Postmodernism and Strategy

According to influential Postmodern accounts, nothing exists beyond or outside the socio-linguistic processes and the arbitrary signs they articulate (Rorty, 1979). It is all ‘simulacra’, that is self-referential images composing a ‘hyper-reality’ totally detached from anything extra-linguistic. In the context defined by such bold statements it is very difficult to envision how somebody (anybody) could be rational or strategic (however one wished to define these terms) in any domain whatsoever (including that of organisational change) or indeed have anything of much interest to say about such organisational phenomena.

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Yet, although Postmodernists would refrain from prescribing specific types of organisational change they would seek to promote “the search for instabilities” (Lyotard 1984:54; cited in Darwin et al 2002), as part of a project undertaken to destroy the epistemic hegemony of discourses supportive of some organisational status quo. In a world were language does not so much represent reality as it rhetorically generates it, one may opt, the postmodernist would suggest, to stimulate and welcome a polyphony of incommensurable discourses (Rorty 1982), about matters of strategy, change, or any other organisational matter. Having managed to move so far, the postmodernist has no further plans to preferentially sanction some or any of the discourses so generated.

Based on Foucault’s (1980) notion of genealogy, Knights ; Morgan (1991) claim that strategy can be reduced to a patterning of social relations capable to generate the discursive activity that manufactures the very organisational phenomena it purportedly describes. It contributes to the very creation of the subjects it relates to by moulding their self-understanding in ways consistent with their intended positioning as ‘strategic actors’, ‘strategic objects’, and the like (see Hendry, 2000, for a similar approach from a non-Foucauldian perspective)

The ‘unavoidable empirical realities’ so often invoked by managers are all viewed as rhetorical ploys in the manager’s arsenal of rationality-constituting rhetorical devices. Other theoretical primitives such as ‘organisational structure’, ‘competences’, ‘environment’, ‘organisation’ itself (Cooper (1990), do not survive deconstruction (informed by Derrida’s notion/process of ‘diff�rance’). They simply emerge as indeterminate linguistic constructs. Following all this, the rejection of the view that ‘the truth’ can somehow be revealed through the rationalist or empiricist methods of positivist science is inevitable.

The Strengths and Limitations of Classical, Emergent, Social-Rational, and Postmodern Rational/Strategic Modes in Organizational Change?

It would be rather easy at this stage to claim that the Planned and related approaches to change represent an exemplary form of a rational/strategic approach to organisational change and attempt to evaluate such approaches both on their own terms, as well as in the context of the strengths and limitations characterising the rest (presumably non rational and/or strategic) of the approaches outlined here.

Resisting such an option, it is argued that there are multiple ways to be rational, and this makes it possible to define what we shall call Rational Modes corresponding to the various approaches discussed in this essay and characterised by long lists of strengths and weakness reflecting, not so much inherent limitations of the Modes themselves but rather the extent to which they are being applied within the range defined by their specific strengths. Moreover, it is claimed that combinations of the Modes delineated (indeed a much greater variety of such Modes that space limitations do not allow us to even briefly outline exists) are not only possible but in fact virtually always evident in actual practice, despite the unacknowledged or even wilfully denied character of corresponding publicly declared positions.

Crucially, the Rational Modes themselves are viewed here as means to be used towards the end of selecting the most efficient and effective way to be rational and/or strategic in particular settings of organisational change. It may be interesting to note that, terminological differences and some perhaps more substantial differences in emphasis, notwithstanding, the approach taken here does not deviate considerably from those of major reviewers of the organisational change and strategy literature (see in particular Burnes 2000:chapter 13 and Mintzberg et al 1998.

It will be argued that all approaches when deployed within their regions of prototypical utilisation, that is in settings maximising their characteristic advantages, confer to the application those characteristic advantages. Their limitations, on the other hand, manifest themselves whenever these same approaches are used outside their prototypicality range, what we shall term nonprototypical utilisation of the Rational Modes.

When evaluating approaches in applied settings critical ‘overkill’ should be avoided (it will be here). Although aware of major limitations at theoretical and conceptual levels, one should perhaps be stopping short of extracting all of the problematic epistemological and ontological implications of the approaches considered. Assuming a more pragmatic stance may well pay dividend as indeed is has in other domains of human activity. Let us not forget that we can still navigate ships and build roads perfectly well on the basis of a flat earth ‘scientific’ theory.

The move towards eclecticism is also motivated by the realisation that what may permeate organisational thinking and practice are a number of powerful metaphors of varying degrees of pragmatic usefulness, rather than crispy clear theories with neat epistemological and ontological credentials (see Morgan, 1997; for a discussion of the risks that reliance on metaphor in such contexts may involve see Grant ; Oswick, 1996).

As it will become evident in what follows the present author is less enthusiastic than most in espousing the view (articulated by, among others, Kuhn) that different and incommensurable ‘paradigms’ underlie at least some of the approaches discussed here. Although there is no space to explain the reasons for this position in any detail suffice it to note at least two relevant points: First, the notion of a paradigm may be more problematic than most authors appear to realise. Second, it is far more likely that Kuhn would have described the field of organisational theory as pre- rather than as multi-paradigmatic!”

The Classical Mode: As the Classical Mode depends crucially on the ability to predict environmental change, much use has been made of claims that environments nowadays are more unpredictable than they have ever been to criticise the Planned approach to change (see Stacey 2000). However, as Burnes puts it, “environmental instability is not uniform; it varies from industry to industry and organisation to organisation” (2000:289).

Moeover, as regards the issue of the boundedness of human rationality one should be reminded that, as Lupia et al (2000) argue, Simon’s notion of bounded rationality, does not license claims about human irrationality. Simon himself, after all, states unequivocally that “virtually all human behaviour is rational” (1995:45). This does not, of course, completely remove the need to establish the extent to which the courses of action taken in organisational change settings are efficient and effective in the way our model-theoretic definition of rational action systems requires.

It would follow from the above that it is only rational to exploit the rationality of the Classical Mode in predictable and relatively simple environments where it manifests its greatest strengths and in settings that do not tax the boundedness of its rationality. When applied nonprototypically the Classical Mode cannot of course deliver as well and it may well show evident (despite attempts to conceal them) signs of ‘transmutation’ into a Rhetorical Mode (to be discussed later). It goes without saying that extant models utilising the Classical Mode involve much more than our rather minimalist portrayal of this mode here. However, we are not so much concerned here with the specific strengths and weaknesses of individual approaches other than to use them as examples to highlight some of the limitations of this particular rational/strategic Mode.

Addressing the fragmenting effects of the political in ways other than superficial non-zero-sum approaches, or anodyne variations of the same, may be virtually impossible by approaches using the rather single-stop application of some totalising conception of rationality (but see French & Bell 1999:chapter 16). OD’s claim to be (at least partly) a valid application of the behavioural sciences is not entirely consistent with the view of those at least who find little empirical support either for its theoretical claims or its effectiveness (e.g., Worren et al 199; see also French and Bell, 1999:chapter 17).

It is interesting to note that other types of Planned change of much more recent origin do not always seem to be more effective than traditional OD. Failure rates in the region of 80 and 90 per cent for TQM (Crosby, 1979; Zairi et al 1994), and around 70 per cent for Business Process Re-Engineering (Stickland, 1998), for example, are not at all exceptional (citations on TQM and BPR from Burnes 2000)