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Scand. J. Mgmt, Vol. 6, No.2, pp. 89-108, 1990 0281-7527/90 $3.00 + 0.

Printed in Great Britain 1990 Pergamon Press pic



University of Venice

(First received 25 April 1989; accepted in revised form 24 January 1990)

Abstract - This paper focuses on the need for critical reflection on the theoretical/methodological
characterization of that broad area of research referred to here as "strategy studies". The aim is to
point out some of the features of this field that distinguish it from other scientific ambits (in
particular from prevailing approaches in economics and organizational theory). The thesis I shall
seek to demonstrate is that two main limitations can be identified in the evolution of thinking on this
subject: the strong prescriptive vein and the so-called "rationalism". The first calls for a revision in
terms of descriptive theories of what is usually put in normative/prescriptive terms. From the analysis
of the pivotal concept of the field - strategy - the underlying conception of the firm as a unique
entity emerges as the most important theoretical contribution common to strategy studies. The
second certainly calls for a closer examination and a deeper discussion of methodological issues.
Rather than "rationalism", what emerges is a curious methodological contradiction in this field:
intentionalism - or "constructivist rationalism" - in representing organizational processes (the
dynamics of decision-making), applied to a conception which is in itself to a large extent

Key words: Strategy, decision-making, theory of the firm, complexity, interactionism.

Those who reject theory for pragmatism are liable to find themselves unwitting adherents to
bad theory .
. . . just as unity has been labelled the most divisive word in Irish politics, so rationality has
become the most emotive word in economics. (Loasby, 1976, pp. 21 and 219)


One of the most interesting phenomena in management studies since World War II has
been the development of "strategy studies", the broad field of research concerning the
strategic issue in connection with organizations or firms (corporate strategy, organization
strategy, business strategy, business policy, strategic management, etc.).
An analysis of recent trends in this literature, however, reveals an increasing sense of
dissatisfaction with the state of the art, if not indeed a serious identity crisis (Canziani,
1984; McGee and Thomas, 1986; Mansfield, 1986). This is probably due to the lack of a
critical intellectual tradition in a field dominated by pragmatism, even though some
critical perspectives have been emerging in recent years.
Suffice it to recall certain of the more disputed critical aspects. First, the very
possibility of identifying the foundations, domains and boundaries of such a field of
studies - business policy, business strategy, strategic management, etc. - is sometimes
called into question (Bower, 1982). Moreover there is considerable fragmentation in the
field (Whitley, 1984a), with major differences in approach and method. The fragmenta-


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90 L. ZAN

tion between the various theoretical schemes suggested is even greater. This raises
serious problems for our understanding of the concepts and frameworks common to the
literature, and of the interrelations or incompatibilities between particular models.
Finally, there is a vague feeling of disenchantment with some of the themes that enjoyed
great success in the early days of strategy studies. Take for instance the crisis in the
"Strategic Business Unit" or SBU approach (Abell, 1980; Wensley, 1981, 1982; Giddens-
Emig, 1983; Day and Wensley, 1983; Miesing, 1983; Seeger, 1984; Zan, 1985b), and the
even greater crisis in "Formal Planning" (Mintzberg, 1981; Bressner and Bishop, 1983;
James, 1984; Hayes, 1985; Houlden, 1985; Stubbart, 1985; Zan, 1987).
Briefly, in spite of the undeniable success of strategy studies, the intrinsic ambiguity of
this literature appears to be the critical point that needs to be tackled. The call for
theories is becoming ever more insistent for a view of strategic management literature in
terms of "implications for theories" rather than the usual over-emphasis on "implications
for managers".
For this very reason it is important to point out the pragmatism that characterizes this
field, because of its implications for any analysis of the evolution of thinking on the
subject (for an evaluation of the state of the art). Indeed, the predominance of the
pragmatic approach has probably had several interlinked consequences, such as: an
incapacity to detach oneself from the subject of inquiry - what Burrel and Morgan have
dubbed "managerial bias" (Burrel and Morgan, 1979); a lack of critical assessment of the
theoretical and methodological issues of the discipline (Miller, 1981; Lamb, 1983;
Camerer, 1985; Zan, 1985a); and an overall tendency towards precepts, indicating
symptoms and providing prescriptions far beyond the normal habit of a social science.
In this situation, a more thorough analysis of the methodological and theoretical
paradigms of strategy studies is difficult, for two reasons:
(i) Possible paradigms tend to be concealed by pragmatic/prescriptive language, blurring
any specific knowledge of the field.
(ii) The lack of attention to theoretical and methodological issues causes serious
fragmentation. In such a situation the very existence of paradigms (stricto sensu Kuhnian
paradigms) is more than questionable (Astley, 1984; Maggi, 1984). At best the area can
be characterized as preparadigmatic, a situation which is unlikely to evolve according to
the Whitley (1984a) view.
The strange result is that providing prescriptions for the best strategy to choose in a
particular situation for instance, is much easier than trying to explain what "strategy"
means. In the same way, prescriptions for defining and managing business units are
legion, while the theoretical and methodological assumptions of the SBU approach are
still vague and rather confused.
While this lack of awareness is clearly evident, it does not mean that there are no
implicit theoretical and methodological characteristics distinguishing this field. However,
to reveal them, to reconstruct the "sense" of strategy studies, a meticulous analysis is
required, in which the subject matter is approached in terms of positive/descriptive
theories rather than in the usually predominant prescriptive terms.
Given these objectives, the approach in this paper will be as follows:
First, an attempt will be made to focus on the object of analysis and the analytical
perspectives in strategy studies. It is hoped that the answer to this first methodological
question, which differs from those usually given in economics and organizational theory,
will reveal some of the distinguishing features of the field.


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Secondly, problems of scientific language related to the concept of strategy will be

Thirdly, a deeper understanding of the methodological characterization of strategy will
be sought analysing some differences in handling the same concept of strategy relative to
economics and organizational theory.
Finally, one of the most "divisive" controversies in strategy studies, i.e. "rationalism",
will be examined.
A few further warnings are necessary. The uncommon - and ambiguous - ex-
pression "strategy studies" will be used in order to avoid over-fragmented definitions
of subject boundaries. These would in fact be of little Use in reconstructing the
theoretical-methodological assumptions of our present field. Such an approach implies a
revisiting of a "divided" literature (or rather of many not always intercommunicating
literatures). This will not always allow us to pay full attention to their inherent
controversies. That of neoclassical economies, for example, is taken as read, and the
same applies to the debate on organizational decision-making processes. Furthermore,
the focus will be exclusively on business enterprises, even though most of what is said
could apply equally well to organizations in general.


Little attention is usually paid in strategy studies to the actual definition of the object of
analysis. The traditional approach seems to focus implicitly on the activity of the firm's
governance, i.e. the management process. But this definition is far too restrictive in the
light of the wealth of issues covered by these studies, and it does not appear to provide a
satisfactory frame for a subject including not only the activity of governance/
management/administration of business and firms, but the more general issue of
enterprise itself, the firm-environment relationship.
The basic object of analysis should be identified as the real firm itself, which is of
such little interest to neoclassical economics, that is, the firm which exhibits both an
economic abstract dimension as an economic operator of exchange, and an organizational
dimension as a social construction (in the language of institutional economics, the firm as
economic institution).
If an understanding of the dynamics of the "real firm" is at the core of these studies,
explaining "the conditions of life and the manifestations of existence" of the firm-
institution as Zappa (1927) puts it, then two main methodological characteristics can be
First, a discipline of this kind tends to exhibit an intrinsically interdisciplinary nature
(Schendel and Hofer, 1979; Williamson, 1985, pp. 1-14; Whitley, 1987; Pennings, 1985):
it becomes necessary to analyse a multiplicity of perspectives in order to investigate "all"
the variables affecting the life of the firm (Jeminson, 1981; Venkatraman and Camillus,
1984; Wensley, 1985; McGee and Thomas, 1986). For the sake of simplicity I shall refer
from now on to two major dimensions: the economic dimension, and in a very broad
sense the organizational dimension.
Secondly, important differences arise in the degree and process of scientific
abstraction: the firm's behaviour is considered in its space-time context in order to
explain the impact of the different multidimensional variables.
92 L. ZAN

The focus on economic and organizational issues represents in some ways an arbitrary
choice, but it serves to define clearly the kind of question I shall be trying to answer here.
Essentially this means analysing in the perspectives of space-time context some of the
differences between the interdisciplinarity of strategy studies as compared with the two
disciplines, namely economics and organization theory, which are usually linked with the
exploration of my two dimensions.

1. The differences compared with the prevailing approaches in economics thus run
deep because: (a) orthodox economics focuses solely on economic aspects, ignoring the
organizational profile of the firm; in this sense it is a "pure" discipline - a term I use
without any value judgment. (b) Orthodox economics tends not to consider the firm in a
space-time context, an aspect that is particularly interesting to our present argument.
This is not of course intended here as a criterion for rejecting neoclassical theory, but
simply as a way of underlining the differences in implications compared with the field of
strategy studies. Theories, as such, are always abstractions, reductions, partial
representations of our ignorance about the complexity of the world. The general
problem thus concerns ways of handling the ignorance inherent in any theory coherently
and with awareness. The problem of the "purity" of the neoclassical abstraction
concerning homo oeconomicus is that "application of the model destroys the purity of
its logic: that purity can be preserved only by total abstinence" (Loasby, 1976,
p. 45). Machlup himself - an unimpeachable neoclassical economist - is fully aware
of this: "... the firm in the model world of economic micro-theory ought not to call
forth any irrelevant associations with firms in the real world" (Machlup, 1967, p. 10;
my italics).
As regards the time variable the same epistemological debate in economics (for an
overview see Caldwell, 1982) has in fact led to harsh criticism of the traditional inability
to get away from the static or comparative-static approach. This reveals an intrinsic
inability to allow fully for the temporal dimension, except in terms of instantaneous
equilibrium (amongst many others, see: Shackle, 1961, 1972; Salvati, 1966; Loasby,
1976; Moss, 1981; Eichner, 1983; Chase, 1983; Thurow, 1983, etc.). The problem of the
path of (any possible) equilibrium is ignored (Teece, 1984, p. 89). Above all, there is a
tendency to ignore the irreversibility of economic events (e.g. the irreversibility of
investments; the modification of ex-antelex-post conditions; the importance of the actual
course of events, given the constraints and the various advantages that this means for
differentfirms), and to ignore the consequences of these phenomena in the evolution of
the firm's economy. (This kind of criticism seems to be what links various heterodox
trends of institutionalism over and above their different origins and level of abstraction
(macro-micro): see Richardson, 1972; Loasby, 1976; Stanfield, 1983; Williamson, 1985
- in particular in this last case the key concepts of "assets specificity" and "fundamental
transformation" .)
Similarly, as regards the space context, orthodox economics is unable to explain the
process of articulating economic space, for example multibusiness firms and market
segmentation, even in purely economic terms (Richardson, 1972; Rumelt, 1981; Teece,
1984); indeed it faces serious problems in explaining processes of non-price competition,
defined rather curiously a contrariis.
On a more general methodological level, the differences are maybe even greater,
given the marked deductive-axiomatic argument of orthodox economics (Loasby, 1976,

pp. 21-26; Swanbey and Premus, 1983), in which the abstraction process is typically one
of a priori reduction (over-simplification?) of the variables to be taken into account
(Salvati, 1966). Although such a process of scientific abstraction may be legitimate
within the discipline (even though some economists like Ward (1972) do ask "What's
wrong with Economics?"), it would appear inconsistent with an understanding of the
dynamics and behaviours of the real-world firms: " ... However, a more straight-
forward procedure ... would be to place more emphasis at the initial stage of
theory development on the use of inductive methods to analyse the institutional,
cultural, social and technological interactions of the phenomena" (Swanbey and Premus,
1983, p. 51).

2. The differences in overall approach are perhaps somewhat fewer in relation to the
organizational disciplines, given their greater behavioural and inductive orientation. The
generalizations of organizational theory are certainly necessary to any explanation of the
dynamics of the firm-institution, in view of the variables that affect any administrative
process. On the other hand, these issues must be "seriously" (Whitley, 1987) related to
the specific economic nature that characterizes firms and distinguishes them from other
kinds of organization (Canziani, 1984; Wensley, 1985; Mansfield, 1986). This orientation
can already be found in those approaches that seek simultaneously to depict strategic
change in terms of context/content/process (Pettigrew, 1985); the emphasis on context in
itself constrains a deeper understanding of the economic relationship of exchange
between the firm and its environment. But this is still an approach to analysis calling for
further efforts towards theoretical construction.

3. The possible risk in an interdisciplinary area such as strategy studies - assuming

interdisciplinarity and the space-time conditions of the firms as two of its distinguishing
features - is twofold: (a) a partial or unbalanced picture may emerge of the two main
dimensions, the economic and the organizational; (b) if the local space-time con-
tingencies of each individual firm are wrongly seen as a denial of any possible generaliz-
ation, thus allowing for countless "theories" of infinite individual cases (Rispoli, 1986),
then we may find ourselves pursuing no theory at all.
Both these risks can be recognized in the evolution of strategy studies, where the case-
studies approach is applied beyond its teaching function, or theorizing and generalization
are disproportionate, particularly in simplistic pictures of the organizational aspect, of
"how organizations work".
It is important to note that the criticism levelled at the field of strategy studies by
economists on the one hand and by organizational scholars on the other is quite
different. Economists criticize the excessive pragmatism and inductivism of the field,
which make them question just how far it is in fact a social science (Whitley, 1984b). The
organizational scholars object to it for its rationalism, a criticism also voiced by not a few
scholars within strategy studies, such as Mintzberg (1978), Normann (1977), Bower and
Doz (1979), Bourgeois (1984), Miller (1981), Burgelman (1983), Pennings (1985),
Pettigrew (1985), etc.
Nonetheless there are several important elements of innovation in strategy studies,
even in the contributions of the so-called "rationalistic school", in spite of their
organizational/decisional determinism. Unfortunately these elements tend to be blurred
by the methodological confusion arising from the dominating pragmatism and the
94 L. ZAN

consequent problems of scientific language. These linguistic problems call for more
thorough exploration and an examination of the concept of strategy - a concept which is
in itself "non-rationalistic".


The difficulties in characterizing and focusing the pivotal concept of this discipline and
its theoretical meanings are well known: "strategy" risks becoming a buzz word, as many
scholars have pointed out (Anderson and Paine, 1975; Easterby-Smith and Davies, 1983;
Evered, 1983).
One of the sources of confusion in any discussion of strategy (corporate/business/
functional strategies) lies in distinguishing between different organizational levels. I shall
not be tackling this problem here, and most of my own argument focuses on the
corporate level. The reason for this option is twofold: (a) confusion seems to persist
even if we select anyone of these levels of analysis; in other words the variety of
organizational levels is one of the underlying problems only. (b) By selecting the issues
of strategy at the corporate level we allow ourselves to make coherent comparisons in
terms of different ways of conceiving the firm as such. More general implications could of
course be developed in terms of business/functional strategies and so on. Perhaps a
greater awareness and understanding of the scientific language problems that we face -
something that deserves a paper of its own - could emerge from a deeper analysis of the
concept of strategy as an attempt to influence other actors' behaviour, i.e. in a social-
interactionist view, or simply as an attempt on the part of actors to cope with complex
systems, i.e. in a genuine systemic view.
Focusing here on the corporate level, the search for theoretical meanings in the
prevailing definitions of the concept of strategy would be useless. Two limitations that
serve to confirm the methodological contradiction inherent in the discipline should be
mentioned here. First, even though some scholars assert that strategy studies have
yielded more in the analysis of the economic profile than in the analysis of the
organizational dimension (Bourgeois, 1980; Mintzberg, 1976; Venkatraman and
Camillus, 1984), definitions of strategy tend, paradoxically, to be non-economic in
nature. These definitions fail to depict the economy of the firm, and seem to refer to
generic organizations rather than firms. Secondly they tend to go to opposite extremes,
either providing reductive representation of firm-environment relationships, maybe in
terms of product/market (e.g. the definitions of strategy in Ansoff, 1965), or remaining
thoroughly vague, because they are not sufficiently supported by a theory of the firm.
It is necessary, on the contrary, to stress the conception of the firm that strategy studies
presuppose (Rumelt, 1981; Rispoli, 1982; Teece, 1984). Despite the sometimes elegant
differences between the various schemes suggested, this conception could be seen as the
common denominator of the field. It could be a way of conceiving the firm as a unique,
specific, unrepeatable entity in its space-time context, whereby the importance of the
firm's relative, initial position in the economic space-time is recognized. It means a
conception of the firm - and consequently the elements of a theory of the firm -
focused on the uniqueness of the individual firm, on its distinctive and particular way of
being. In such a conception, the identification of specific features, elements and patterns
that make the firm distinct and different is crucial: we have here a framework for


concervmg the firm's behaviour - its strategies - in terms of differentiating and

distinguishing processes.
This emerging theoretical corpus will be referred to here as "the specificity-based
theory of the firm", a term invoking on the one hand an emphasis on the distinctive
nature or uniqueness of the individual firm, and on the other hand the ambition or
possibility of pursuing generalizations in terms of conceptions of the firm.
The uniqueness of the firm is associated with three crucial assumptions (Faccipieri,
1984): (a) subjectiveness or identity is attributed to the firm; it is accepted that the firm
possesses degrees of freedom in responding to the stimuli and demands of the
environment. (b) In this context the exercise of power, i.e. market power or more
generally "environmental power", is recognized in firm-environment relationships.
(c) Firms are explicitly conceived as operating in situations of uncertainty.
Here strategic behaviour makes sense only where a hypothesis of partial ignorance in
the face of complexity is admitted (Loasby, 1976). It is this very complexity that makes
various alternatives possible. In the light of these we can hypothesize the existence of
choice; for example, faced with technological heterogeneity we have the chance of
choosing among various possible technologies in order to produce a certain good; or,
faced by heterogeneity of demand we can fulfill various needs with the help of various
"supply strategies". Further examples are given in Porter (1980, pp. 34-46, 126-129).
These discretional margins are then magnified by the partial ignorance generated by the
complexity. We need only think of the countless opportunities for differentiation this
allows to the various competitors, or the difficulties often encountered in understanding
the competitive games and relative positioning of a particular firm in the marketplace
(Porter, 1980, pp. 73-75).
Although several differences can thus be identified in the literature, this conception of
the firm's economic profile as specificity or uniqueness (the two are used henceforth as
synonymous) can be viewed as the distinguishing and unifying character of strategy
studies. It follows that in general terms the meaning of the concept of strategy is none
other than the synthetical representation of such uniqueness: strategy as the specificity of
the firm, a synthesis of the particular firm's positioning in its environment, in its market,
and in the space-time context.
The problems of scientific language arise because such uniqueness can be analysed
from different points of view: several partial approaches may prove necessary and/or
useful to an understanding of the actual behaviours of firms as complex systems. In
other words, even if the same object and level of analysis is adopted, i.e. the firm as a
whole, diverse approaches can still be used in analysing the complexity of the firm-
environment relationships.
It is thus worth reconstructing the different meanings that the significant strategy can
assume, i.e. the different meanings of the term strategy, with respect to the underlying
approach. If this relationship between meaning and approach is disregarded, consider-
able confusion will arise in the use of scientific language. With the exception of
Venkatraman and Camillus (1984), this is perhaps the main limitation of the relatively
few excursions into scientific language analysis in the literature (Schendel and Hofer,
1979; Evered, 1983; Pennings, 1985), where there is a risk that authors simply list certain
different meanings without catching the connections or incompatibilities.
Starting from an earlier analysis of the more common definitions of strategy in the
literature (Zan, 1985a), it is possible to develop a typology of the concepts of strategy
96 L. ZAN

based on two characteristics of the underlying approaches. We can identify the

interpretative approach and the policy-making approaches, which look at strategy "as
being" or "as wishing to be" (Andrews, 1971, p. 16), or we can discern a descriptive as
opposed to an evaluative tone, whereby the former focuses on the reconstruction of the
phenomenological aspect, while the latter implies the appraisal of a given strategy. Four
main meanings of the term strategy are thus identified by the typology (Fig. 1), which
obviously does not embrace all the possible meanings but includes some of the more
accepted ones. The proposed taxonomy will be explained below, and some of its
implications described.


Strategy as
Strategy as
the firm
1 3
Strategy as 2 4
Strategy as
winning winning
EVALUATIVE behaviour: choices:

Fig. 1. A typology of the concepts of strategy.

(1) The descriptive/interpretative approach

This is the most comprehensive approach, which assigns to strategy the general
meaning of the specificity or uniqueness actually attained by the firm, without any
further attributes. Strategy is the logic of the firm's behaviour (or, concisely, the logic of
the firm).
In this methodological context the specificity of the firm is investigated as follows:
First, from an external or "objective" point of view - apart, that is, from the
subjectivity of the analyst's own perceptions or bias. Factual interrelationships between
the significant components of the firm-system and the environment-system are
investigated, and the synthetic meaning (the logic) of the firm's behaviour is
reconstructed from their dialectical relationship. As Mintzberg puts it (Mintzberg, 1978;
Mintzberg and Waters, 1985), we are inferring the meaning of the "stream of actions",
i.e. adopting an interpretative approach.
Secondly, the specificity of the firm is examined without reference to the equilibrium
conditions in the firm-environment relationships, i.e. adopting a descriptive tone.
Such a meaning is implicit for instance in Porter's "strategic groups" analysis (Porter,
1980). Curiously, this can be associated with the structure/behaviour/performances
"paradigm" typical of the industrial organization perspective, simply by avoiding its
deterministic/functionalist tone, as many authors have pointed out (Porter, 1980;
Rumelt, 1981; Bourgeois, 1984; Teece, 1984): the focus is on the actual conduct of the
firm. Furthermore, this is also the meaning that can be found in the definitions of

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strategy in the so-called "evolutionary theory of the firm" (Nelson and Winter, 1982) and
in the "ecological" perspective (Freeman and Boeker, 1984), barely avoiding the
determinism that can arise in these perspectives (Di Bernardo and Rullani, 1985). In
these contexts strategy tends to be considered as a question of decisional routines, in a
way that at first seems to run counter to the predominant view of the non-recurrent or
exceptional nature of strategic acts.

(2) The evaluative/interpretative approach

This is a narrower approach compared with the descriptive/interpretative. It attributes
to strategy the meaning of a "superior specificity" as actually pursued, assessing the value
of its uniqueness.
The uniqueness of the firm is still considered from an external or "objective" point of
view in the sense mentioned above, but only the actual "winning" interrelationships are
selected. An appraisal of the degree of coherence and fit between firm-system and
environment-system is thus introduced (Coda, 1983, 1984; Miles and Snow, 1984;
Venkatraman and Camillus, 1984), and the superiority or the degree of dominance and
success of the firm's behaviour is analysed with reference to its equilibrium conditions, or
in more general terms to the sustainable nature of its dominant conduct.
With its functionalist overtones, this meaning of strategy is the one that is also implicit
in the business idea category as a system for dominance developed by Normann (1977),
and the one implicit in the literature on sustainable competitive advantage.

(3) The descriptive/policy-making approach

This too is a narrower approach compared with the first one. It interprets the meaning
of strategy in terms of the intentional uniqueness or the project of future intention
pursued by the firm.
The specificity of the firm can now be considered:
From the internal or "subjective" point of view (the perspective of the firm's key
actors). Intentions and expressed volition are investigated, and the internal logic of the
project, of the set of choices or "stream of decisions" are synthesized and reconstructed.
The firm's uniqueness is also considered without reference to the equilibrium!
feasibility conditions of the project.
This is the definition used by Chandler (1962) among others, and whilst it is the least
interesting from a theoretical point of view it remains widespread in current language, in
terms of "intended strategies".

(4) The evaluative/policy-making approach

Once again this is a narrower approach, interpreting strategy in terms of the superior
uniqueness sought by the firm, the project for dominance.
The specificity of the firm is still considered in a "subjective" perspective as expressed
volition, now in terms of the internal and external logic of the set of choices. The
appraisal of the degree of external and internal coherence is introduced (Venkatraman
and Camillus, 1984), as a condition for the success of the "winning" strategies intended.
The previous paragraph represents perhaps the most common definition of the term
"strategy", and one often used in consultancy and planning contexts. Methodologically
speaking this kind of functionalist perspective is likely to degenerate in this approach into
managerial bias.
98 L. ZAN

Let us take one example of the operationalization of the proposed typology. It is

interesting to note for instance that the apparently trivial statement that a given firm "has
no strategy" may assume very different meanings, thus perhaps giving rise to
misunderstandings, depending on the concept of strategy involved. The statement
makes no sense with reference to box 1 of the typology; there is always a strategy, even if
only implicitly. With reference to box 2 it means that the given firm is not an "excellent"
one; it is a "loser". In terms of box 3 it means that absolutely no project, i.e. conscious
project, exists. In box 4 it means that the existing projects do not ensure excellence.
Furthermore, the typology can be useful in reconciling frameworks which do not at
first appear to be comparable. From this point of view the concept of business idea
(Normann, 1977) and the concept of strategic groups (Porter, 1980) can be linked as
different qualifications of the uniqueness and variety of strategic behaviours. The latter
lies at an intermediate level of abstraction between the typical nature of the behaviour of
single firms (business idea) and of industry (industry logic). It is characterized purely in
terms of reconstructing the logics of behaviour, without the evaluative tone character-
izing the former.
For the sake of simplicity the focus in this paper is on the corporate level. The
taxonomy could of course also apply to other organizational levels. With regards to
business strategy, for instance, different approaches to meaning can be identified as
follows. (1) Under a descriptive/interpretative approach, the business strategy is seen as
the reconstruction of the competitive/economic meaning of the actual product/market
portfolio. (2) Under an evaluative/interpretative approach it incorporates the appraisal
of competitive advantage associated with the actual differentiation of a particular P/M
portfolio. (3) Under a descriptive/policy-making approach, the business strategy is
regarded as the set of choices in terms of competitive differentiation processes. (4)
Under an evaluative/policy-making approach, the business strategy incorporates the
appraisal of the intentional process of business differentiation.
Thus the taxonomy proposed for some of the meanings assigned to "strategy" in this
field appears to provide a useful semantic and conceptual tool: (a) in identifying some
particular meanings of the term (strategy as "the logic of the firm", as "system for
dominance", as "project", as "project for dominance"); (b) in linking these particular
meanings to the underlying approach (descriptive vs evaluative and interpretative vs
policy-making); (c) in thus making it possible to identify connections between differences
in these meanings - differences arising from the particular approach involved but
nonetheless sharing the same conception of the firm as a unique, unrepeatable, specific
As always, the utility of a typology lies more in the process of constructing types than
in the actual description of the types themselves. Let us therefore follow some other
trains of thought along these lines, introducing some further observations on the
methodological characterizations of strategy studies.



On a general level the conception of the firm as a unique, specific reality is regarded
here as the unifying trait and distinguishing feature of strategy studies. We can then


usefully consider the originality of this orientation compared to that of economics and
organizational theory.
It should be noted here that the concept of strategy was already evident in economic
thinking: not in the neoclassical theory of perfect competition (Rumelt, 1981; Anderson,
1982; Nelson and Winter, 1982; Teece, 1984), but certainly in the new oligopoly theory
which emerged after World War II (Andrews, Bain, Sylos-Labini, etc.), and in a
different sense in Penrose's line of thought. The first of these in fact assumes an
objectively rational decisional process (Salvati, 1966): very few data define the decision in
situations characterized by certainty and a knowledge of the cause-and-effect relation-
ships; this means that there is no discretional margin - choice does not exist at all
(Loasby, 1976). The latter approach, on the contrary, does assume the existence of
individual responses (Salvati, 1966) as subjective elements in the firm's life, i.e. the use
of margins of discretion vis-a-vis the market.
Similarly, this perspective, already partly implicit in Selznick, appears a little later in
organizational theory in the shape of strategic choice (Child, 1972) - perhaps with
greater awareness but nonetheless not linked to the analogous developments in
economic thinking.
The novelty of the concept of the subjectiveness or uniqueness of the firm in strategy
studies could thus be questioned. On the other hand, it can be argued that in the social
sciences emphasis does make a difference. The strength of the spotlight on a concept in
different contexts can modify the overall theoretical framework as well as the overall
methodological approach. In this sense, we can say that strategy studies have renewed
and developed the "timid" efforts once made by economic theory; the theoretical
framework of strategy studies has its roots in the specificity-based conception of the firm.
Taking this as our point of departure we can proceed to an examination of the
distinguishing features of strategy studies, starting from the complexity that characterizes
the concept of strategy itself (Di Bernardo and Rullani, 1986) as applied in the literature.

(1) First of all it should be emphasized that even when economists do take elements of
the firm's subjectiveness into account, the methodological function of the concept of
strategy is different in economic theory and strategy studies, in relation to the theoretical
structure and prevailing approaches of the two fields. In particular, and allowing for the
"excesses" in both areas, it differs in its deductive/inductive character.
In economic theory the variables forming the object of analysis are usually identified
by a process of a-priori selection. Given this ex-ante process of complexity reduction, the
concept of strategy can be directly utilized in functionalist terms, and its equilibrium
conditions analysed - for instance in a game theory framework.
In strategy studies, even those adopting a functionalist perspective, the concept of
strategy first has to perform the function of reconstructing the variables involved, namely
identifying those that appear to have some impact in a particular space-time context. In
other words, in strategy studies the concept of strategy includes the ex-post synthesis of
the complexity of firm-environment relationships (Anderson, 1982; Venkatraman and
Camillus, 1984; Camerer, 1985); its role involves the reconstruction of meanings - an
aspect that is increasingly attracting attention (Pennings, 1985).
In this context and a propos complex systems - which is exactly what real-world firms
are - we find that the concept of strategy is useful for synthesizing the multiplicity of
firm-environment relationships: that is for providing a representation of the order of
100 L. ZAN

such complex systems. Complexity, and order as a representation of such complexity

(Morin, 1977), are in fact inseparable. "Order is an indispensable concept for the
discussion of all complex phenomena, in which it must largely play the role the concept
of law plays in the analysis of simpler phenomena" (Hayek, 1973, p. 35). Furthermore,
the need to reconstruct the uniqueness of a firm, its "strategy" (in Morin's words the
"originality of the order", the "emerging properties" of any system) is no more than a
consequence of such a conception, given that" ... the particular manner in which the
resulting abstract order will manifest itself will depend, in addition to the rules which
govern the actions of the elements, on their initial position and on all the particular
circumstances of the immediate environment to which each of them will react in the
course of the formation of that order" (Hayek, 1973, p. 40, my italics).
In this sense, and returning to the "horizontal" reading of the proposed typology,
the concept of strategy in the descriptive/interpretative sense proves necessary in
strategy studies for reconstructing the phenomenological aspect (even before any
functionalist overtone is introduced, with its associated evaluative/interpretative mean-
ing) in light of overall methodological characteristics (in primis: taking complexity into
Talking about strategy is first of all a non-predetermined reconstruction process - as
well as being non-predeterminable (Bourgeois, 1984): more than non-deterministic,
strategy studies seem to be characterized to a large extent by indeterminism.

(2) In this perspective the concept of strategy cannot be reduced to pure (strategic)
choice. Rather, it represents a comprehensive synthesis of the firm-environment
relationship. This is certainly a result of the key actors' volition (the dynamics of strategic
choice) but it also stems from the subjectiveness of other actors' and environmental
constraints as volition is transformed into actual behaviour.
In the context of strategy as policy, the question "Does strategy make a difference?"
(van Wijk, 1987) can be very interesting. But in the context of strategy as conduct no
such question arises; rather, we have a statement in the opposite direction: in the
process of abstraction from reality, the synthesis of discriminant differences is the
strategy of the firm.
This question ties in with the nature of the order of any given system. Only in simple
systems can we hypothesize a deliberate order. On the contrary it is "spontaneous
formation" that characterizes "complex phenomena", "explainable as the result of
human action but not of human design" (Hayek, 1973, p. 22). If the firm is really
considered as a complex system, it is hard to believe in this light that the order
characterizing it is a totally deliberate one. To some extent it will be a spontaneous order,
unless hypotheses about the ex-ante "omniscience" and "omnipotence" of the economic
actor are introduced.
Thus, returning to a "vertical" reading of the proposed typology and allowing that the
concept of strategy in its meaning of project-design policy is important, we cannot ignore
the descriptive/interpretative meaning of strategy as strategic conduct. From this vantage
point the limits of the so-called "formulation/implementation paradigm" in fact seem
clear. The formulated strategies (and the formulation process itself) are certainly
important to an understanding of the behaviour of the key actors in the firm (something
that has been totally ignored in economics); but the de facto strategies will certainly
differ somewhat - how much will depend on the uncertainty and power conditions in


any given context. (Morin would say that the emerging order of any system is in itself
non-deducible ex ante.)

(3) It should be remembered that this potential wealth of issues is often trivialized in
strategy studies in many ways: by taking for granted a tacit relation to the "fit" between
firm and environment (Miles and Snow, 1984); by referring only in passing to the so-
called "implicit strategies", deserving little attention in relation to the prescriptive bias of
the literature; or by a paralysing dichotomy between "intended" and "realized" strategy,
with too little focus on the process of transformation from "some sort" of intention into
"some sort" of actual behaviour.
Here it is rather a question of the actual methodological characterizations of strategy
studies: we are dealing with the interdisciplinarity and the space-time contextualism of
this field, and consequently with the crucial role that complexity and intersubjectivity play
when it comes to the understanding of the behaviour of firms.
In this connection some variations within the field itself still need to be analysed, and
among them the controversy about "rationalism".


The "specificity-based" conception of the economic dimension of the firm thus draws
together the various strands in strategy studies. The picture of its organizational
dimension, on the other hand, is a source of major differences within the discipline,
giving rise to different representations of the functioning of organizations.
In relation to the traditional approach of strategy studies the tendency here is to speak
of "rationalism" (the "formulation/implementation paradigm"): the underlying mechan-
istic conception of the organizational dimension is involved, with its unsatisfactory
reduction of the organizational complexity of firms (Bourgeois, 1984). Rationalism
appears (a) in the assumption of linearity in the means-ends conception of decision-
making processes, and (b) in the picture of the single-minded decision-maker, with
abstraction from other internal and external forces with which the volition of key actors
has to cope (Miller, 1982; Gherardi, 1985). In short, rationalism lies in the lack of
attention to sociocultural and political dynamics in the firm's behaviour.
As the approaches emerging at the end of the 1970s (usually referred to as the "process
approach", the "longitudinal approach", the "historical-contextualist approach", or even
on a more challenging level as "strategic management"), the question is rather one of
linking economic contextualization with a wider contextualization of the organizational
dimension. By overcoming the limitations of the earlier school in this way, it became
possible to introduce more plausible assumptions about organizational processes that
affect the dynamics of the firm and to consider the political, cultural and social
implications (albeit within a variety of frameworks such as Normann, 1977; Pettigrew,
1979, 1985; Johnson and Scholes, 1984; Johnson, 1987; Gagliardi, 1986, etc.).
This trend, which was receptive to the influential debate on decision-making theories
(Simon, Cyert and March, Lindblom, Crozier, Pettigrew, Hickling, March and Olsen,
Weick, Argyris, Brunsson, etc.) which evolved in the context of political science and the
sociology of organizations from the early 1960s onwards, appears to focus on both the
political and the cognitive-symbolic nature of these processes (see for example Crozier,
102 L. ZAN

1963; Pettigrew, 1973; Crozier and Friedberg, 1977; Weick, 1977). The focus is thus on
power, culture and learning processes in the evolution of strategy, although it has to be
said that these concepts are often used rather indiscriminately in strategy studies
(Pettigrew, 1979, p. 574).
This picture of the decision-making process as explorative, experiential and political
leads to a more sophisticated consideration of the firm's uniqueness. If strategies are
formed in uncertain situations along an explorative trial-and-error path (which is both a
cultural and a political legitimation process), then the concrete situations and the trials
carried out and activated in the firm's history acquire central importance. The distinctive
knowledge, competences and skills of the individual firm become crucial features; as
unrepeatable results of the firm's history, they become factors in themselves which affect
the firm's behaviour in terms of differentiation and competitive distinction, i.e. as further
"isolating mechanisms" (Rumelt, 1981).
In more rigorous terms, this way of conceiving strategy presupposes a theory of the
firm as a historical entity (Rispoli, 1986), which explicitly accepts the assumption of
"bounded reproducibility of the production factors" (Rullani, 1984, p. 41), the "non
completely fungible and generalizable" character (Teece, 1984, p. 88) of such
"idiosyncratic" factors and resources (Rumelt, 1981, p. 560).
In total agreement with the above, no further illustration of such emerging approaches
is necessary. Less convincing, I found, is the "charge" of rationalism levelled at the
traditional approach. Resonant with emotive overtones (Loasby's quotation at the
beginning of this paper) but profoundly ambiguous, it is fundamentally a very pragmatic
way itself of resolving much more complex epistemological problems.
Admittedly even the so-called "rationalistic school" gives a picture of the economic
dimension of the firm that could not be described accurately as "rationalistic". Even in
this first "school" there is little place for the homo oeconomicus of neoclassical
economics: no place at all for the assumption of rationality in buying processes and
behaviour, clearly and explicitly stated; no place, indeed, for objective rationality in the
processes of non-price competition or in the context of uncertainty that is nonetheless
assumed in these studies - even though the authors may not be fully aware of it.
In the representation of the economic dimension a richer framework emerges, i.e.
interactionism in the explanation of the genesis of both market asymmetry and the
heterogeneity of firms (between different "forms" of firm).
In this way interactionism - an old line of thought in philosophical debate (James,
1907; Mead, 1934, etc.) which seems to have marginally influenced economic thought,
while proving more fertile in other social sciences - is accepted to some extent in
strategy studies, although not perhaps fully recognized as such and not always
consistently pursued. This recalls an epistemological position of the evolutionist type.
The evolutionist position in general is described by Von Hayek as attending to "the
problem of the spontaneous formation of institutions and its genetic character" (Hayek,
1973, p. 22), as opposed to the "constructivist-rationalism conception" (intentionalism)
"which assumes that all social institutions are, and ought to be, the product of deliberate
design" (Hayek, 1973, p. 5). In this light, as we have already noted, the strategy - the
order of the firm - cannot be other than a result of interactions between various actors
in the internal and external contexts; thus to a large extent it will be a spontaneous - or
at least not a completely deliberate - order.
It is interesting to note the differences in handling the economic and organizational


dimensions in the traditional framework of strategy studies. The economic dimension is

analysed in a contextualist mode, in the firm's space-time context, without any rationalist
bias; all necessary attention is paid tothe power relationships between subjective firms in
the marketplace. The organizational dimension, on the other hand, is handled as an
abstract picture, which is "rationalist" in the current meaning given to this term by
organizational scholars. It really seems to me more correct to talk about "partial"
rationalism, in view of a curious methodological contradiction between the way in which
firm-environment relationships are conceived (non-rationalistically) and the picture of
internal processes of decisional dynamics (rationalism).
To illustrate this we could ask ourselves whether this kind of contradiction applies to
one of the best-known strategy scholars, namely Porter. In analysing economic/
competitive processes between firms Porter clearly adopts an interactionist view: within
the extended rivalry framework (Porter, 1980, pp. 3-33), the firm's actual strategies
emerge as a result of the complex interaction between the "five competitive forces"
involving a multiplicity of actors. The same perspective (at least implicitly) underlies the
analysis of the internal articulation of industries into strategic groups (Porter, 1980, pp.
126-155). Is there any methodological contradiction between such an interactionist view
on the one hand and the representation of strategic decision-making processes that runs
through Porter's thinking about strategy as "the wheel of competitive strategy" on the
other (Porter, 1980, pp. xii-xx)? This last definition certainly (and fortunately) does not
seem to be consistent with the frameworks Porter has invoked, ignoring the complexity
and conflicts in the exercise of power that these themselves presuppose.
Here, once again, the cause of such a contradiction in the so-called "rationalistic
school" is easy to identify in the ideology of managerial bias, as false consciousness and
an attempt to repress potential conflicts (Reed, 1984; Roberts, 1984). It is incorrect to
speak of "rationalism", however. Perhaps it would be more appropriate in a conception
that is for the most part evolutionist, to speak of residual intentionalism.

In conclusion: from an analysis of the evolution of thought in strategy studies, it

appears that the central phenomenon is the process of increasing the complexity of
knowledge in the discipline which has become necessary to explain and help us to
understand the behaviour of firms in an increasingly articulated and complex context: or,
more simply, to explain the behaviour of firms facing "complexity and ignorance"
(Loasby, 1976). In this picture the subjective/cognitive dimension ofthe firm's key actors
becomes crucial. The process of context perception, the subjective processes whereby
the ambiguity (Weick, 1979) of firm-environment relationships is endowed with
meaning, as well as the awareness attaching to these cognitive processes - all this goes to
the very heart of the theoretical framework and thus towards an explanation of the
overall uniqueness of the firm.
This process is not simply an extension of the field of enquiry, the addition of aspects
hitherto unexplained. It is rather the full assertion of "new" epistemological premises, of
which strategy studies are - albeit confusedly - the vehicle, namely: the awareness of
complexity, whose reconstruction is in itself a complex process of a cognitive nature; the
awareness of the non-deterministic nature of such complexity, as a result of interactions
between the various actors in the context, both external and internal.
The indeterminism in representing the firm's economic profile has already been
emphasized as a common feature in strategy studies. As the mature phase of Table 1
104 L. ZAN

Table 1. Methodological characterizations of strategy studies: a first attempt

Scientific ambits Perspectives of analysis Degree of space/time Prevailing methodological

(or arenas) (economic/organizational) contextualism characteristics

Neoclassical Complete abstraction from No contextualism at all: Denial of choice

theory organizational profile: firm "sublime" abstraction of the Economic determinism
as an abstract "production homo oeconomicus
Decision-making Normally leaving out High degree of Interactionist view
debate economic issues: theories contextualism: Organizational
of decision-making - space context is indeterminism
processes in themselves important to define (especially in symbolic-
the relational features cognitive frameworks)
of interactions:
- time/history are
important to explain
learning phenomena
Strategy studies Rather implicit medley of "High degree of Methodological
First phase economic/organizational contextualism in handling contradiction:
issues (but with stronger economic issues. Space- - interactionism in
orientation towards an time conditions are taken economic explanation
economic tone) into account in the analysis (economic
of competitive processes: indeterminism);
emphasis on the - "rationalism" (decisionist
uniqueness of the firm determinism)
"Low degree of
contextualism treating
organizational issues
(abstraction in the
assumptions of: means-ends
linearity; single-minded
Strategy studies More balanced, aware "Higher degree of Towards a more coherent
"Mature" phase representation of contextualism in considering and complete position of the
both economic and organizational dynamics. evolutionist type:
organizational profiles in the Cognitive-symbolic nature interactionism is grasped in
evolution of the firm of decisional dynamics is all its implications (total
recognized (space-time indeterminism)
contextualism to explain
such variables)
"Enrichment of the previous
interactionist view in
economic perspective:
distinctive cornpetences, etc.
as further elements of firm
differentiation (enhancing
the uniqueness of the
individual firm)

embraces the symbolic-cognitive dimension, the indeterminism of this approach

(Grandori, 1984) in representing the firm's organizational profile also comes into the
picture. To put it rather radically, we could say that the trend appears to be towards an
epistemological position of total indeterminism in representing both the economic and
the organizational profile of the firm.
In other words, what has been happening in strategy studies can be regarded in


epistemological terms as a reaction and a further "reaction to excesses of reaction" to the

economic determinism of economics.
Within the orthodoxy of economics the prevailing position is one of total constructiv-
ism. Extreme intentionalism lies at the core of the neoclassical framework in the
hypothesis of "economic rationality". The paradox of such a position, as Loasby points
out, is the removal of all margins in the actor's discretionary power, a denial of choice-
a picture which is so intentionalist as to deny the very existence of differentiated and
individual responses. Fatally, it falls back on deterministic positions, with the
"suppression of entrepreneurship" (Treece, 1984, p. 90).
In the early stage, strategy studies reacted against a position that could not admit the
actions of individuals. The environment could indeed be managed or "enacted", there
was room for discretion in individual responses. This was a strong reaction: "the return
to' subjectiveness" led to an overemphasis on the actors' capacity to understand and
"enact". The possibility of carrying one's intentions over into the world of reality
(exactly as formulated) was overemphasized, and the limits to deliberate action in the
face of a complex reality (consisting of "other" actors also trying to "enact the
environment") were ignored. It is in this connection that the curious contradiction
appears in the first phase of strategy studies between economic indeterminism and
"decision-ist' determinism (finalism).
It is thus the interactionism between actors that has to be fully grasped in all its
implications. The outcome of the play (Mead, 1934) between various individual actors
inside and outside the firm is not determined a priori, partly because the complexity is
more than the operators can grasp, and partly because it is in itself the outcome of the
actions of various actors.
Despite the many risks of over-simplification in this situation, the evolutionary trend
in the discipline is towards a higher interpretative capability, made possible by a process
of articulation of scientific knowledge. This overcomes what remains of the "constructiv-
ist fallacy" - Popper would say of "naive rationalism" - still to be found in
contributions from the early phase of strategy studies, and paves the way for a coherent
and more firmly rooted evolutionist position.
Acknowledgement - The author wishes to thank Professors A. Pettigrew and R. Wensley for their valuable
collaboration in the development of this article during a study visit at Warwick University, September-October
1986, funded by C.N.R. (Consiglio Nazionale Ricerche).


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