Performativity of strategy tools as activation devices: a case study of strategy development within a UK financial institution
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Strategy tools have mainly been conceptualised through a functional perspective, which views tools as passive instruments that aid managerial decision-making. Studies within strategy-as-practice provide an alternative view to this, by arguing that in practice, strategy tools are devices that enable actors to achieve a variety of purposes that transcend the instrumental purposes that dominate mainstream strategy studies. In this thesis, I argue that both views still portray tools as being used instrumentally. In both cases actors are seen to use tools as a conduit through which they may achieve either analytical purposes or more socially related purposes. The common factor across both views is the focus on the intentionality of the managers in using the tools to achieve a certain purpose. Rather than focus on what strategy tools are used for, this thesis explores the other side of the coin by focusing on what strategy tools do. I do so by exploring how the materiality of strategy tools may impact on the strategizing practices of managers during the strategy development process. The aim of the study is to explore the possible performative roles that strategy tools may play during the strategy process and the implications of these roles for the work of strategizing. In this study, tools are viewed as non-human actors – that is, they are not simply conduits that are utilised instrumentally for achieving a variety of purposes in organisations, rather they actively influence the actions and interactions of managers and therefore contribute to the formation of strategy. This inquiry is based on a longitudinal study (2012 – 2015) of the process of strategy making within a large UK financial institution. Focusing on what the members of the Strategy department do during the development and use of a strategy tool referred to as the Horizon scan and tracing the developmental trajectory of the tool throughout the process. The thesis draws on theoretical insights situated at the intersection of economic sociology, the sociology of financial markets and the sociology of technology, more specifically: the notions of performativity and affordances. The methodological approach is qualitative and is based on in-depth semi-structured interviews, direct observations of meetings and workshops and documentary data. The analysis reveals that the strategy tool performed four main interconnected roles which include: enlist participants, reorient temporally, consolidate and persuade. Through performing these roles, the tool shaped the strategizing practices of the strategists in a patterned way, such that the actions and interactions of the strategists reflected the underlying theory within the tool. The findings also reveals that the four roles performed by the tool were underpinned by two main affordances – modular and temporal affordances. Based on the findings, the thesis introduces the concept of an Activation device which refers to strategy tools that instigate or trigger certain actions that result in a co-evolution of the strategy theory within the tool and strategizing practices, where the ‘doing’ of strategy comes to resemble the theory within the tool. The study concludes by presenting a theoretical model of how strategy tools as activation devices shape how strategy is practiced. It therefore contributes to the recent materiality turn in strategy and the nascent literature on performativity in strategy, by reconceptualising the roles of strategy tools and demonstrating empirically, how strategy tools influence strategizing practices through the performative effects they generate.
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