A great paper just published in Strategic Management Journal contrasts the view of strategy and decision-making tools (such as those taught in business schools or economics classes) as “technologies of rationality” with a more sociological perspective that they term “tools in use”.
One of the main ideas is to cast “a sociological eye on how tools are actually mobilized”, which is often a contrast to the rational processes of strategic decision-making that managers or policy-makers may think they are conducting. The authors note that such tools are often thought to:
“support what Simon (1978: 9) calls “procedural rationality” to help actors make rational choices for the firm given the limits of human cognitive powers”
They put forward what they term a “practice lens”. This lens suggests that in “their political and interpretive practices, actors seek rationality [as a normative ideal] and make attempts to convey rationality as they make strategy”. Efforts are made to produce rational accounts to support action (e.g. strategy-making) in effect mobilising tools, and improvising where necessary, “to enact a rational ideal”. They also point to the ways that political processes play and how this shapes the use of these tools:
“[O]ur model of strategy tools-in-use suggests that these intendedly rational activities are implicated in political and interpretive processes. These processes are not deviations from use but rather are motivated by participants’ different viewpoints and goals, enabling them to cope with uncertainties. The introduction of strategy tools does not remove the politics or emotions of strategy making. Instead, tools can be co-opted and adapted to match the circumstances.”
Their focus on tools-in-use also suggests that strategy tools should be understood as fluid objects for which there isn’t a simple dichotomy of “correct (and rational) or incorrect (and irrational, at least according to some definitions) use of tools”. Managers (or policy-makers) can have a wide range of desired outcomes which shapes how a tool is used and why it is selected. The authors assert that “when strategy tools are thought of primarily as technologies of rationality, knowledge of the rich and complex ways in which actors learn, explore, improvise, and thus make strategy with tools is limited.”
The paper dovetails nicely with an essay on economic modelling by Richard Denniss from The Australia Institute entitled ‘Spreadsheets of Power’ that has been published in the latest edition of The Monthly. There’s a great passage where he describes his first job as an independent consultant:
‘My first job as an independent economic consultant was 20 years ago. I’d previously worked with other economists as part of a team but this was my first solo performance. I was a bit nervous.
After a brief phone call explaining what the client wanted, I spent days preparing for our first face-to-face meeting. When I had spent a few minutes outlining what I saw as the strengths and weaknesses of the possible methodological options, the client interrupted.
“Look, mate,” he said, “all I want is something about an inch thick. I want to walk into a meeting, slam it on the fucking table, and say, ‘According to my economic modelling …”
A wonderful glimpse into that world and quite revealing. The client doesn’t really care, so long as the results of the modelling suits their agenda or preferred option and has the desired “weight”.
This also rings true with some recent research I’ve been doing as part of my PhD research.
However, in addition to critiquing – as Denniss does in his powerful essay on the use and abuse of economic modelling – we can also try to appreciate the underlying drivers and ways that tools are adapted and re-purposed, and we can shift our view of strategy/decision tools such as no longer seeing them as “neutral objects that can eliminate politics from strategy making” (or decision-making) as also argued by Jarzabkowski and Kaplan in their paper on strategy ‘tools-in-use’.