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In search of seminality: David Knights and Glenn Morgan on company strategy

By Peter Armstrong


Paper for presentation at the Conference on Practical Criticism in the Managerial Social Sciences, Leicester University Management School, January 15th - 17th 2008.The purpose of this paper is to question the standards of scholarship now current in the discipline of organization studies. It does so through a close-reading of a paper which has a fair claim to seminal status, since it is widely cited within the literature and is described as seminal in a number of recent contributions. The paper is Knights and Morgan’s Foucaultian analysis of strategic management (1991) and the present analysis is best read with that text to hand.\ud \ud Read in detail, Knights and Morgan’s paper turns out to be deficient in almost every respect. Their claim that strategic management needs to be understood as a discourse which ‘constitutes the subjectivities’ of its practitioners amounts to an innovative of terminology only, since there is no suggestion as to what kind of evidence might distinguish that process from the conventional acquisition of technique. Their proposed history of the origins of strategic management does not fit the historical record. Their claims to theoretical and methodological advances over previous major works in the field are not substantiated and depend in any case on serious misrepresentations of those works. They present a drastically one-sided account of Foucault’s views on power, the application of which to strategic management is claimed as one of their major innovations. The one positive and original thing they have to say about strategic management – that it confers psychological benefits on those who practice it (‘power effects’) – is supported neither by evidence nor convincing argument.\ud \ud The analysis then proceeds to a 1995 paper by the same authors on the introduction of strategic approaches to IT and product management in a life insurance company. Interesting as a conventional narrative, the notable absence of ‘constituted subjectivities’, ‘power effects’ and, indeed, of any mention of Foucault in this study is primae facia evidence of the complete irrelevance of the ‘genealogical’ approach advocated in the 1991 paper. This conclusion is reinforced by two recent papers which claim to have provided empirical support for the original Foucaultian approach. Neither of them achieve anything of the kind.\ud \ud The analysis concludes by suggesting that Knights and Morgan’s 1991 paper continues to be cited in despite of its evident shortcomings because of the feverish intellectual climate which now prevails within organizational studies. Under pressure to produce innovative work in fields dominated by established reputations, young researchers may be attracted to any intellectual direction which promises to subvert those reputations and so provide space for new models of academic distinction. This, it is suggested, is the true nature of Knights and Morgan’s achievement, and it is one which may account for the failure of the academic community to take due note of the deficiencies of their work. In this sense it may be symptomatic of a discipline in which standards of scholarship have been eroded in a frantic search for novelty

Year: 2008
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