Strategy as an Unfolding Network of Associations

Stripe Partners

In his classic article, Michael Porter characterises strategy as the need to make difficult choices. He argues “with so many forces at work against making choices and trade-offs in organizations, a clear intellectual framework to guide strategy is a necessary counterweight” (Porter 1996). However, the evidence explored here suggests that an intellectual framework is not enough. Porter characterizes strategy as a linear, analytical process that produces a static set of written materials outlining the agreed direction and set of decisions. Strategy is, in theory, independent of the people, context and environment in which it is conceived. In this view, the strategy document could be shared with an equally competent management team and the same outcomes would be achieved. Strategy development becomes a science, the products of which recede into a ‘black box’ (Latour 1987), thereafter usable by other qualified business ‘scientists’. However, as the evidence has demonstrated in this case study, the range of outcomes are often contingent and not the result of a linear process. They are the product of an ongoing and complex interaction of people, experiences, artefacts and decisions that plays out over time. In this sense strategy can be seen an unfolding network of associations, not a static, disembodied document. If we stop thinking about ‘strategy as a document’ and start thinking about ‘strategy as a network’, then this reframes how we think about effective strategy. At the centre of this sits the question of knowledge management. In the ‘strategy as document’ paradigm, it is assumed that formalised knowledge is infinitely transferable. In the ‘strategy as network’ paradigm, it is assumed that knowledge is contingent on participation in the network.