What’s your strategy?’ In plain language, this means ‘What do you plan to do to achieve a certain desired outcome?’
I use the verb ‘plan’ to drive home the point that you need to do some thinking about what you want or have to do in this respect. There are many texts written to teach strategy—from its definition, to the way to do it, and at the end of the day, to take stock of the result, as if there is a formal process that one has to follow. Many terms have been coined: mission, objectives, strategy per se, action plans; strategy formulation and implementation; strategic change and management of change; or simply execution. There are shades of difference amongst these terms here and there, but they are largely about strategy formulation or formation and its execution.
Nevertheless, is the process as formal as those suggested by these books—in business at least?
I submit that it is more a thought process than anything else.
Strategy has long been practised by ‘modern’ people from day one— even when they were living in caves, which in itself was a form of strategy to protect themselves from dangerous beasts and the elements of nature. When men were able to gather their thoughts in writing, some began to articulate the concept; we all know Sun-tze’s Art of War, written around 2,500 years ago. (His writing, to be exact, is not on strategy; rather, it is about tactics. But they are also a form of strategy, since tactical moves are also part of a grand strategy, if there is one.)
When I attended business school in the late 1970s, the management guru of the day was Peter Drucker. Questions like ‘What’s your business?’ and ‘Who are your customers?’ often drove discussions during classes, where words like ‘missions’ and ‘strategies’ hung on everyone’s lips. And for those who wanted to throw buzzwords around about the subject, there was Business Policy by Roland Christensen et al. (first published in 1965).
However, I remember that few emerged any wiser on the concept of strategy, at least not the way the academics saw it. That, I suppose, is a shortcoming of the case study method of teaching, which is still practised today.
It was only after my graduation that I found a framework by Charles Hofer of North-Western University buried in the mountain of my class handouts. Thanks to that framework, I began to understand the concept better. I later learned that Hofer had in fact also co-authored a number of strategy-related titles with another writer, Dan Schendel. Hofer and Schendel have the uncanny ability to make the concept of strategy not only pragmatic, but also very learner-friendly. Along the way, I also discovered George Steiner, Arthur Sharplin, John Argenti, James Brian Quinn and others.
The early 1980s saw the introduction of the Boston Consulting Group and General Electric’s matrixes, followed by Michael Porter’s five forces and three generic strategies. These models took both the academic and consulting worlds by storm. I guess it was their apparent ease of application, rather than the power of their concepts, that made them the darlings of these worlds.
But soon, new gurus would emerge. With the onslaught of information and communication technology, W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne’s ‘Blue Ocean Strategy’ has become the new beacon for tech-savvy young men and women to become multi-billionaires in ‘uncontested’ market spaces.
Strategy alone is certainly not enough; we need to have the right organisation to make it work. But come to think of it, isn’t re-organising to effect a strategy in itself part and parcel of the strategy? And without entrepreneurship or intrapreneurship1 to provide vision and foresight, how good could a strategy be? That said, an entrepreneur or an intrapreneur may not necessarily be a good leader or manager.
Ultimately, we cannot view strategy, vision, foresight, organisation, leadership, entrepreneurship and innovation in isolation. Gurus went on to coin more inclusive terms such as ‘strategic management’, ‘managing change’ and the like. Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, Rosabeth Kanter, William Ouchi and Kenichi Ohmae were most prolific in this pursuit. Much of their literature is not really esoteric or ground-breaking; rather, they use example after example to illustrate and inspire. Much of this body of literature is about organisation and leadership. Besides these new gurus, there were industry captains like Lee Iacocca (of Chrysler fame) and Roger Enrico (Pepsi) who thought they could give the world a lesson or two in management as well.
Some authors want to change the world. As if it is possible for players in individual industries in nations to cluster up to take on the world, the above-mentioned Michael Porter published a very ambitious title, The Competitive Advantage of Nations, in 1990. Porter must have been harbouring Nobel ambitions when he wrote it. Though thick with data and equipped with a model that seems conceptually powerful, this book is too simplistic on practical realities, many of which must have been culturally and politically foreign to Porter.
A few aspire to be remembered, I suppose, as management gurus. The greatest pretender of all, in my opinion, is none other than Henry Mintzberg. Mintzberg is also a very prolific writer on management. However, few of his ideas and concepts are really original. Amongst his first works is the so-called Configuration Theory—a very wishy- washy theory that he keeps re-hashing, like the way the Chinese use leftover rice to prepare a new meal (fried rice, that is). Notwithstanding, in a very bold approach in 1998, he and two other collaborators penned Strategy Safari. They went on to conclude, on bases that were not clearly explained, that there were 10 schools of strategy formation, and thinkers and writers of strategy could also be identified accordingly. How convenient! Three of the schools are said to be ‘prescriptive’ and the rest, ‘descriptive’. They naturally saw fit to name one as the ‘Configuration’ school.
However, on closer scrutiny, their arguments can hardly hold water. Critiquing what others have written is easy—obviously, no concept is perfect, but perhaps they should have taken a look at themselves in the mirror. People change their ideas as they read and see more, encounter a new environment, or grow wiser. What is disturbing about Mintzberg et al. is that they chose to ridicule concepts that have long been abandoned or modified by their promoters. A case in point is that of George Steiner, whose concept Mintzberg et al. strongly criticised as archaic, when in fact a new Steiner model was already on the road.
My message is simple. We should not get too carried away by all the theories and concepts. Unlike physical sciences where theories and laws are advanced to explain absolute truths or phenomena, theories and concepts in management tend to converge around behavioural patterns of individuals, or groups, or individuals vis-à-vis groups. No two managers are the same; neither are organisations.
And most of these social science theories and concepts are premised on observations.
One of the underlying principles of advanced academic research is the need for absolute data and information validity, yet some academics forget about this basic stock-in-trade. A case in point is Porter’s The Competitive Advantage of Nations. There, Porter singles out Singapore as an excellent ‘example’ to back up some of his hypotheses on competitive advantages that nations can create for themselves. Indeed, in the September 2003 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Clayton Christensen and Martin Raynor had the audacity to claim, in their article ‘Why Hard-Nosed Executives Should Care about Management Theory’, that‘Governments of nations like Singapore and Ireland have used Porter’s theory to devise cluster-building policies that have led to prosperity in just the way his refined theory predicts.’This is despite the fact that two of the cases cited in Porter’s book, namely, Singapore Airlines and the country’s ship-building and repair industry, were already world-class by the time the book was published. Singapore Airlines’ Dr C. K. Cheong could easily give Porter a practical lesson on strategy. And I am pretty sure the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew would feel very insulted if he had read it. Professors can be em- perors-without-clothes too. Christensen et al. are Harvard Business School professors. Porter is also with Harvard; maybe it is just a case of ‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine’! (I have written to the publisher who promised to convey my concern, but I have yet to hear anything.)
Learning strategy reminds me of an experience I had in Kenya some years ago. I was in Nairobi for a small NGO workshop and since we had a free day, some of us decided to go for a safari. We were told that given the time constraints, the best we could do was to visit a national park nearby. Nothing was very eventful—until we came to a lake where we could see countless flamingos spreading across the entire edge of the water. We naturally wanted to move closer to take a better look. But as we advanced, we saw that the birds were retreating at virtually the same pace. Teaching and learning strategy is like trying to get closer to flamingos; the more you try, the more helpless you can become!
Contrary to what many authors and thinkers on the subject may say, strategy as a management function is not sustained on a regular basis in most organisations, at least not at the level or depth that is described in the academic world. Strategy sessions are usually convened more on an ad hoc basis, especially at the corporate level. At the business and functional levels, they may be more routinely undertaken. However, what is devised may actually be tactical in essence. Many are also not in sync with the overall vision or mission of the organisation, or philosophy behind the entrepreneurship. However, this does not mean that the ship will run aground in no time. The importance of the process of strategy, I suspect, has been overly dramatised.
Entrepreneurship as a distinct domain of academic research is said to have only gained pace during the last decade or so. But entrepreneur- ship has been around since time immemorial. It is a human instinct. Only Communism was able to suppress it in some countries, but entrepreneurship has outlived Communism. As long as there is opportunity, there will be entrepreneurs. Perhaps because of its infancy in academia, there is still much debate, even on its definition. But everybody knows what entrepreneurship is all about; it is only a matter of articulation and how far one wants to stretch the boundaries to define it. One thing is certain though, there is much to be learned from entrepreneurs—where they get their ideas or opportunities, what makes them ‘plunge’ into their ventures, how they achieve the extraordinary, and so on.
However, entrepreneurship is now being viewed in a bigger context—not just centring around entrepreneurial individuals, but also entrepreneurial organisations, for profit or otherwise, and the process of entrepreneurship itself. To organisations like the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development), even rural start-ups are considered entrepreneurship. I would, however, argue that entrepreneurship of this nature, which is premised on need, is part of the economists’ domain. Its relevance as a distinct domain in academic research remains debatable.
Now, back to strategy. Nicolo Machiavelli (1469–1527), a political philosopher of the Renaissance, wrote The Prince, which many have come to view as the first book on strategy. The book has also given birth to the term Machiavellianism, a philosophy that is regarded as un-Christian by some. But thanks to Antony Jay, Machiavelli has been given a place of honour in management studies.
But some argue that this honour should go to Sun-tze [孙子] whose Art of War has long been romanticised in Chinese literature. It was also the standard reading in the Japanese military academy for decades. Following Samuel Griffith’s translation, many of its lines have also been widely quoted in Western management literature, even by Mintzberg et al., notwithstanding the lack accuracy in them. Ironically, the Chinese have not embraced Sun-tze’s teachings en masse. To critics, Sun-tze’s writing is seen to be contradictory to what K’ung-tze (more popularly known as Confucius, or 孔子) was trying to teach: benevolence and transparency versus Sun-tze’s apparent advocacy of deception.
Step into any good library and you will see a boggling array of titles on strategy and related topics. With few exceptions, many are theorising or preaching from a platform that is essentially parochial—but they do help to bring up ‘think-through’ awareness or consciousness. Your brain works like a huge pot with all these ingredients being thrown in continuously: the opportunity that is before you—the risks, competition, etc., that come with it; the help or resources that you can mobilise to achieve the desired results; and the things that you have to do to sustain them, etc. And driving the thought process is none other than philosophy, foresight, vision, wisdom, lessons from one’s own past mistakes and from that of others. And one doesn’t necessarily put all these things on paper.