Monday, October 17, 2011

Strategy straw men

It’s no secret that consultants, academics and other authors are prone to offering pat answers to complex problems, whether in managerial books, textbooks, HBR article or other managerial proscriptions.

(Mr.) Jo Whitehead of the Ashridge business school argues in an FT article Monday that strategy textbooks and strategy classes focus on superficial application of complex theories rather than sophisticated application of basic (and memorable) theories:

The root of the problem is that everyone wants to discuss something new and sexy – leaving the basics behind. Professors have to research frontier issues, which typically mean rather esoteric subjects such as collaborative strategy, stakeholder engagement or Web 2.0. Students want exciting cases and flashy new ideas.
While the direction that he advocates makes sense, there seems to be no evidence for the (mythical)) straw man strategy professor. Another argument
Advice needs to be given on how to make the best use of limited data
First, many MBA classes assume that managers will be working in a large corporation with unlimited resources — while entrepreneurship courses have traditionally been taught in this direction.

He adds:
Without such changes we will continue to churn out business people who can talk about the latest sexy concepts in strategy but, when required to come up with one, default to overly simplistic approaches such as Swot analysis.
Teaching basic application of key concepts to all levels of students was my major goal for 9 years of teaching strategy at SJSU, and most of my colleagues as well.

Another problem with the straw man was the broad brush argument. I've taught undergrads, 20-something MBA students, and executive MBAs. Undergraduates have to understand what a manager does, while an existing manager has to be sold that you have some clue as to what you’re talking about. An approach suitable for one audience is going to fall with another.

Finally, the article concluded with the obligatory plug:
Jo Whitehead is the author of ‘What you need to know about strategy’ (Capstone) and a director of the Ashridge Strategic Management Centre
It turns out, this is the second of his two strategy books for managers. Meanwhile, his bio notes his former role as VP and director of BCG (the people who brought us the infamous if now forgotten 2x2 “cash cow” framework).

So while I am sympathetic to Mr. Whitehead’s desire to improve strategy teaching and make it more realistic, I don’t think his complaint represents the typical business school (or at least the typical US teaching-oriented business school). Plus if one were to investigate where superfluous “new and sexy” theories come from, I’d be inclined to start with consultants, book authors and directors of b-school strategy centers.

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