Thursday, May 15, 2014

Reading :: The Interpretation of Cultures

The Interpretation Of Cultures
By Clifford Geertz

Confession: I am really not a fan of Geertz. I recognize that I only have that luxury because his work was groundbreaking enough that it can seem obvious in retrospect. But I would still rather read derivative work, which tends to show more economy of writing that Geertz's.

Now that we have that out of the way, let's focus on the most often cited essay in this book: "Thick description: Toward an interpretive theory of culture." Here, Geertz discusses the notion of thick description, borrowed from Ryle (p.6) and elaborated. Geertz distinguishes between thin description (what is someone doing?) and thick description (what does that action mean in terms of cultural categories?) (p.7). The example here is that of a man rapidly contracting his eyelid (thin description) as a burlesque wink (thin description). Thick description, Geertz argues, distinguishes good ethnography from bad (p.16).

That's a very (ahem) thin description of the essay, but it's the gist of what—I concede—you probably should read for yourself. Although I find Geertz's prose to be a chore, he does provide a thorough, example-laden argument for understanding description as an interpretive move that ethnographers have to embrace and practice. If you're interested in doing field research, ethnography or not, this essay should help you to understand and sift through some of the layers of meaning you'll need to describe. For that reason, yes, read Geertz.

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.

Reading :: Blue Ocean Strategy

Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make Competition Irrelevant
By W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne

Blue Ocean Strategy is an international bestseller on strategically developing new market space. The authors invite us to consider a "marketing universe composed of two sorts of oceans: red oceans and blue oceans" (p.4).

Red oceans are existing, known market spaces in which rules are known; in these spaces, products are commodities, competition is fierce, and margins become thinner (p.4). Here, the rule is incremental improvement and the competition makes it a battlespace (p.7).

Blue oceans, in contrast, are untapped market spaces in which rules are in the process of being made, competition is thin, and margins are consequently fat (p.5). Blue oceans are more profitable (p.7). They require value innovation, in which "instead of focusing on beating the competition, you focus on making the competition irrelevant by creating a leap in value for buyers and your company, thereby opening up new and uncontested market space" (p.12).

The authors include multiple examples of blue ocean strategy, most memorably Cirque de Soleil, which made traditional circuses irrelevant by eliminating, reducing, and raising certain aspects of the traditional circus while creating new value in the experience. Another example is [yellow tail], the Australian wine that was marketed in sharp contrast to other wines in the US market. In these and other examples, the authors use analytical tools to demonstrate how the cases contrasted sharply with existing products, allowing them to create blue oceans.

The notion of creating a new market is not especially revolutionary. But the book provides several linked heuristics that allow readers to analyze the current market, see possibilities, develop strategy, and execute it. That, I think, is what made it such a valuable book. Like most bestsellers, this one is now available very cheaply on the used book market (which is where I got my copy). But it's still valuable if you're planning to market a product, or even if you're thinking about analogous ways to distinguish your work from others. (I can imagine academics using some of these heuristics to identify large research holes and gaps in current theory, for instance.) The book is readable, easy to grasp, and well illustrated with examples. If marketing is interesting to you, I suggest picking it up.