Thursday, May 15, 2014

Reading :: Strategy as Practice

Strategy as Practice: An Activity Based Approach
By Paula Jarzabkowski

Management studies have not drawn much on activity theory -- in fact, from what I can tell, there's not much beyond Blackler's articles and Jarzabkowski's work. And Jarzabkowski's work is best summed up by the author herself: "This framework is informed by activity theory ... but it is not a faithful representation of activity theory in its entirety. Rather, it draws on activity theory principles of mediated interaction between actors and their social community in the production of shared activity" (p.35). For me, it was an interestingly heterodox take on activity theory, one that taught me a lot about how the field of management sees strategy-as-practice.

First, let's talk about the triangle diagram that Jarzabkowski deploys throughout. Activity theorists are well acquainted with triangles, which in AT typically represent the following points: subjects, TOOLS, objects, RULES, community, and DIVISION OF LABOR. In a typical AT triangle, the all-caps words are the corners, essentially mediating among the other terms. For instance, a subject uses a TOOL to realize the object; a subject uses RULES to mediate between herself and the community; the community uses the DIVISION OF LABOR to mediate between itself and the object.

In Jarzabkowski's triangles, there are only three terms, and they're on the corners: subject, community, and goal-directed activity. In the middle, symbolizing what they produce together, is "Situated practices of mediation" (p.35).

This triangle and Jarzabkowski's take on activity theory both seem heterodox. Why change things so much? Jarzabkowski is interested in understanding business strategy, which she defines as "a pattern in a stream of goal-directed activity over time" (p.43). So she's specifically interested in how top managers (subjects) work with an organizational community to develop strategy over time, strategy that yields the outcome of realized strategy content. To put it another way, she wants to look at a specific type of activity (strategy), not as a planned phenomenon but as an emergent one. That is, Jarzabkowski wants to understand strategy-as-practice in terms that would perhaps be more familiar to readers of Suchman or Weick. Activity theory, at least in this incarnation, gives her the conceptual vocabulary to discuss and describe this understanding of strategy-as-practice.

For instance, Jazabkowski examines strategy in a case set in a university context. In this case, the activity is distributed because divergent interests lead to goal ambiguity; thus actors are fragmented in their objectives and do not lend much attention to strategy as a collective organizational activity (p.70). In such cases, organizations experience a tension between institutionalized rules and organizational practices, leading to procedural and interactive strategizing (Ch.4). The latter half of the book addresses how to construct strategies in such an environment, using a strategizing matrix based on the triangle (p.104). This work yields a heuristic for understanding how strategy unfolds under different conditions. The author identifies five patterns through this matrix: "introducing localized activity into mainstream strategy; changing existing strategy; stabilizing activity; unresolved activity; and inertial activity" (p.109). And she uses the matrix to describe changing activity system dynamics: reframing, re-embedding, and chronic restructuring (p.124).

In all, I found it to be a fascinating book. I am not sure how I feel about the application of activity theory here—Jarzabkowski seems to be using it very differently, but then again, she is looking at phenomena that AT has not traditionally examined. But I'm intrigued by how she uses the matrix to identify and describe developing patterns, and I wish I had read it before developing my own typology recently. There's a lot to think through in this book. If you're interested in new and unusual developments in activity theory, it's definitely worth reading.

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