Telfer School of Management
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Research Links - December 2010 - Inside the Black Box
Laurent Mirabeau, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Telfer School of Management
INSIDE THE BLACK BOX
Telfer School researcher examines autonomous behaviour at Nortel Networks to gain a greater understanding of emergent strategies.
Strategies can form as well as be formulated—at least, that is, according to the theory of emergent strategy. Revealed more than 20 years ago by scholar Henry Mintzberg, the concept is a counterpoint to the view that all corporate strategies are developed deliberately and carried out systematically. It posits that, in the often-volatile world of modern business, unintended ideas and actions emerge from multiple sources within corporations and converge to produce strategic patterns, directions and outcomes of their own.
This school of thought gives academics and business leaders a potent perspective on organizational learning and behaviour. Yet despite its strong ring of truth, little research has been performed to gain an understanding of exactly how emergent strategies arise and advance in modern corporations. Until now.
“No one has really opened up the black box of emergent strategy and taken a good look inside to see how this approach works in corporate life today,” says Dr. Laurent Mirabeau, a Telfer School researcher and rising star in the field of corporate strategy. “My research is designed to open up and look inside that box by examining the gap that exists between what a company says it’s going to do and what it actually does.”
For Dr. Mirabeau, the company in question is Nortel Networks. He delved deeply into the telecommunications giant’s archived records from 1997 to 2006 to compare voluminous activity-based documents with company-wide strategic plans produced every six months. Using the results of this comparison as his guide, he then interviewed several former Nortel executives to gain even greater insight into both the corporation’s long-term strategic plan and its daily operational activity.
“My research was a homecoming of sorts,” he says. “I worked at Nortel for several years as a manager in the company’s customer-support division, and experienced frustration when I tried to have my ideas and vision for my area of responsibility reflected in the company’s overall strategic vision. At the time, I could have really used the process model for emergent strategy that I have since been able to create as a result of my research.”
With this model, Dr. Mirabeau identifies three steps managers must take to overcome organizational resistance to their emergent strategies:
- cultivating support for emergent strategies within the organization in which they emerge, within other groups in the organization and sometimes across the boundaries of the firm with customers and suppliers;
- articulating emergent strategies by linking or modifying priorities that shape existing corporate strategy; and
- embedding emergent strategies inside the formal corporate structure by creating tangible organizational components such as working groups and virtual teams.
Yet Dr. Mirabeau’s process model is more than a tool to help managers appreciate how to stickhandle these unintentional strategies through corporate hierarchies. It also gives academics a tighter grasp on the overall concept of emergent strategy.
“Existing theory accounts for deliberate strategies that fail to be realized, as well as deliberate and emergent strategies that are successful,” he says. “The process model also accounts for emergent strategies that fail. This added element is important because, even though they fail, these emergent strategies represent time and energy used to achieve goals that are unaccounted for in a company’s strategic plan. Understanding that category helps us peer further inside the black box of emergent strategy.”
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