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Strategising When Facing Differing Opinions
Case Aims: To illustrate how differing perspectives can influence the strategising process.
During turbulent times managers notice, interpret change and translate those perspectives into strategic choices (Barr et al. 1992). Kaplan (2008) noted that in such situations there exist multiple cognitive frames based upon individuals' different mental maps and utilised an ethnographic methodology to examine how one or more cognitive frames become accepted as the way forward in a high-tech industry. The research was based on observations of strategy making in the disguised case of a firm Kaplan named Advanced Technologies Group (ATG) within CommCorp, a multidivisional manufacturer of communications technologies.
Kaplan noted that as with other firms in the industry, CommCorp had experienced tremendous growth in the 1990s as it pursued a variety of products to support the rapidly growing fibre optics industry. A telecommunications industry bubble collapsed in 2001-2002 raising questions about whether a technology strategy based almost entirely on fibre optics remained a financially viable concept. Within CommCorp ATG is the corporate R&D group which is involved not just developing technologies, but also determining whether these technologies had relevance to the market and to internal customers (the business units). Kaplan examined decision making in relation to two projects.
The 'Last Mile' project was proposed by Hugh Collins, a senior scientist in ATG, to expand optical access technologies. With the crash in the fibre optics market, managers like Hugh perceived that a solution to the glut of bandwidth was to install high-bandwidth, fibre-based connections at network access points. The contests revolved around differences in different employees' frames about the future value of fibre optics (i.e. 'pro-optical' versus 'antioptical), the future level of demand (i.e. market optimism versus market pessimism) and the appropriateness of optical technologies (in particular,
the OpAccess3 technology that Hugh had previously prototyped) as a solution (Kaplan 2008). Kaplan noted that the project proceeded through three hotly debated decisions. The first was an initial decision to kick off a '100- day' study to scope out a major development project. The second decision was deferred as a result of Hugh's decision to step down as project leader. When Hugh and his successor as project leader, Hermann, reframed the solution as consistent with a 'business unit focus', they were able to minimise the pressure from opponents and build a coalition of supporters. The final decision was to make a small investment to support a single product line rather than pursue the originally proposed major development project.
The other project which Kaplan described was concerned about whether the company should invest in developing an algorithm that bridges old and new network technologies. The market crash meant that corporate customers could not afford new technology investments, yet these telecommunications carriers did need to continue to upgrade their networks. The development project was a bridge technology in the form of an algorithm that would allow carriers to provide multiple services to their business customers without requiring the need scrap legacy-installed equipment. Developed initially by mathematicians in Jack Stafford's group, the project started out as a technology looking for a business case. The contest in this project stemmed from different employee frames about the viability of this business case, given it was based in optical technologies. The project proceeded through three different decision points. The first decision involved the development of the algorithm for a niche application. Tom Rentham was assigned to create a business case but was unsuccessful in finding a rationale for the overall project. He did identify a small application while working with a product line manager in a business unit. This was easily approved by the Review Board with no opposition. At the second decision point, when Jack could not produce an adequate business case, the Steering Committee deferred a decision about investment in the larger project. Jack's view that new optical solutions were required to respond to the market threat did not resonate with people focused on short-term business unit needs and who were convinced that optics no longer presented an opportunity. Frustrated by what he perceived to be his opponents' narrow-mindedness, Jack took the case directly to a customer who agreed to a trial. With the tacit support of his boss, Jack staffed up a development effort that was much larger than the one originally proposed. The Review Board only formally ratified this third decision two months later.
Kaplan posited that these two projects demonstrate how the ambiguities of the environment lead to widely diverging frames about what was going on and what should be done. He opined that information ambiguity is the linchpin of strategy making in periods of uncertainty, and framing is key to explaining how actors cope with the situation being faced. The resolution of framing contests allows managers to move forward in the face of uncertainty. The evidence from the study suggests that firms can exhibit both adaptation and inertia. Hence technological entrepreneurs engaged in strategising need to understand the potential conflicts in different employees' frames and identify the best action to make their own frames triumph over others.
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