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RETHINKING STRATEGY:

CONTEMPORARY PERSPECTIVES AND DEBATES

Professor Mahmoud Ezzamel


Cardiff Business School
Cardiff University, Cardiff, Wales, UK

Professor Hugh Willmott


Judge Institute of Management
University of Cambridge
Trumpington Street
Cambridge
CB2 1AG

Telephone/Fax number: +44 1223 339633

Email: h.willmott@jims.cam.ac.uk

Short Running Title: Rethinking Strategy

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Abstract

The paper seeks to clarify and illustrate the distinctive contribution of Foucaultian

discursive analysis to the study of strategy. We distinguish it from other forms of

analysis before applying it to interpret a fragment of empirical material drawn from a

longitudinal study of a global retailing company. In conclusion, the paradox of

undertaking discursive analysis is discussed.

Keywords: Discourse, Foucault, Paradox, Reflexivity

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INTRODUCTION

`…one of the most instructive attempts to link the fields of organization studies and

strategy comes in the recent work of Knights and Morgan (1991) [who argue that] the

very language, symbols and exchanges around the subject of strategy have important

outcomes. Strategy is a mechanism of power' (Whipp, 1999 : 13).

How is sense to be made of `strategy'; and how do conceptions of `strategy' make

sense of us?

Such questions are unfamiliar and puzzling to most students of `strategy'. Nonetheless

they are being posed by analysts who urge a more reflexive understanding of what

passes for knowledge of strategy, contending that "it is worth examining a little more

closely how the discourse [of strategy] is formulated, how resources and cultural

meanings are drawn into its service and what are its effects" (Knights and Morgan, 1991

: 270). `Strategy' or `strategic management' is conventionally studied as a distinctive

field of activity that exists independently of efforts to specify its features and/or prescribe

for its perfection. In contrast, discursive analysis attends to the presence and

significance of discourse in the identification and realisation of `strategy'.

Discursive analysis, we argue in this paper, provides a theoretical lens that is sufficiently

distinctive to justify its differentiation from more established ways of thinking about

strategy. From the standpoint of Foucauldian discourse analysis, lay and academic

analyses of strategy are not regarded as offering alternative - such as `Classical',

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`Evolutionary' ,`Processual' and `Systemic' (Whittington, 1993) - "ways of seeing" a

particular domain of activity. Rather, each such perspective on strategy is understood to

be "embedded in social practices that reproduce the "way of seeing" as the `truth' of the

discourse" (Knights and Morgan, 1991 : 253). When adopting a discursive approach,

`strategy' is converted from "a descriptive label" deemed to comprise a distinctive

domain of researchable objects (e.g. `strategies', `environments' `competences') `out

there' in the world, to a discourse that is actively engaged in construing and constituting

what strategy analysis commonsensically appears or aspires to capture or reflect:

" strategy as a discourse is intimately involved in constituting the

intentions and actions from which it is thought to be derived.

Strategy, then, is an integral part, and not independent, of the actions

or practices that it is frequently drawn upon to explain or justify"

(Knights and Morgan, 1991 : 268)

`Discursive analysis' of strategy is responsive - although perhaps not in ways that would

be readily recognised or unequivocally welcomed - to the contention that "many more

theoretical lenses will be needed to explore the range of issues that the strategy field

offers" (Prahalad and Hamel, 1994 : 15). In this paper, we seek to clarify and briefly

illustrate its distinctive contribution by building upon the pioneering work of Knights and

Morgan (1991; 1994) to provide a close reading of Foucault's conception of the

relationship between power, knowledge and discursive practices. We then apply this

understanding to analyse a fragment of empirical material that is drawn from a

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longitudinal study of a global retailing company (see Ezzamel and Willmott, 1988 for

details). Finally, we reflect upon our main argument, alluding to what we identify as a

paradox of doing discourse analysis.

POST-RATIONAL ANALYSIS : A CRITIQUE

The field of strategy has been dominated by rational conceptions of its formulation and

implementation, as exemplified in Michael Porter's thinking, where strategy is conceived

as an outcome of a more or less rational calculation about competitive advantage in

relation to buyers, suppliers, new entrants, the availability of substitutes as well as

industry competitors. As Porter (1979 : 137) puts it, `the corporate strategist's goal is to

find a position in the industry where his or her company can best defend itself against

these forces or can influence them in its favor'.. Minimal attention is paid to the

institutional context - such as the distinctive cultural values and organizational politics -

within and through which decisions are actually made, including the values that bestow

legitimacy upon rational models as a key component of top managerial ideology.

Instead, the preference is for discerning the key factors or `forces' that must be

successfully disclosed and controlled for a successful strategy to be realized.

The past decade has seen some movement away from rational formulations of strategy,

notably through the work of James Quinn and Henry Mintzberg in North America, and

Andrew Pettigrew in Europe. Central to such post-rational analysis of strategy is an

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appreciation of its distinctive contexts and the role of values in the shaping of `strategic

intent' (Hamel and Prahalad, 1989), the nurturing of `strategic thinking' (Mintzberg,

1994) and the making of `strategic choices' (Child, 1972), developments that resonate

with the growing influence of institutional theory in organization studies :

" the selection of strategy is primarily by means of management judgment

and is likely to be bound up in a process of bargaining within the

organization. Solutions are not so much likely to be adopted because they

are shown to be better on the basis of some sort of objective yardstick, but

because they are acceptable to those who influence the decision or have

to implement it" (Johnson, 1987 : 29).

Post-rational analysis directly challenges the coherence and credibility of models that

represent strategic management as a logical series of steps that proceed from

information gathering, through the rational identification of a strategic position to its

systematic implementation. Rational models are criticised for their inadequate

appreciation of the social embeddedness of the `forces', including consideration of how

the identification and management of such `forces' (Porter, 1979 : 137) is subject to the

politics of organizational action, entailing the activity of strategic decision-making.

Adequate recognition and management of the local values and organizational politics, it

is argued, is a necessary feature of strategic decision-making.

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Post-rational analysis aspires to show how, in practice, strategic decision-making

emerges from local understandings, recipes and routines, and is therefore resistant to,

and subversive of, rational calculation and control. Strategy is conceived as endemically

a negotiated outcome of competing values and conflicts of interest. Such features

include the contextually specific values and processes of bargaining that are conceived

to govern the formulation and acceptability of strategic visions and their practical

implementation – features of decision-making that are unacknowledged, or treated as

sources of `noise’ to be eliminated, in rational models of strategy.

In this light, Whittington's (2003) advocacy of a `practice perspective' echoes the

concerns of post-rational analysis as it commends a focus upon the practical business

of strategizing, but with particular reference to `the formal work of strategic and

organizational design' (Whittington, 2003 : 120). His concern is to focus upon `situated,

concrete activity' (ibid : 121) in order to dis-cover what strategists actually do as `a step

to creating practical wisdom' (ibid : 121) about the business of doing strategy. However,

while the post-rational focus upon process is maintained, its attentiveness to culture and

politics tends to be displaced by a preoccupation with the identification of skills, the tools

and techniques that are used, and how the products of strategizing are consumed. Even

the question of how specialists work together to craft strategies, or indeed become

strategists, is abstracted from the examination of culture and politics (ibid : 122). There

is an underlying assumption that practices are `shared' (Whittington and Melin, 2002 :

44), rather than contested (see Contu and Willmott, 2003). Where the practice

perspective departs from more established forms of processual analysis is in its

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skepticism about the reliability of actors' accounts of their strategizing, as generated

through interview responses (see also Dingwall, 1997) :

`While processual studies share the practice perspective's concern for

close observation…the processualists expect much more from actors'

accounts of their own actions' (Whittington and Melin, 2002 : 46)

We have stressed how students of process and practice share an interest in a close-up

examination of how strategy is accomplished, as contrasted with the arms-length

specification of the forces that are conceived in rational analysis to comprise an

industry's structure and to condition strategists' efforts to establish a favourable position

within it. Yet, an objectivist understanding is retained as strategy continues to be

conceived as a set of elements of the world "out there" to be captured by analysis -

whether these are components of industry structure or constituents of practitioners'

world-views. Whittington (2003 : 121, emphasis added) counsels that the practice

perspective is `concerned with finding out what strategists' and organizers' jobs really

are'. Mintzberg and Quinn (1995 : xi, emphasis added) commend a processual

approach on the grounds that it provides `a sophisticated understanding of exactly what

the context is and how it functions'. They then use the analogy of engineering and

physics to support this view:

"....one cannot decide reliably what should be done in a system as

complicated as a contemporary organization without a genuine

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understanding of how that organization really works. In engineering, no

student ever questions having to learn physics, or in medicine, having to

learn anatomy. Imagine an engineering student's hand shooting up in a

physics class, "Listen, sir, it's fine telling us how the atom works. But what

we really want to know is how the atom should work!". Why should a

management student's similar demand in the realm of strategy or structure

be considered any more appropriate?" (ibid, first and second emphases

added).

The point is well made that much rational analysis of strategy is governed by a

normative compulsion to prescribe. The appeal to an example drawn from the natural

sciences to lend authority to post-rational analysis is, however, unconvincing. Leaving

aside the questionable choice of this particular example - since how atoms behave, as

waves or particles, is conceived in quantum mechanics to depend upon how atoms are

perceived/theorized - the problem is that the argument pays no attention to, and

possibly denies, the interrelationship of the subjects and objects of knowledge. It is

assumed that the world "out there" is entirely separate from, and uninfluenced by, how

this world is understood or theorized by imperfect and partial perspectives developed by

researchers1.

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Likewise, Pettigrew (1987 : 658, emphasis added) commends post-rational analysis for
its capacity to provide "a view of process combining political and cultural elements
evidently has real power in explaining continuity and change". Mintzberg, Quinn and
Ghoshal (1995 : xi) declare that, in contrast to orthodox conceptions of strategic
management, their theoretical position "tries to explain the world as it is rather than as
someone thinks it is supposed to be".

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The problem with the ambition to achieve ` a genuine understanding of how [an]

organization really works' is that the reality of the object (e.g. `organization' or `strategy')

is necessarily conditioned by the language used to articulate the preoccupations and

perspectives of the subject (e.g. researcher) : the use of language to describe the world

is inescapably divisive, partial and incomplete. `Old' (e.g. rational) and `new' (e.g.

processual and practice) conceptions of strategy share the presumption of being able to

know what the world is "really like" in advance, and independently of, the generation of

the knowledge to which the designation "genuine" is (unreflexively) applied. This

position assumes that the objects of `observation' - that is, the constituent elements of

the social world - are both transparent to, and unchanged by, the theory/methodology

that accounts for them, thereby denying that how social theories are interpreted,

evaluated and appropriated, arguably, influences the "realness" of the world that the

theories purport to describe and explain.

DISCURSIVE ANALYSIS

Discursive analysis is distinguished by its departure from a commonsense, dualistic

conception of the language-reality relationship in which language is conceived to reflect

or capture reality. Foucault (1982 : 48) articulates this departure when he argues that

discourse, such as that which is concerned with strategy, "is not a slender surface of

contact, or confrontation, between a reality and a language (langue)". Nor, he argues,

should language be treated as a group of "signs (signifying elements referring to

contents and representations) but as practices that systematically form the objects of

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which they speak" (ibid : 49). To treat discourse as merely a sign that designates things

is, Foucault contends, to disregard or neutralise its constitutive force. This neutralisation

occurs in both rational and processual models of strategy where their contribution to

defining the phenomena that they aspire to study is disregarded.

Foucault's work invites us to explore an alternative approach in which the focus is upon

"a group of rules” or a “grid of intelligibility” characteristic of particular discursive

practices that operates to identify and order objects in particular ways. Such rules,

which "are immanent in a practice and define it in its specificity" (ibid : 46), define "not

the dumb existence of a reality, nor the canonical use of vocabulary, but the ordering of

objects" (ibid : 49). Accordingly, the analytical focus is upon the truth effects of

language in ordering the world in particular ways. Instead of understanding the

language that comprises the field of strategy - such as `firms' and `markets' - as more or

less accurate (and thus impartial) descriptions of an external social reality, such terms

are understood to constitute the world in a particular, partisan, politically-charged way :

their use exerts truth effects insofar as they become widespread and institutionalized.

Accordingly, the Foucauldian focus does not seek to specify what the practices (e.g. of

strategizing) are but, rather, upon how the "group of rules" comprising a discourse

operates to constitute social practices, spawns their identification as `strategy', and

renders them intelligible in particular ways - notably, through the privileging of power-

knowledge frameworks, such as Porter's `five basic forces', that become hegemonic.

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In the following section, we first interpret a fragment of empirical data to illustrate the

argument of the previous sections. In doing so, we recognize that we are

simultaneously appealing to a regime of truth – in the guise of strategy talk – that we

aspire to scrutinise. We also acknowledge that our interpretations of the extract are

constructed from our knowledge of other empirical data, including interviewees’

accounts and company documents, that enacts our ‘strategizing’ about how to deliver

our argument to an imagined audience. We appreciate how the identification of relevant

data, as well as our own account of its significance, is inflected by a strategy discourse

with which they engage in strategizing, and which enables them to present accounts of

their strategizing activity.

ANALYSING STRATEGY DISCOURSE

Consider the following statement by StitchCo’s Chief Executive:

“I have had a unique opportunity to carry the company forward into the Nineties.

It is a privilege to participate in this driving, entrepreneurial and creative

environment and with so many people that have also been part of its history and

development.” (press coverage)

In this section, we first offer a possible understanding of this statement before reflecting

upon alternative interpretations of its significance. The statement, we suggest, is

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illustrative of the kinds of discursive practices that comprise the micro (re)production of

‘strategy'. `Strategy' is simultaneously absent and present. There is no direct reference

to `strategy', yet the CEO can be heard to invoke notions of strategy. We interpret his

statement, reported in the press a few months after his appointment, as illustrative of

how `strategy work' is accomplished - in this case, by deploying the media to

disseminate a view of the company for employees, customers, shareholders and others

that characterises it as `driving, entrepreneurial and creative'. We take the production of

this account to exemplify the mundane, social practice of (managerial) communication

through which relations of power - between the CEO and his audience - operate to

disseminate and promote a particular kind of knowledge, and membership, of the

company. In this process, distinct subjects – notably, the CEO as occupier of the chief

(and ‘unique’) executive position and objects, such as ‘the company’, its ‘history’ and

‘environment’ - are recurrently constituted, reproduced and transformed.

To the extent that such claims are accepted and normalised, they operate to

(re)produce discourses of strategy and strategic management; they also act to forge a

`regime of truth', to use Foucault's phrase, that operates to discipline the thought and

conduct of those who identify with its call. The statement alludes, we suggest, to the

strategic management of StitchCo, both in its reference to moving “forward”, and in its

association of this movement with a “driving, entrepreneurial and creative environment”.

Such discursive practices (of strategizing) act to position the activity and identity of

employees within a process of “carrying the company forward” and “developing” it and

within which the CEO ascribes to himself a key, and perhaps sovereign, role. The use

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of the term `environment' is ambiguous: it construes an operating context that is

‘driving’, in the sense that the market disciplines those who fail to respond effectively to

its changing demands; it also signals an aspiration and demand that StitchCo

employees are themselves driving, entrepreneurial and creative. The strategy favoured

by the CEO, we contend, seeks to harness entrepreneurship and creativity in ways that

would build upon, rather than replace, a distinctive account of the history and

development of the company.

This is just one reading of the CEO’s statement. This statement may, of course, be

interpreted in other ways. It could be read as a celebration of the implementation of a

rationalist conception of strategy in which strategy is conceived to foster an

“entrepreneurial and creative” corporate culture capable of exploiting opportunities and

parrying risks. Or, to draw upon our broader knowledge of the company, it could be

heard to affirm an espoused strategy of ‘product differentiation’ combined with ‘focus’

(Porter, 1980) which was expected to revitalise the unique selling point ascribed to

StitchCo merchandise. Alternatively, the CEO’s statement could be interpreted as

articulating a processual conception of strategy in which he is engaged in negotiating

and promoting a particular vision based upon his ‘recipe knowledge’ of how to restore

the fortunes of an ailing company. In such a reading, the opportunity of press coverage

is interpreted as a way of disseminating a particular vision of strategy in which its

dynamic (“carry forward”, “driving”) meaning, and means of implementation, is given

emphasis.

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From a Foucauldian standpoint, however, whatever reading becomes dominant or

‘taken for granted’ evidences the play of power relations (e.g. by privileging particular

discursive practices) rather than approximating what strategy ‘is’. In this light,

communications do not simply explain or justify the intentions or actions of managers to

whom the task of formulating and implementing strategy is assigned. They also exert

truth effects insofar as they operate to constitute employee intentions and actions that

they are generally assumed to describe. The discourse can be read to signal an

expectation or requirement that employees, the CEO included, will be assessed within,

and will examine their own performance against, a corporate and business

‘environment’ that is represented as “driving, entrepreneurial and creative”. The

implication is that employees who are construed as not demonstrating their commitment

to, and delivery of, this discipline will no longer have the ‘opportunity’ to ‘participate’. In

this regard, the CEO is himself tied to, and disciplined (i.e. both constrained and

enabled) by, a strategy discourse that he disseminates, and with which he and his

appointees within StitchCo are strongly identified by the non-executive directors, major

shareholders and media pundits, as well as its employees. The CEO's repeated and

amplified articulations of the strategy fuelled the expectations of staff and investors that

he would exemplify, demonstrate and deliver what it means to be “driving,

entrepreneurial and creative”.

Despite the power invested in such knowledge of strategy, it should not be assumed

that strategy discourse directly determines or unequivocally constrains either the actions

of the CEO or other StitchCo employees. Other discourses and options are available

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that render such strategy discourse more or less credible and appealing. Investment in

other discourses and associated identifications (e.g. family or career goals) can result in

considerable scepticism, resistance or dramaturgical compliance with respect to

proposed and enacted strategic change. At StitchCo, the terrain on which the new

strategy discourse was propagated and distributed had previously hosted social

relations and subjectivities to which the new CEO, an outsider, contrived to make

selective appeals - for example, by acknowledging the impressive history of the

company.

CONCLUSIONS

Discourses appeal to a context whose contours they invoke and reproduce. When

interpreting the brief extract taken from some press coverage of StitchCo, the reader

unfamiliar with the company is obliged to invoke a context - for example, a broad

understanding of what businesses are and what CEOs do. As Fairclough and Wodak

(1997: 277, cited in Hardy, Palmer and Phillips, 2000: 1233) contend, “Discourse is not

produced without context and cannot be understood without taking context into

consideration…Discourses are always connected to other discourses that were

produced earlier, as well as those which are produced synchronically and

subsequently.” It is to `context' that we have necessarily appealed in constructing our

interpretation of the CEO's statement.

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That said, it is a mistake, from the standpoint of Foucauldian discourse analysis at least,

to assume that ‘context’ and its interpreters can be independently or dualistically

identified. This is where discourse analysis departs radically from the realist ontologies

favoured by rationalist, processual and, indeed, certain forms of discourse analysis.

Both context and discourse are understood to be continuously (re)identified through

discursive practices. Knowledge of ‘structure’ and ‘agency’ undergoes construction and

transformation in the discursive practicalities of its everyday use. This, to be clear, is not

to deny the reality of what is discursively identified as `history' `context' ‘structure’ or

‘agency’, etc. but, rather, to recognize how it is through discursive practices that we

identify reality and, in doing so, effect its reproduction and transformation.

The analytical gauntlet thrown down by Foucauldian discourse analysis is to

acknowledge and investigate the power/knowledge relations that are productive of

particular ways of accounting for complex processes. It is not simply that discourse is

contextually interpreted. Rather, it is indexical in the sense that discourses are rendered

meaningful by connecting their claims to the discursively constituted contexts of their

articulation. The CEO's statement is placed in the context of what is (discursively)

constituted, for example, as the history of StitchCo and the position of its CEO. No

discourse is capable of providing a closure in reflecting upon, or seeking to capture,

StitchCo’s past. Each possible history, is identified through discursive work that is open

to contest from alternative histories that it excludes or marginalises. Discourse analysis

exemplifies and stimulates an awareness of how the identification and privileging of

particular historical, or contextual, conditions is necessarily the product of contingent,

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discursively produced ways of depicting the emergence of organizational (e.g.

strategizing) practices.

The concern of discursive analysis is to better appreciate how, as forms of power-

knowledge, strategy talk and texts are actively involved in the constitution of what, for

example, rational and processual models contrive to prescribe or describe. In exploring

a form of analysis that is more directly attentive to, and guided by, the reflexive quality

of social relations, there is no aspiration to offer a substitute or corrective for rational or

processual approaches to strategy. It is accepted that rational and processual analysis

proceed from different assumptions, and that they each make distinctive contributions to

the theory and practice of strategy. Their accounts of strategy are credible and valuable

within their own terms of reference. For us, the shortcomings of rational and processual

analysis reside in a lack of reflexivity (and humility) about claims to rational-ise strategy

or accurately reflect its processes and in its disregard for its own truth effects, and not in

the failure to embrace the discursive approach commended here. While the

incorporation of greater reflexivity within rational and processual analysis would operate

to qualify its objectivism - whether in respect of industry structures or 'managers'

meanings - there would remain pragmatic or expedient reasons for minimising

consideration of their discursive production and political effects.

Analysis of `strategy' as discourse is attentive to how the discourse of `strategy' renders

the world, including its experts and adopters, meaningful and tractable in particular

ways. "Strategists", as Knights and Morgan (1991 : 260) have noted, "do not reflect

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upon the truth and disciplinary effects of their discourse". In contrast to other accounts

of strategy, it is not assumed that the `object' of interest exists independently of its

analysis. This approach, we acknowledge, is neither self-evidently valuable nor easily

undertaken. This is not least because, in order to discuss any topic (e.g. strategy), it is

necessary to treat the topic as if our knowledge of it exists independently of the

discursive practices that identify and explore it as a topic. In addition, the truth effects of

established strategic discourse, which find their echo in rational and processual models

of strategy, are particularly powerful. These effects make it "exceedingly difficult for us

to disengage ourselves from such a view" (Knights and Morgan, 1991 : 260).

Nonetheless, following the lead given by Knights and Morgan, we believe that by

striving to do so, it is possible to open up and extend new ways of analysing strategy.

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