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Strategic enactment : an interpretive approach to organisational strategy.

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The purpose of this thesis is to explore the field of strategy by way of its historical trajectory and to consider the major branches that constitute this broad, but fragmented discipline. It is an interdisciplinary endeavour that draws specifically on systems theories and complexity theory as a way to enrich the field. The strategy field tends to be philosophically unreflexive. As a result it is dominated by an objectivist ontology, which underpins strategic choice. One of the aims of this thesis is to explore the implications for strategy, if instead, an interpretive stance, based on an ontology of social constructionism, is adopted. The literature has not fully explored and developed different ontologies in the context of strategy and hence has left a major gap in theorising about strategy. This thesis attempts to address that gap and therefore one of the contributions of the study will be a tentative theory of strategic enactment. This research attempts to answer the following key questions: 1. What are the major theoretical frameworks and conceptual models that frame the field of strategy? 2. How well do these frameworks and models contribute to strategy under conditions of high ambiguity and uncertainty? 3. What contributions may be made by applying complexity theory to the field of strategy? 4. What are the implications of adopting an interpretive approach to strategy? 5. What are the implications of strategic enactment on strategic leadership? Given that these research questions are of a philosophical and theoretical nature, the research methodology and approach is one based on theoretical exploration. It is therefore not an empirical study, but a conceptual one embracing both breadth and depth. It is broad in that it covers multiple literature sets which include bodies of knowledge in organisational theory, leadership, strategy, systems thinking and complexity theory. It is deep in its interrogation of core conceptual constructs that are pertinent to the strategy frame of reference and in its comprehensive coverage of the major topics that circumscribe the field. While it relies on an extensive coverage of existing texts it is not a hermeneutic study from a methodological point of view. It does not purport to interpret and to elicit the meaning of texts. The term interpretive in the title instead refers to the ontological notion of sensemaking and interpretation that is central to strategic enactment. Interpretive in this sense is not an interpretation of texts in a hermeneutic fashion, but interpretive in relation to enacting reality. Despite being a theoretical study it still draws on deductive, inductive and abductive reasoning. The study makes several contributions. It re-conceptualises strategy in a way that lends itself to be generalisable across all sectors, approaches strategy formulation and implementation as a single intertwined process, interrogates, combines and integrates strategy-related and other concepts in way that has not been done before, provides a theoretical basis for scenario planning and demonstrates how it may considered as a soft systems approach, presents a practical methodology for undertaking scenario planning, critiques existing CAS-based theorising about strategy, leadership and organisation and draws out the potential of complexity theory for strategy and leadership. The final contribution of this study is a tentative theory of strategic enactment that highlights key constructs such as identity and agency that have been underemphasised in the strategy literature. Such a theory offers alternative explanations from that of strategic choice, and is able to deal with the phenomenon of emergence in organisational settings. It is unique in that it integrates complex adaptive systems with an interpretive approach to organisational strategy. The following may be identified as key findings of this study: • Strategy is still a pre-paradigmatic field and hence its theoretical underpinnings are of necessity eclectic. • While strategic choice is the dominant approach, many of its tenets are contested, especially when organisations are considered as complex adaptive systems. • Deliberate strategy is not possible as all forms of strategy are ultimately emergent. • Agency is an important construct in strategy. Agency does not reside in the key power brokers alone, but extends to all organisational actors and their structural networks of relations. Agency is also invested in non-human actors in the form of artifacts. • Agency is limited to micro-level actions and does not embrace macros states of the system. • Identity is an important construct in strategy. The identity of agents is shaped in their interactions with other agents. Who they are impact on what they can and cannot do, and also impact who they construct themselves to be. In this sense there is a strong link between agency and identity. • Identity is also shaped in situated activity in practice and therefore strategy-as-practice is important. • Strategic enactment presents alternate explanations for the utility of strategy tools and strategic plans from strategic choice.


Thesis (Ph.D.)-University of KwaZulu-Natal, 2009.


Strategic planning--Employee participation., Organizational change., Decision making., Theses--Leadership and management.