Strategy – a troubled discipline

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Managers may not know or care, but this really matters. I’ve argued for professional strategic management before [search the archive], but if there’s a crisis in the discipline itself, there’s little chance of ever achieving that aim. Be clear – the academic topic of strategy is in real crisis. Students don’t like the courses, recruiters don’t value what they learn, executives don’t use its tools, and academics don’t want to be part of the field. A recent academic journal has some reasonably accessible discussion about the issue [not free I regret]. Here’s more about the problem, why it has come to pass, and possible solutions.

The background is that ‘strategy’ courses in business schools [notably Harvard] were originally called ‘business policy’ and focused on what the general managers do to direct their organizations – i.e. the practice of strategic management. This was supported by powerful case-based teaching, which reinforced the idea of strategy as a craft, to be learned by kneeling at the feet of masters – a stance still driven hard by Henry Mitzberg and his followers.

From ‘business policy’ to ‘strategy’

Then Harvard and others got worried that there was no academic rigor supporting this approach. Michael Porter came to the rescue with micro-economics to explain what ’caused’ profitability and strategy became academically respectable. This is critical, because academics only get on by publishing within a large community of like-minded scholars who share an accepted theory – a paradigm of how the world works [or at least the bit of it that interests them]. So we saw enthusiastic academic engagement with ‘strategic management’ [actually, industry analysis], and very popular strategy courses. MBAs could only get jobs in consulting and banking firms if they mastered these concepts.

Industry analysis runs out of road

There was nothing wrong with industry structure theory or the insights it offered, but two problems followed. First, research showed that it explained rather little of why some firms outperformed others – management matters! So concepts around capability and competence blossomed. Unfortunately, these had little rigorous theory-base, so proved disappointingly unreliable and lacking in much that professionals could build on.

Then, the dot-com era seemed to blow apart the whole idea of industry structure, competitive forces and profitability [it didn’t, as it happens – there’s a perfectly good story of how industry forces changed and drove the upheavals of the dot-com boom and bust]. Unfortunately, industry analysis still didn’t explain much about how firms won or lost, and wasn’t much use to executives wanting to work out what to do to drive performance into the future.

Then came the resource-based view [RBV]

This motivated strategy academics to look into the stronger explanations for performance – in the ‘resources’ of the business itself. Unfortunately, theoretical economists were still in the driving seat, and  dismissed simple, tangible factors, like products, capacity, cash and staff as irrelevant – they were easy to copy or buy, so couldn’t provide any sustainable advantage. The field has since spent 20 years investigating abstract and arcane concepts. I’ll get beaten up for saying this, but here goes – RBV has been useless. Just ask the top teams at any significant, successful organization or partners at the top consulting firms when they last did an RBV analysis for a business.

Strategy tools – not fit for purpose

So, that’s how we have come to this point. Students don’t like strategy courses because they don’t learn anything useful. Recruiters don’t like what students learn because it’s no use. Executives don’t use the tools because they don’t help with real-world strategy. And academics don’t join the discipline because it isn’t one – they prefer to stick to true disiplines, such as economics, finance or organizational behavior.

Why are strategy tools not fit for purpose? Two reasons:

  1. Strategy tools aim to answer the wrong question – why are some firms more profitable than others? We have known since the 1950s that superior profitability is neither sustainable nor of much interest. ROA is high in pharmaceuticals, but low in basic materials, but that doesn’t mean basic materials firms have zero value. Then, would you rather have 20% ROA in a shrinking business or 12% in a growing one? The question we really need answered is why some firms deliver stronger sustained growth in cash-flows than others. For theory to be valuable, it needs to meet three criteria – being general, useful and true. [“All red-heads are quick-tempered” would be general and useful, but unfortunately is not true.] The micro-economics of industry profitability is general and true, but is simply not useful for this purpose.
  2. Strategy tools deal with strategic positioning, not strategic management. Industry forces analysis says how to position a firm compared with rivals, as does the value curve. But as I’ve posted on before, the simple fact is that firms very rarely need to re-ask this question. Strategy academics don’t like the idea that strategy is a once-a-decade question, so this obsession with ‘position’ has led to a further obsession with strategic innovation, tranformation and business model redesign – all of which are nearly always irrelevant to nearly all organizations.

The available strategy tools say nothing much about how to make the continuous stream of decisions, across the entire organization, that have to be made from week to week, month to month.

By the way, a regrettable by-product of this mis-direction is that strategy had little or nothing to say of any value to non-commercial organizations – public services, charitable groups and non-governmental organizations. They may not be pursuing growing cash flows, but they are aiming for continuous improvements in other outcomes.

A way forward

The journal articles offer some solutions to the crisis in the strategy field. Professor Joseph Bower urges a focus on organizations’ values. That’s fine, but it’s another example of a one-time choice. Having decided on their values, exemplars like Johnson & Johnson, Infosys, P&G etc don’t change them every week, month, or year. So what do strategic managers actually do in between? Professors Richard Whittington and Paula Jarzabkowski urge a refocus on strategy-as-practice. But it’s not clear there’s much theory here, and identifying what managers do on strategy is not the same as working out what would be best to do. Professor Robert Grant urges a return to a solid theory-based approach – problem is that the only theory we seem to have is micro-economics, which has nothing much to say about the continuing management of strategy.

If executives, consultants and students are going to find strategy useful, we need a rigorous, theory-based explanation for why organizations perform as they do over time, and how management decisions can improve that performance. Only then can we teach students and advise management how to develop and implement policies that will deliver sustained, strong performance.

I have offered one possible answer to this challenge with strategy dynamics – a management implementation of the rock-solid, deep theory of ‘system dynamics’. I am entirely happy to subject this approach to the standard scientific test – falsification. So please, if you think it doesn’t work, please prove it. It meets the three requirements of valuable theory – it’s universally general, very useful and demonstrably true in every case.

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  1. Bruce Lewin  January 2, 2009

    Hi Kim,

    Are things as bleak as you say they are? Are peope really skimming over the ‘system dynmaics’ in favour of the alternatives you suggest?

    Reminds me a little of similar debates in psychology and psychometrics!

  2. Kim Warren  January 3, 2009

    Yes, Bruce – they are bleak. The references that caused me to make this post are just the tip of a large iceberg of frustration that is widely shared amongst strategy academics.
    As far as I am aware, system dynamics is largely unknown amongst management, strategy academics and consultants. It is not that they have ‘skimmed over it’ – virtually none have ever heard of it, and those that are aware have so superficial an understanding that it’s been dismissed.
    But that’s not their fault – it’s ours. Hence my efforts to translate the approach into something that connects as strongly as possible to business and strategy ideas that are already widely understood.
    Very many strategy concepts that are weak, and of limited utility and reliability have been taken up because their advocates have been highly effective in ‘marketing’ them, both within academia and to practitioners – value curve, balanced scorecard, tipping points, core competences – the list is endless. There is nothing essentially ‘wrong’ with most of these, indeed many are very valuable, provided they are used with professional rigour and kept within the limited scope for which they work.
    … but that’s where the strategy discipline is right now – stuck with methods that are limited and unreliable. No wonder we see so much fallout from unprofessional strategic management.

  3. Adrian Boucher  January 15, 2009

    Hi Kim

    A nice (logical) rant. The points you make are fair and reasoned. Perhaps the problem of SD and related methodologies have not been as successful as they might have been since Forrester’s poineering work is that until relatively recently, software for developing simulations and microworlds has been pretty unfriendly.
    Additionally, formulating BOT diagrams and causal-loop analysis are “hard” to do, particularly for generations brought up on relatively non-rigorous education. I only discovered SD by accident, and at an age where I cannot learn as quickly as when I was younger. Still struggling to come to terms, but greatly helped by the resources that you have developed.

    For which, grateful thanks.

  4. kim warren  January 16, 2009

    thanks for your kind words Adrian – more coming, so watch this space!


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