems of
– Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring 2004, European Management importance characterizing business management’’. Joe
Journal) take note of the extreme diversity of the re- Bower, one of the leading Harvard academics, ar-
search but shy away from providing a convincing gued (1982) that ‘‘the charter of business policy (as strat-
framework to clarify what the field is all about. egy was originally known) is to focus on the life and death

European Management Journal Vol. 23, No. 5, pp. 507–519, October 2005 507

issues of central interest to top management. . . to help top wondered what was expected of them in such a sim-
management to deal with these issues effectively, profit- ple and general case. Midway was, however, pecu-
ably, and morally.’’ He went so far as to say that any- liar because of Kramer’s expressed concern about
thing that can be made orderly and systematic defining the business and any decisions being consis-
should be left to the functional areas and considered tent with such a definition.
out of the field of strategy.
The students were then exposed to additional infor-
The question of whether there is an academic field of mation about Midway’s management. Progressing
strategy is important. In this paper we argue that to the ‘B’ case brought new challenges, with the
there is a field of strategy, but it is still underdevel- opportunity to acquire a competitor. Should Midway
oped despite an incredible surge of research in the do this? The ‘C’ case highlighted the different per-
last twenty years. We believe that most strategy re- spectives of the four functional departments. The stu-
search does not really address the defining issues. dents discovered that each department had its own
As a result there are serious methodological deficien- mission, operating methods, and operational prob-
cies. First, and following on from the basic problem lems. More important, each functional manager had
of the definition of strategy, there is no common his own managerial and personal philosophy. The
understanding of the set of theoretical propositions ‘D’ case was a meeting showing how difficult it
in the field. Authors tend to construct their own was for these managers to work together. Finally
propositions without consistency from one study to the ‘El’ and ‘E2’ cases presented the President, the
the next or one author to the next. Second, the under- individual responsible for coordinating a whole that
standing of the scope of the field, its phenomena, and now seemed much more complex than it had seemed
its research methods are borrowed crudely from the at first, facing decisions that could make or break
more established social sciences. Midway Foods.

To make our argument, we go first through a histor- Most teachers of strategic management have con-
ical discussion of the field’s knowledge develop- ducted discussions of the Midway type to expose
ment, describing the approaches that have students to the complexity of top management is-
dominated research, teaching, and practice. We ob- sues. It is not so much the operations or the market-
serve that there has been a drift to the traditional so- ing or the finances or human resources or power,
cial sciences because of the complexity of strategic motivation, leadership, or many other issues, but
issues. This has increased confusion among practitio- the combination of all these that make the top man-
ners and academics alike. We argue further that the agement job so intractable, sometimes confusing
real challenge is to devise a new approach to the- and always complex.
ory-building that brings the field of strategy closer
to reality. To suggest the nature of such an approach, An academic field of strategy should be capable of
we go back to the issues that have dominated debates providing guidance (which we describe using the
among early general management scholars. metaphor ‘walking sticks’ for strategy) to the
bewildered and shaky students and practitioners
facing similar and, more realistically, much more
complex issues than those described in Midway
The Nature of Strategic Issues Foods. Some guidance has been provided by differ-
ent concepts of strategy advanced over the last fifty
About thirty years ago, the early courses in strategic years or so.
management in business schools emphasized the
need for coordination among the various activities
of the firm and relied upon case studies, often devel- Concepts of Strategy
oped at the Harvard Business School, to supply rich
descriptions of strategy-related issues. Taking and The conceptualization of strategy has taken two
implementing decisions that required integration broad routes. The first can be called the Holistic ap-
across functions and levels was seen as a huge and proach, an all-embracing concept but one that stays
sometimes elusive challenge. Students were intro- close to reality. The emphasis was on general theo-
duced to the challenge early in the MBA program, ries to better understand: (i) the challenges of manag-
with the study of a very simple case. The situation ing the organization as a whole and (ii) the nature of
of the Harvard case study involving Midway Foods top management roles and behaviours (see for exam-
was typical. Midway was a small Chicago firm, with ple Barnard, 1938 and Selznick, 1957). The second
100 employees. It produced a range of sweets, mostly route, more contemporary, can be called the Analytic
chocolate bars. The first ‘A’ case was so simple that approach. It has followed traditional scientific meth-
most students had a hard time staying interested. ods and approaches characterised by the deconstruc-
In it were described the industry, the firm history, tion of strategic problems and a focus on identifying
its nature and operations, its purpose and its market- specific relationships that are part of broader strate-
ing strategy. The case ended with a short discussion gic phenomena (see Thompson, 1967). With a good
with Kramer, the company president. Most students understanding of the analytical components of strat-

508 European Management Journal Vol. 23, No. 5, pp. 507–519, October 2005

egy it is then claimed that strategic behaviour can be The basic hypothesis of the holistic approach is very
predicted. However, this claim has not been like the more modern systems view of the world
substantiated. (Checkland, 1981). Its central idea is that collective
action cannot be understood if it is broken down into
Historically, the first Holistic approach dominated parts to be studied separately. As reality is complex,
the field until the end of the 1970s, while the second it is more appropriate to study it in its totality. This
Analytic approach has emerged out of Thompson’s means not only studying all the parts together but
synthesis (1967) and his guiding efforts within the also their inter-relationships, even if the result is an
pages of the influential journal Administrative Science incomplete and imperfect understanding. Theory
Quarterly (ASQ) to encourage the development of an developed in this way was therefore utilitarian, al-
‘‘administrative science’’. The Analytic approach has ways temporary, but an essential help for those will-
also been the dominant focus of the Strategic Manage- ing to face complexity.
ment Journal (SMJ) since its’ launch in 1980 (see Fur-
rer et al., 2005).
Roethlisberger (1977) described how Henderson’s
conceptual scheme of a social system, inspired a
whole generation of scholars and practitioners. Hen-
The Holistic Approach derson (1935) in following the practices of research in
medicine drew on the principles of Hippocrates.
The holistic approach can be traced back to the 1930s
According to him, ‘‘interactions between persons’’ were
and 1940s when there were heated debates around
the essence of collective human action. They in-
the ‘‘Scientific Management’’ viewpoint of Frederick
volved mutual adaptation and skill and also strong
Taylor and the ‘‘Human Relations’’ movement
sentiments. ‘‘To understand such complex phenomena,
(Roethlisberger, 1977). The simple, but precise and
both theory and practice were necessary. . .’’ and the
surprisingly effective, formulae of Taylorism con-
method of Hippocrates was the only method that
tained their own limitations in businesses that were
succeeded widely and generally:
becoming increasingly complicated. Mayo’s famous
interpretations of the Hawthorne results (1933)
‘‘The first element of that method is hard, persistent, intel-
showed that simplicity had its limitations and that ligent, responsible, unremitting labour in the sick room, not
the complex and changing nature of humans in- in the library. . . The second element of that method is accu-
volved in collective endeavours required corre- rate observation of things and events, selection guided by
spondingly complex theories. The term ‘collective judgment born of familiarity and experience, of the salient
action’ became used to refer to these people-related and the recurrent phenomena, and their classification and
aspects of organisational life. methodical exploitation. The third element of that method
is the judicious construction of a theory – not a philosoph-
ical theory, nor a grand effort of the imagination, nor a
Mayo’s suggestions generated an unprecedented quasi-religious dogma, but a modest pedestrian affair or
wave of multidisciplinary debates. Professor W.J. perhaps I had better say, a useful walking stick to help on
Henderson’s Harvard University faculty seminar on the way – and the use thereof. All this may be summed
‘‘practical sociology’’, in the 1930s, forced everyone in a word: The physician must have first, intimate, habitual,
intuitive familiarity with things; secondly, systematic knowledge
to consider ‘collective action’ in its entirety. As a of things; and thirdly, an effective way of thinking about things.’’
trained physician, Henderson was able to inculcate (p. 67)
some cross-fertilisation between research practices
in the well-defined field of medicine and in the ill- The characteristics of Henderson’s scheme are thus:
defined field of organizations, as well as introducing
broader theory. Barnard’s ‘‘The Functions of the Exec- 1. The need for a conceptual scheme for the purpose
utive’’ (1938) became a classic of this approach. of investigation;
2. The conceptual scheme is a matter of convenience
Barnard’s formidable attempt at reconciling scientific and utility, not truth or falsity, nor a theory;
management and human relations re-conceptualized 3. It is a way of thinking to be practised, not just
the problem of collective action. It proposed a new, talked about;
almost revolutionary, vision together with a research 4. It is to be practised in relation to real-world
framework that was more clinical than analytic. He phenomena;
suggested that the dominance of Taylor’s views 5. It is to be used as long as it is useful; and
had led to looking at the problem of collective action 6. One should be ready to let go when a more useful
upside-down. He put it back on its feet by proposing way of thinking takes over.
his theory of cooperation that redefined the relation-
ship between authority and human behaviour within The manager, in this view, is in a situation that is
collective action and proposed ways to manage it. similar to that of Hippocrates’s physicians. But his
His work is still very influential. Barnard was the situation may at times be even more confusing. Stu-
first of a long tradition of scholars (Simon, 1945; Selz- dents working on Midway, for example, realize very
nick, 1957; Crozier, 1963) who have emphasized the quickly that they need an instrument to make sense
study of the organization as a whole. of the multiple challenges involved in managing a

European Management Journal Vol. 23, No. 5, pp. 507–519, October 2005 509

whole organization. That is how the concept of strat- complex variables that in reality lie at the heart of
egy was introduced. It became the ‘walking stick’ that behaviour of organizations.
helped a generation of students and managers find
their way. The concept of strategy, as a walking stick, A major landmark in the development of the field of
dominated our thinking for several decades. It has strategy was the foundation of the Strategic Manage-
survived scientifically-minded criticisms because of ment Society and its journal, the Strategic Management
its usefulness as a powerful problem-solving theory Journal. In their attempt to provide some structure to
of decision (Bower, 1970). Nevertheless, scholars felt the field, Schendel and Hofer (1979) and their associ-
unhappy with such a primitive instrument that was ates in the Strategic Management Society founding
not amenable to analytical research. The search for meeting actually added to the fragmentation process
a new, more science-based walking stick was in the by proposing a vision of strategy as an assemblage of
works. theories and methodologies. This fragmentation was
reinforced in another seminal strategy research con-
ference which took place in California in 1990: the
Fundamental Issues in Strategy Conference. Rumelt,
The Analytic Approach Schendel and Teece (1991) start off their book of this
conference with a provocative statement: ‘‘What will
In the 1970s the analytic approach took over from the most benefit strategic management, we suggest, is not a
holistic approach. This was based on the premise that unifying paradigm (our emphasis), but the articulation
the concept of strategy, as defined until then, had be- of fundamental issues underlying the field and a refocus-
come obsolete. It was argued that the holistic ap- ing of research to confront them’’ (p. 1).
proach did not allow the generalizations and the
predictions that both practitioners and researchers Ever since Thompson, and aided by the formation of
were looking for. (Similarly, it can be argued that the Strategic Management Society, the amount of
medicine is currently undergoing a shift from its clin- knowledge generated from research conducted in
ical basis, i.e. treatments based upon specific patient this analytical vein has been considerable. However,
symptoms, towards a more ‘evidence-based’ ap- as results have accumulated, so also have inconsis-
proach that allows greater generalisation.) Under tencies and contradictions. These have been topics
pressure from the more advanced social sciences, for extensive and frequent debates, both methodol-
such as economics, sociology and psychology, ogy and content-based, reflected in many of the
researchers in strategy and in general management SMJ special issues. It has become more and more dif-
have re-examined the specific set of theoretical prop- ficult to come up with any form of synthesis (unify-
ositions that make up strategy. ing paradigm) within any of the sub-fields of
strategy. A synthesis of the whole field seems out
Simon (1945), and more importantly Thompson of the question. As Schendel (a Founder of the Strate-
(1967) were the source of inspiration of the analytical gic Management Society and current long-time Edi-
movement. Contingency theory, general and global tor of SMJ) states in an introduction to the SMJ
in nature, was the natural vehicle to use in going Summer 1994 special edition on The Search for
from holistic statements about organizations to a New Paradigms: ‘‘The Guest Editors report much dis-
more positivistic approach containing cause and ef- agreement about models, methods, assumptions, issues
fect. In particular, Thompson’s chapters in his cele- and challenges, and little agreement. . .The state of strat-
brated Organizations in Action broke down the egy during the 1990s, can aptly be described as ‘the best
organisational problem into ready-to-be-tested prop- of times and the worst of times’’ (p. 2). Two academics
ositions. This formidable theoretical endeavour gave very concerned to link research with management
rise to an exciting research agenda that was commu- practice (Prahalad and Hamel, 1994) have also stated:
nicated through Administrative Science Quarterly to a ‘‘We believe this turmoil in the field, in research and prac-
generation of young and bright scholars. tice, is a reason for optimism. . . Many of the assumptions
that were embedded in traditional strategy models may be
Thompson has succeeded beyond his dreams. Re- incomplete and/or outdated as we approach the competitive
search on each of the elements described in his book milieu. We will argue that the need for strategic thinking
has literally exploded. A look at the main general and behaviour among managers has never been more
management journals shows an increasing tendency urgent’’.
toward specialization and the testing of cause and ef-
fect relations. From 1980–1990 Strategic Management To generate the kind of strategic thinking called for
Journal (S.M.J.) articles became increasingly quantita- by these authors, research has to play a unique and
tive and dominated by systematic and formalized important role, providing rich descriptions, synthe-
analyses. Furrer et al. (2005) reinforced this finding ses, possible cause and effect relationships and more
in another extensive study of research in SMJ over importantly tools for inquiry. Yet many scholars who
a twenty-year period. The academic field of strategy favour holistic, integrative perspectives often involv-
has become characterized by quantitative analyses. A ing qualitative research methods, must be increas-
consequence of this is the endless search for ‘‘proxy’’ ingly uncomfortable and at a disadvantage when
variables used as simplistic surrogates for the more submitting a manuscript to a strategy journal with

510 European Management Journal Vol. 23, No. 5, pp. 507–519, October 2005

a positivist research tradition. Those who publish (1) Chandler’s (1962) study of American firm
most frequently today in strategy are also well-recog- growth and the development of the divisional
nized contributors to discipline-based fields such as structure reinforced by Mintzberg (1978), and
psychology, sociology, economics and political sci- Rumelt (1974, 1982);
ence. This again begs the question of what is strategy. (2) Bower’s study of the resource allocation process
It feels like a vast array of diverse and uncoordinated in large diversified firms, followed by many oth-
detailed observations that are scientifically respect- ers of which Burgelman (1983) is a good
able, yet incoherent in practice. The old idea of a example;
walking stick, this time to make sense of all this seem- (3) Miles and Snow’s (1978) study of organizational
ingly incoherent knowledge, suddenly seems very strategic adaptation; and finally,
attractive and urgently needed. (4) Contributions relating to the Montreal school of
configurations (Miller 1996).

Despite closely reflecting the realities of the ‘co-align-

In Search of a New Walking Stick: ment’ that Thompson talked about, these studies
Science in Strategic Management have been relegated to the background or reinter-
preted as frameworks for content-based quantitative
Thompson (1967) asserted forcefully that: research.

‘‘No useful theory can rest on the assumption that everything is A more realistic sense of the kind of research that has
unique. It is probably inevitable that the early history of a scien- taken place is evident in the Strategic Management
tific endeavour will be characterized by the opposite assumption, Journal’s index of topics for the 1990s. It shows more
and by the search for universals. . . the discovery of universal ele- than a thousand different topics addressed by only a
ments is necessary, but alone it provides a static understanding.
little less than a thousand authors. Such a variety
To get leverage on a topic, we must begin to see some of the uni-
versal elements as capable of variation. . . suggests a Tower of Babel populated by strategy
researchers. A closer look shows that the field is
The economist, sociologist, political scientist, or social psy- spread all over the traditional disciplines and func-
chologist will each find that I have overlooked refinements and tional areas. Of all the articles examined in this ten
intricacies of concepts that he knows well. I have done so deliber- year period, about 60% can be related to specific dis-
ately, in order to achieve generality across typical categories ciplines. Economics alone represents the bulk of all
of organizations. . . My focus is on the behaviour of these articles. Indeed, Furrer et al. (2005) in their re-
view of SMJ research from 1980–2002, have to use
very broad categories to be able to group the topics
Thompson recognized that the complex questions
of the articles published. Many academics (we men-
with which management practitioners and research-
tioned Schendel, 1994 and Prahalad & Hamel,
ers alike have to wrestle have neither the level of
1994), believe that this is acceptable and even a stim-
elegance nor the structure to which the purist
ulus to research and creative practice. If that is the
might aspire. Yet the researcher cannot be content
case, 25 years after the creation of the Strategic Man-
with individual case analyses; these are always
agement Society, we have no indication of any posi-
situation-specific and rarely amenable to general-
tive effects on the practice of strategic management.
Prahalad and Hamel (1994) recognized that ‘‘Even
well-known consulting firms, such as McKinsey and Bos-
Thompson did not ignore the strategy problem. In-
ton Consulting Group (BCG), who built their reputations
deed, the last chapter of his seminal 1967 book pro-
on strategy consulting, started to de-emphasize their strat-
vides a striking expression of the nature of strategic
egy focus. . . Academic disillusionment with the value of
management. In particular he emphasizes the need
strategy literature and schools of thought, while not as
for integration (‘co-alignment’):
widespread, followed quickly’’ (p. 5).
‘‘The basic function of administration appears to be co-align-
ment, not merely of people (in coalitions) but of institutionalized Imagine a practitioner, concerned about managing a
action – of technology and task environment into a viable whole organization, confronted with these strategic
domain, and of organizational design and structure appropriate management research results. What would the find-
to it. Administration, when it works well, keeps the organization ings mean? There are almost no syntheses of research
at the nexus of the several necessary streams of action. Paradox- that lead to common frameworks or practical guid-
ically, the administrative process must reduce uncertainty but at
the same time search for flexibility.’’ ance, nor are there reviews that summarise and accu-
mulate findings from different studies researching
After Thompson, quantitative research, which gener- the same topic. Occasionally there are furious de-
ally focused on interactions between limited num- bates on the nature of particular ideas or on the nat-
bers of variables and was therefore held to be more ure of strategy itself without any clear resolution.
precise, dominated the field. But there have also been
some holistic conceptual developments. These can be When it comes to teaching, academics struggle to
clustered into four groups of research: provide a common, practical meaning to all these

European Management Journal Vol. 23, No. 5, pp. 507–519, October 2005 511

findings. An examination of the textbooks used in specialized analytical research of the conventional
MBA programs shows an incredible diversity. Be- disciplines. What would then be the difference be-
sides the classic Harvard Business School’s text and tween the strategy researcher and his colleague of
cases, a few others are still concerned about provid- the conventional disciplines? Strategy would become
ing a synthesis (e.g., McGee, Thomas & Wilson, a discipline like others in which strategic behaviours
2005; Johnson, Scholes and Whittington, 2004; Hafsi can be reduced to microcosms of cause and effect
et al., 2000). However, most others are specialized whose joint effect is simply cumulative. By contrast,
(e.g., Grant, 2005), if interesting, views on strategic strategy in practice is about the behaviour of the
management, some of which have been popularized whole, and within which there is complex interaction
by well-known gurus like Gary Hamel and C. K. between the parts. The specialised contributions of
Prahalad, Tom Peters, Michael Porter and Peter the sort that we have discussed are best considered
Senge. We are back to the situation of students trying as contributions to the related disciplinary field. Con-
to make sense of Midway. The problems are easy to vergence with other disciplines may be about pre-
state, yet difficult to deal with. venting strategy researchers from avoiding the
rigorous scrutiny of their research methods by
The actual behaviour of business organizations is lar- researchers in other disciplines. However, if strategy
gely situation-specific and is therefore the result of is about the behaviour of the whole, and built upon
combinations of circumstances that cannot be com- the complex interaction of its parts, then it should
prehended and predicted by the existing science. be simple common sense to observe that analytical
The paradox is that we need to accept the differentiat- reduction methods completely miss the point. They
ing logic of unique circumstances without losing sight neglect the complex interaction of the whole which
of the whole. This is an old problem for which the old is the raison d’être of strategic management.
concept of strategy was much better suited than to-
day’s technically sophisticated research methods. Neither can the academic field of strategy be reduced
to the strategic approach of the practitioner. Practitio-
In our opinion, the tragedy of the field is precisely that ners are entitled to believe that academics are proba-
academics are no more able than practitioners to live bly less qualified than they to articulate such an
with the paradox of reality: we can all understand approach, since they do not practice it, nor know
the individual case but cannot understand the whole. well enough the reality to which it is applied. The
The nuances of individual cases make strategic man- search for knowledge in strategic management
agement what it is, but the search for clear-cut and should therefore follow a different path. A meaning-
generalisable answers is destroying the essence of ful approach should reconcile the findings of re-
strategy. The search for generalisable knowledge has search with practical concerns. However, the
led to research methods that probe for deep under- meaning and relevance of academic disciplinary re-
standing of the behaviour of those elements of reality search for the improvement of management practice
that can be isolated or modelled. Nevertheless, we are not obvious. First, disciplinary research results
know that this process of segregating and separating do not apply directly, except in combination with
the various factors is not even a defensible second best other findings. Second, applying them requires some
approach to research. It might even be said to be a familiarity with the phenomena concerned.
‘‘first worst’’ because it pushes reality so far away.
Since little of strategy is understood from research, As we said earlier, this is very similar to what hap-
one might expect more attention to skills or practical pens in medicine. The medical researcher is faced
(clinical) knowledge. Yet, academics clearly favour with the same difficulty. In medicine, it is accepted
analytical knowledge, even if often irrelevant. that the researcher can belong to a discipline, while
the practitioner, with the help of his association, is
in charge of translating knowledge from research to
So: Where is the Field of Strategy? improve his practice. And even there, in actual prac-
tice, the physician is often confused when faced with
Having been deeply critical of the approach of aca- the multiplicity and sometimes-contradictory find-
demics to strategy, we are back to our first question: ings of research. For example, are some specific foods
what is the academic field of strategy? Is it deep research or drugs good or bad for health, for whom, and in
on a limited number of variables and their effects? Is what circumstances? These are daily questions to
it the reporting of the experiences and experiments which clear answers are often not available.
by practitioners (sometimes carefully crafted and re-
ported in detail), systematic examination and classifi- We believe that, in strategic management, the variety
cation of these experiences, together with the search of relevant phenomena is even greater, because the
for patterns or decision heuristics? It is a matter of researcher is not only concerned about the individ-
considerable regret that academics and practitioners ual’s health, but also about the collective action of
will almost always choose opposing answers. many individuals. Compared to medicine, we are
still in the position of beginners. We cannot even
First, let’s say what the field is not. On the basis of begin to lose our credibility with managers, since
simple commonsense, it cannot be reduced to the we have none, even though, as gurus, sorcerers or

512 European Management Journal Vol. 23, No. 5, pp. 507–519, October 2005

prophets, we may still impress the naive, as witch- stakeholders for the consequences of his decisions.
doctors impressed primitive tribes. However, researcher and practitioner have a com-
mon problem – both muddle along in the dark.
The objective of research in strategy does however
exist. It has two elements: To respond to the challenge, both practitioners and
researchers need a walking stick, a common walking
1. Discovering, through the practice of managers, stick. For the practitioners of strategy the objective is
unusual regularities and patterns, specifying them to guide decisions and their implementation, while
and submitting them to analysis and debate. This for the researcher in strategy the objective is to devel-
systematic effort is scientific, because it helps op the approach to find the general patterns behind
describe and thus discover the varied nature of these decisions and their implementation, and to gen-
the phenomena to which managers are exposed. erate heuristics that provide the link from patterns
It can also help conduct an orderly discussion of (theories) to practice in specific situations, that is to
the reasons that explain results. inform and guide practice.
2. Experimentation and modelling in an attempt to
predict the behaviour of organizations.

This is both practical and scientific. It obviously deals

A Walking Stick for Researchers
with practical phenomena. In addition it requires in Strategy
methods of research that use both heuristics (i.e.
the ability to discover through experience) and How to build research in strategy? Researchers in the
experimental research methods for assessing and field cannot ignore the specialized discipline-based
quantifying regularities. In both of these elements, research. They must take its results as a starting
it is possible to call on the findings of the disciplines point. But they must go beyond it to creatively give
in an organized search for meaning. The nature of meaning to reality and guide practice. A general
this work is to be compared to what has been done framework is needed to use specialized research
for some of the natural sciences, for improved under- and also to generate research specifically designed
standing of complexity and the development of sci- to deal with reality in all its complexity. This calls
entific approaches to deal with it (Waldrop, 1992). for researchers who are generalists concerned about
It is indeed a relevant example for us, because strate- syntheses (see Bower, 1970; Miles and Snow, 1978;
gic management phenomena, deal with unclear, non- Mintzberg, 1978; Miller, 1996). Walking sticks for
linear cause-effect relationships. As a consequence, both practitioners and researchers should be the cre-
the combination of research results that come to bear ation of such researchers. Their goal is to represent
on reality can be neither direct nor linear, but crea- reality by taking into account disciplinary research,
tive in the scientific sense of the word. but going beyond it in a search for convincing expla-
nations of reality.
Similarly, the methodological nature of the strategic
management researcher contribution is fundamental. Given the complexity of strategic management real-
In strategy, we are not dealing with a traditional sci- ity, it should be clear that the most appropriate
ence but with a science of complexity. Thus, con- frameworks are not those that emphasize the content
fronted with small samples replete with rich data, of strategy, since strategy is by definition situational
informed with a multiplicity of partial disciplinary and contingent. Rather, they must help reveal the
research results, the strategy researcher has to invent mysterious mechanisms that lead to the formation
an approach that links together this array of partial of strategy and to its evolution over time. Patterns of
and limited research results; then test the output strategic content can however be useful segments
for rationality and validity; then build the needed of a process-based conceptual framework.
heuristics that link the data and the new knowledge
base; and constantly adjust both to reach convincing To illustrate this idea of a strategic management
results. walking stick, we developed from a comprehensive
literature review a framework that suggests that
Researchers in strategy, therefore, must be formida- strategy research can be clustered into two basic
ble intellectuals. They must have both the encyclo- groupings:
paedic knowledge needed to comprehend the
results of the normal science, and the familiarity 1. Intellectual aspects intended to provide understand-
and intimacy with real phenomena that together ing, tools and mechanisms by which coordination
stimulate creativity in the search for explanations and convergence of collective action is ensured;
and heuristics. The practitioner of management also 2. Practical aspects designed to achieve that intended
has to reach convincing explanations and has to de- convergence.
velop and use (personal) heuristics. But there are dif-
ferences: (1) the practitioner does not have to justify The intellectual aspects underlying strategy provide
intellectually his decisions, but (2) must answer to meaning and feed the intuition of both scholars and

European Management Journal Vol. 23, No. 5, pp. 507–519, October 2005 513

practitioners, but strategy is mostly a practice. It is in management of the internal community’s integrity,
dealing with reality that strategy is both shaped and of its willingness to contribute and to pursue all ave-
used. The intellectual aspects provide also the nues leading to the organization’s survival and pros-
‘‘facts’’ that should guide the systematic build up perity (Barnard, 1938).
of convergence.
Another aspect of the community is brought up
The intellectual aspects are a synthesis of accumu- when one thinks of the organization as a coalition
lated knowledge. A study of the literature that has (Cyert and March, 1963). The various groups and
inspired strategy (see Hafsi et al., 2000 for details) individuals of the organization have differing goals
suggests five different segments: and interests. Strategy helps build the coalitions that
will allow the pursuit of common goals. Again, the
literature is full of descriptions of how the groups
Strategy as a Leader’s Statement and individuals build or fail to build the frameworks
that could lead the organisation to success. The re-
Ever since Barnard (1938) and Selznick (1957), top source dependency theory (Pfeffer and Salancik,
managers are seen as playing a critical role in an 1978), and the stakeholder theory (Freeman, 2004),
organization’s behaviour. Akio Morita and Masaru highlight the political give and take that leads to sta-
Ibuka of Sony, Edgar Hoover of the FBI, William ble and powerful organizations. But power and influ-
Ruckelshaus of the EPA, or Jack Welch of GE exem- ence are unequally distributed. They are related to
plify leaders’ decisive roles. The literature is replete stakes controlled by the actors (Crozier, 1963). Sex,
with theories and examples which all show how ethnic support, education, professional skills, capital,
strategy is often an expression of the leaders’ will, be- control over important zones of uncertainty for the
liefs and values (see in particular Collins, 2001). The organization, outside recognition, structure, etc., all
Harvardien School of Strategy has built the whole contribute to setting the stage for the development
idea of strategy from the top manager’s perspectives of the strategic consensus that provide direction to
(Andrews, 1987). Bower, as we mentioned earlier has the organization and facilitates the coordination of
made it clearer, emphasizing the need for judgement its activities. And as shown by Fligstein (1987) in
at the top and equating those judgemental issues the case of the 100 largest US companies, the consen-
with strategy. The more academic literature has sus changes with time.
shown that leaders’ obsessions (Noël, 1989), their
values and beliefs (Selznick, 1957), in general their Finally, community is also expressed through the
inner life (Kets de Vries and Miller, 1984; Kets de Vries, organizational cultures. A homogeneous culture has
1980; Lapierre, 1994; Zaleznik, 1989), their demo- been described as being the source of success in
graphic characteristics such as age, training, experi- implementing strategy (see for example Peters and
ence, social origins (Hambrick and Mason, 1984), Waterman, 1983; Hampden-Turner, 1992), but also
their intellectual journeys and their quest for ratio- a source of problems when the environment is
nality (Frederickson and laquinto, 1989), their emo- changing fast (Nadler and Tushman, 1986 among
tion, their level of cognitive complexity or maturity many). Subcultures express a community’s degree
(Greiner and Bhambri, 1989), their attitudes towards of diversity. They are often critical in strategy-mak-
change, the stability of their career (Miller, 1990) and ing as they have to be taken into account for both for-
their sex, all have a decisive and empirically tested mulating and executing a vision (Jorgensen, 1989).
influence. Therefore, understanding an organiza- Success stories of Japanese companies (Hafsi, 1989)
tion’s strategy starts with a better understanding of and of American ones (Collins, 2001) as well have
who the leaders are. often been suggestive of the powerful role of a com-
munitarian behaviour. The Wachlike, Lipton, Rosen
and Katz law firm described by Starbuck (1993)
Strategy as a Community’s Statement exemplifies the importance of a community in driv-
ing success.
But strategy is not just the expression of a leader. It is
also the expression of a community. The level of The internal community is therefore at the heart of
cooperation is related to how much strategy ex- the organization’s effectiveness and efficiency. Strat-
presses a community’s norms, values and beliefs. egy cannot be conceived properly without leaving in
In his description of Honda’s strategy in the motor- its statements ample space for the expression of its
cycle industry, Pascale (1990) has shown how much members’ collective identity.
trial and error is involved in strategy formation. Tri-
als and errors cannot lead to fruitful results unless
organization members are willing to collaborate, un- Strategy as a Guiding Track
less the strategy is in fact their creation. Cooperation
is intimately related to how much individual organi- Strategy is also a beacon, a guide when things get
zation members share the vision, the underlying val- murkier, when the road ahead is hard to assess. In
ues and beliefs, and how much they are involved in his study of the history of Bishop University at Len-
the strategy making process. Thus strategy is the noxville, Canada, W. Taylor (1983) has shown that

514 European Management Journal Vol. 23, No. 5, pp. 507–519, October 2005

over a 50 year period, the decisions made followed why one can talk about a functional strategy, which
the same pattern. Whether this is seen as isomor- is an attempt to actualize at its level the stated corpo-
phism over time or strong culture (DiMaggio and rate values. As an example, financial strategy could
Powell, 1983), the strategy provides often a lasting aim at providing a high level of financial flexibility,
set of rules and norms by which reality is translated while HRM may be concerned about hiring, and con-
and dealt with. Such a perspective emphasizes the tributing to maintain the willingness to cooperate of
consistency or coherence in decision-making, and is key personnel, thus contributing to operational
at the very heart of the idea of strategy (Andrews, flexibility.
1987). The descriptions that have been provided of
GE’s history (Aguilar, 1988) show how much strat-
egy has been mostly a guide for business decisions, Strategy as a Relationship to the Environment
in particular, the more recent Welch era has brought
to the fore several simplified expressions of strategy Finally, the environment is a critical factor for sur-
that all emphasize the need to guide the organization vival. It generates most of the uncertainty for the
in a coherent way. For example, Welch has described organization (Thompson, 1967). To deal with such
strategy as follows: ‘‘To be number 1 or number 2 in an uncertainty, one needs to understand and concep-
all our business, be better than the best, while tualize the threat and the opportunities that are con-
remaining in three areas of activities: traditional, stantly presented to the organization.
high technology and services.’’ These were meant
to be the references against which each organization The environment is sometimes seen as a hard fact,
member could judge the consistency and value to the unavoidable. This is for example the case when a
organization of his/her activities. The idea of guid- new regulation changes the competitive game, or
ing track leads to strong configurations. Miller when a competitor comes up with a crippling inno-
(1996) has shown that the guiding patterns can be vation. In such a case, strategy is mostly an ability
so strong as to lead to oversimplification and some- to adapt. At least five theoretical lines of research
times the demise of the organization. The guiding have provided meaning to this deterministic view
track is not always a systematic construction. It can of environment. The first emphasizes competitive
emerge as a result of the members’ initiatives and natural selection as in an ecological niche (Hannan
as a result of historical incidents and accidents and Freeman, 1984). Organizations are selected in
(Greenwood and Hinings, 1988). or out depending on their ability to respond to the
environmental requirements. Adaptation is seen as
the name of the game, but organizations have limited
Strategy as the Building of Competitive Advantage control over the selection process. The population
ecology of organization is one of the most determin-
Strategy is of course often seen as a quest for compet- istic of all environment-based organizational theo-
itive advantage. The early version of the concept of ries. Less deterministic, but still emphasizing the
strategy (Learned et al., 1965) as well as the more re- environment’s dominance is the contingency theory
cent Resource-based view of the firm (Wernerfelt, of organizations (Lawrence and Lorsch, 1967;
1984), all suggest the need to match resources to envi- Thompson, 1967), Environmental uncertainty is dealt
ronmental opportunities. How organizations do that with through structural and strategic adjustments
is at the heart of strategic management. Resources and continual co-alignment. The relationship be-
which provide competitive advantage happen to be tween environment, strategy and structure has been
soft and hard to imitate. This is never easy to assess. widely documented and empirically verified (see
Managers build uniqueness without a clear sense of Venkatraman and Prescott, 1990).
what may lead to success. They take risks and in so
doing their intuition is at least as important as their A deterministic is the Carnegie perspective. Simon’s
analytical skills. Building unique resources involves (1945) and later Cyert and March’s (1963) view of the
an attention to intermediate processes and both to environment and most importantly of the organiza-
their resource composition and to their response to tion’s ability to respond to its demands is related to
market demands (Ray et al., 2004). the ability to adapt the organizational routines or
premises. The rigidities and infightings, among coali-
A competitive advantage is built on a clear under- tion members, that take place in most organizations,
standing of the firms’ functional characteristics, and prevent them from adapting. The only way to make
of their inter-relationships. This leads to the value adjustments is through continual adjustment of orga-
chain configuration (Porter, 1985), which is most nizational routines. Agency and strategic choice
appropriate to market value creation and capture. (Hrebeniak and Joyce, 1985) are reduced to the abil-
This suggests that a competitive advantage requires ity to make changes to the norms and routines that
integrating activities both at the level of the business affect the organization’s behaviour.
and at the level of business functions. The business
level is concerned about positioning among compet- Industrial organization and in particular Porter
itors, and the functional level is concerned about pro- (1980) provide a no less deterministic theory of envi-
ductivity and organizational effectiveness. That’s ronmental influence on the organization. But Porter’s

European Management Journal Vol. 23, No. 5, pp. 507–519, October 2005 515

work has actually increased the ability to affect the

competitive environment by providing a framework
that enhances the understanding of its dynamics. Decision
Management making
Understanding the environment leaves managers processes
free to create ways, strategies, to deal with it.

Finally, the resource dependency theory (Pfeffer and

Salancik, 1978) offers a view of the environment cen-
tered on those environment forces or stakeholders
that provide the firm with resources. Understanding
the motivations, power positions and relative or mu-
tual dependences of the organization on these forces
may help devise a strategy to enhance the organiza-
tion’s power, and its ability to survive.
Relationship to
But the environment is also in the eye of the beholder environment
(Weick, 1979). It is enacted by managers through the
filters that come from their cognitive make up or
from the cultural-cognitive influences that come to advantage
bear on them. This may explain isomorphism in
strategy-making (DiMaggio and Powell, 1983). These A guiding track
factors explain why the same environment may be A community’s statement
seen as a source of opportunity by some managers
and a source of threats by others. Clearly, in such a
A leader’s statement
perspective, strategy-making leads us back to the lea-
der and his/her own make up.
Figure 1 Strategy as a Theory of Action
These intellectual aspects are of course intimately re-
lated to the practical aspects of individual and collec-
tive actions and their effect on how the organization
functions. They are not action, but the premises upon recognise patterns among strategies in action. Over-
which all action come to rest. For example, when all, strategy can be seen as a creative but coherent
many are to act together, there is a need for practical practice, informed by all the intellectual aspects men-
ways to keep the action orderly, through goals, struc- tioned earlier. The representation of strategy pro-
ture and systems (planning, performance measure- posed here is shown in Figure 1. The intellectual
ment and control, rewards and punishments, dimensions of strategy are represented as layers of
training, resource allocation, management informa- reality, related to life through the mechanisms that
tion and communication). Structure and systems give lead to decision and action (i.e. practice), which in
organisational life to decision processes that are un- turn feedback to affect the intellectual dimensions.
ique to each situation. Managing these processes is
a critical function of executives. It is through the This construction is drawn from a synthesis of the lit-
combination of management mechanisms that strat- erature. It is similar to what dominated the field until
egy is revealed and given life. the new strategic management emerged out of the
strategic management movement (which we see as
Ultimately, action is a series of decisions. How are linked to the foundation of the Strategic Management
decisions made? What motivates them? How are deci- Society). This model is a walking stick for the re-
sions integrated in specific situations? How are man- searcher. It can and has been used by students, by
agerial mechanisms used to encourage or orient academics and by practitioners, especially when they
decisions? These are some of the questions that come are in the process of experimenting and searching for
out of the study of decision and planning models as meaning. Also the model can be easily related to the
integrating tools. disciplines that contribute to strategic management
research. All this makes it a useful guide both for
Finally, strategy, in practice, can be seen as a revela- researchers to make sense of incoming research and
tion of the widest possible set of influences on action for practitioners to use.
(academics would use words such as voluntary, sys-
tematic, rational, objective, but also emotional, senti- This model is just an example of a useful walking
mental, affective, intuitive). To represent strategy as stick. Managers and academics alike may have many
a model or theory of action, one has not only to rec- walking sticks, so it is not the only one available.
ognise and include all these aspects and associate Bower (1970) for large diversified firms, or Miles
them in such a way as to recognize how they com- and Snow (1978) for less complex situations have
bine to generate action, but also do this in a suffi- outlined models that have been an inspiration and
ciently economical manner so as to be able to provided a way to structure many investigations.

516 European Management Journal Vol. 23, No. 5, pp. 507–519, October 2005

Similarly, Mintzberg’s work (1978) and the configu- take. The most powerful models should emphasize
ration school contributions, although focused mostly strategy process leaving the specialized research to
on strategy content, have provided a map to deal deal with content.
with the strategy-structure configuration. Many oth-
ers qualify in this search for strategy as a walking The field of strategy has no future except to become
stick, and our call is to give them greater space and close to reality. Its methods should be those that
legitimacy. incorporate complexity. Therefore, they will often
be qualitative, and when possible experimental, to
better represent reality and its dynamics. Despite
the fact that practice and theory are not well con-
Conclusion: Moving Closer to Reality nected and that strategic management has so far
failed to produce the volume of useful results ex-
pected by management, perhaps one day these strat-
General managers cannot manage a firm for sustain-
egy research methods will be powerful enough to
able performance and survival if they focus on the
provide managers with truly useful walking sticks.
specialized activities of the business functions. They
are forced to integrate them to provide meaning
and justify development of these functions. The con-
cept of strategy is the traditional instrument that Acknowledgements
helps in this process. Such a model of strategy re-
mains a ‘‘down to earth’’ instrument. Its general The authors are extremely grateful to John McGee,
character is the source of its explanatory power and Professor of Strategic Management at Warwick Busi-
of its capacity to guide collective action. We need ness School, who significantly improved the read-
to go beyond the ‘‘down-to-earth’’ so that we can ability of the text.
understand the patterns of strategy; so we state as
the raison d’être of the field of strategy: ‘‘helping
through heuristics and creative methodologies to the
understanding and transformation of reality’’. Note

We fear that if research were to continue to move 1. Corporate strategy is the pattern of decisions in a company that
determines and reveals its objectives, purposes, or goals,
away from such a goal, strategic management prac- produces the principal policies and plans for achieving these
tice would be left alone and the academic field would goals, and defines the range of business the company is to
die. Managers would lose interest in theory that nei- pursue, the kind of economic and human organization it is or
ther helps to explain reality nor facilitates action de- intends to be, and the nature of the economic and noneconomic
contributions it intends to make to its shareholders, employees,
signed to influence reality.
customers, and communities.

This must be a source of major concern about the fu-

ture of strategy as a field of academic teaching and
learned research. From the traditional academic
point of view, it seems much more legitimate to sim- Aguilar, F.J. (1988) General Managers in Action. Oxford
ply consolidate disciplinary research on the mistaken University Press, New York, NY.
basis that strategy research conceived in any other Andrews, K.R. (1987) The Concept of Corporate Strategy.
Irwin, Homewood, IL.
way looks like a pale reflection of proper academic Barnard, C.I. (1938) The Functions of the Executive. Harvard
standards. It takes deliberately deviant behaviour to University Press, Cambridge.
innovate and resist these powerful isomorphic pres- Bower, Joseph L. (1970) Managing the Resource Allocation
sures. We should not only conceive our research bet- Process: A Study of Corporate Planning and Investment.
ter so that the understanding and transformation of Division of Research, Graduate School of Business
Administration, Harvard University, Boston.
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comes centre stage. Also, we should work at devel- Academy of Management, The Academy of Management
oping more and better ways to integrate and Review 7(4), 630–639.
reconcile research findings and relate them to Burgelman, Robert A. (1983) A Process Model of Internal
practice. Corporate Venturing in the Diversified Major Firm.
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Chandler, Alfred D., Jr. (1962) Strategy and Structure:
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Montreal, 3000 Way of Warwick Business School.
the Coast-Holy-Catherine, University of Warwick,
Montreal, Quebec H3T Gibbet’s Hill Road, Cov-
A7, Canada. E-mail: entry CV4 7AL, UK. E-
Taieb.Hafsi@hec.ca mail: Howard.Thomas@
Taıeb Hafsi holds the
Walter J. Somers Chair of Howard Thomas is Pro-
International Manage- fessor of Strategic Man-
ment at HEC Montreal, agement and Dean of
and is Co-ordinator of the Warwick Business School
Strategos Research Group. with past senior appoint-
His research interests include corporate strategy, ments at the University of Illinois at Urbana—
organization, governance and management by the Champaign, Australian Graduate School of Manage-
State. ment, and London Business School. A prolific author,
his research includes competitive strategy, risk analy-
sis, strategic change, international management and
decision theory.

European Management Journal Vol. 23, No. 5, pp. 507–519, October 2005 519