Historicising Business Strategy

Evolving Ideas about Business Strategy

by Pankaj Ghemawat (NYU Stern, USA and IESE Business School, Spain)

Abstract

This paper updates an earlier article published in Business History Review that concluded that by the second half of the 1990s, there had been a profusion of new, purportedly practical ideas about strategy, many of which embodied some explicit dynamics. This update provides several indications of a drop-off since then in the rate of development of new ideas about strategy but also a continued focus, in the new ideas that are being developed, on dynamics. And since our stock of dynamic frameworks has, based on one enumeration, more than doubled in the last fifteen to twenty years, updating expands both the need and the empirical basis for some generalizations about the types of dynamic strategy frameworks—and strategy frameworks in general—that managers are likely to find helpful versus those that they are not.

Source: Business History Review 90, 1-23 (DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007680516000702)

Review by Kyle Bruce (Macquarie University, Australia)

Editor’s note

Ghemawat’s 2017 paper below should not be read in isolation but as part of a round table organized at Harvard Business School that brought together historians and management scholars to discuss the origins of ideas in business and management. The results of the round table were published as a special edition of the Business History Review. In this sense, Ghemawat’s contribution to the special issue and its discussion by Chris McKenna (in the same special issue) came to an independent yet similar conclusion to that expressed by Nobel laureate Robert Shiller, who suggested “that in the age of social information networks, economists need to rethink how and why information really spreads.” (See a summary of Shiller’s ideas in The Role of Narratives in Economics).

It is laudable that the executive editors of the Business History Review created a space to disseminate the results of the round table through the journal. However, as you will read below, Kyle Bruce questions whether this is the right way to engage other management scholars in business history as, strictly speaking, the contribution by Ghemawat would be found wanting as scholarly work of international standing.

A final note is that in its comments to Ghemawat, even McKenna gets it wrong by pointing to Lotus 1-2-3 as the first spreadsheet. It actually was VisiCalc.

Having said that, the aim in this space is to generate academic debate through a blog format. So by all means do chip in.

Bernardo Bátiz-Lazo
General Editor NEP-HIS & Editorial Board member, Business History Review.

As a historian and teacher of strategy and, moreover, as a close follower of Ghemawat’s work, I was very much looking forward to his recent update of his 2002 BHR paper on the history of the sub-discipline. I habitually invoke the decade-and-a-half old piece as background reading for my Executive MBA strategy students and hitherto have experienced little, if any, pushback from students typically cagey about the words “theory” or “history”. Regrettably, I am not so sure the updated paper under review here will escape unscathed for the simple reason that it is pretty tough to follow. Let me explain.

After briefly overviewing the 2002 paper that in essence discerned a profusion of new ideas about strategy – particularly those embodying a more dynamic approach – dating from the early to mid-80s, Ghemawat introduces his new findings. After a big peak in the mid-90s, there has been a marked drop-off in new ideas, but dynamics “is a sustained interest focus of strategic innovation rather than one of passing interest” (p. 5; emphasis added). So far, so good you might think, but I started to worry about the phraseology (“strategic innovation”?) attendant on the use of analytical tools from strategy and adjacent sub-disciplines to make sense of his findings; namely, “what should one make of the drop-off overall and the shift toward more attention to dynamics? And what, if anything, should be done?” (p. 8).

Pankaj Ghemawat

Pankaj Ghemawat

Unless the strictures concerning the dreaded “so what?” question have been lifted in history journals such as BHR, I could not discern after several reads a compelling argument as to why readers should be at all bothered by the findings presented? For students of the strategy-as-practice literature, for instance, the suggestion there’s fewer models and frameworks out there for practising managers to employ is not a concern given they probably don’t use them anyway. For my MBA students who routinely complain of framework fatigue, again, the theory drop-off is not a problem. And so, for me, the remainder of the paper was rather superfluous and unnecessarily complex. Curiously, I think Ghemawat makes it so when he concludes that while it’s certain there’s been a drop-off in the “rate of development of big new strategy ideas/frameworks, it is much harder to be definite about the welfare implications” (p. 10; emphasis added). For me, this conclusion renders redundant both the ensuing “what is to be done” question he poses, as well as the next eight-and-half pages of the article devoted to “a critical assessment of frameworks new and old” (p. 2).

After several reads of these aforementioned pages, I could not really follow or appreciate the “irreversibility” and “uncertainty” dimensions utilised to assess how dynamic current frameworks really are. However, I felt comforted when Ghemawat concludes that “quite a few” of said frameworks “seem subject to some practical limitations” (p. 19). This comfort was short-lived, though, when he finishes the paper with the frustrating and seemingly throwaway line that the way forward, as it were, “is to shift some attention away from the chronologies of frameworks to historiography that attempts to assess them in some fashion” (p. 21). I immediately asked myself: “well, why didn’t he just do this, then??”

fashion-management

For me, and I trust also BHR readers, a historiographical piece embodying intellectual history, actor-network theory, or sociology of scientific knowledge to account for the “trials of strength” in strategy theory, the tension between contributions from the academy and those from business practice, and the current fascination with dynamics, would have been an easier and more interesting read. Like much being published in business and management history journals of late, Ghemawat’s paper is short on actual history and, notwithstanding the final sentence, even short on how to DO history. I was left wondering why this paper was published in this journal and asking myself what this paper’s place tells me about BHR? I have no answers for these questions but look forward to some in due course.

References

Ghemawat, P. (2002) “Competition and Business Strategy in Historical Perspective”, Business History Review 76(1): 37-74. (DOI: https://doi.org/10.2307/4127751)

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