Strategic Management and Michael Porter: a postmodern reading by: Toby Harfield
It is an important and popular fact that things are not always what they seem. Hitchhikers’s Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams
This article is located within a postmodern sensibility of exploration and play (Bauman 1992; Rorty 1989). I do not attempt to deconstruct (Linstead 1995; Cooper 1989; Derrida 1978), but merely to explore the possiblilty of a radical new reading of Michael E Porter. Is Porter postmodern?
The project originated in my need to ‘make sense’ of the strategic management literature, and specifically the place of Michael E Porter within it. The question, what is strategic management?, often leads to the work of Porter. Strategic management texts inevitably contain his models, theories and frameworks which imply that they are ‘fundamental’ to the field. An historical journey through six prominent management\organization journals, Strategic Management Journal, Academy of Management Journal, Academy of Management Review, Journal of Management Studies, Organization Studies, Advances in Strategic Management, shows that Michael E Porter was not a constant contributor, in fact he is almost absent from the journals, but his work is often the study of empirical testing or theoretical debate (Foss 1996; Hill & Deeds 1996; Sharp & Dawson 1994; Miller & Dess 1993; Bowman 1992). This article does not attempt to account for his popularity, as others have offered substantial and convincing accounts (Barry & Elmes 1997; Whipp 1996; Knights 1992). Instead this paper is an example of interpretative research as I report on my search for a ‘strategic management’ narrative. I begin with an outline of some reviews of the ‘field’ and the place of Porter within them. I then attempt to account for the growth of the strategic management literature during the last 15 years by claiming that ‘strategic management’ is a myth. Porter’s place as a myth-maker is assumed; however, his work is given an alternative reading using the literary device of a ‘mythical interview’. Thus a postmodern Porter is revealed. The interview is followed by a number of other radical interpretations of strategic management which could be identified as a ‘critical stream’ within the literature. I conclude the essay with some thoughts about the process and speculate on the possible implications for other academics and practitioners.
Will the real ‘strategic management’ please stand up?
Any glance through the management literature of the last decade or two shows the prominence of ‘strategic management’ and ‘strategy’. The two, although not synonymous, are often considered as such. Strategic management is the name of an academic field of study, strategy is the main topic of study (Schendel 1994). A small number of review articles have attempted to create some organization to the heterogeneity of the field. I examine these in an attempt to locate Porter in the greater scheme of things.
Chaffee (1985) asserts that strategy is multidimensional and sit uational, but it suffers from the problem of three distinct, and in some ways conflicting, views on strategy. The models are: linear strategy, adaptive strategy, and interpretive strategy. The majority of the research is identified with a linear model whic h focuses on planning and forecasting. The second mental model is identified as adaptive and this is the location of ‘strategic management’ which Chaffee considers an ‘associated term’. Again a large number of scholars are placed in this category which ‘tends to focus the manager’s attention on means’ and is concerned with ‘fit’. The last model, the interpretative model, lists but four articles. For these authors strategy is a metaphor and is therefore not something which can be measured. These authors use qualitative data and assume a socially constructed reality. Porter is not listed in any of the models.
Fahey & Christensen (1986) begin by stating that ‘strategic...
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