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4.1 Interpreting the information

How would you summarise the paper?

Mintzberg’s paper is useful for how the notion of the ‘five Ps’ conceptualises a multidimensional nature of strategy. The explanation of each ‘P’ and their potential interrelationship adds to our understanding of strategy, but the examples he uses to illustrate his points can perhaps be seen as rather self-serving. Mintzberg is a very effective writer and wordsmith, who can present complex ideas in an accessible and understandable way – this is part of his attraction to business schools and practitioners – but, the danger with his approach is that academic rigour is sacrificed for popularity.

Mintzberg’s central argument is developed at a level of abstraction that calls into question its usefulness, while his analysis is done not at the firm or industry level, but at a macro, conceptual level. This means that to make his work useful researchers and practitioners have to take his ideas and adapt them to their own contexts. This is not unusual – indeed, it is to be expected that papers that seek to conceptualise strategy in this way can only reasonably conduct their discussion at a very broad level of analysis. However, the process of adaptation to a more meaningful level is not without its own problems, as the temptation to alter reality to fit the theory is great, but to do so would negate the theory as representing reality. Therefore, Mintzberg’s ‘five P’ theory is interesting, but not without its problems.

What data does Mintzberg base his ideas on? Are limitations in the data acknowledged?

Mintzberg cites no primary data to support his claims; the only data he includes is secondary data (data that has been collected for a different purpose to how it is being used, meaning that the quotations Mintzberg uses were not collected for his study). The first substantial quote on p. 13 is said to come from ‘a business executive’ but we are left uninformed who this person is and in what context the remark was made. Similarly, the second quotation is said to be a comment on a joint venture between General Motors and Toyota taken from Business Week magazine. The rest of the data tends to be anecdotal or taken from previously published texts (the Honda example from Pascale (1984), amongst others) and used to illustrate key points. Writing based around secondary data tends to be ‘selective’, and authors who use this approach are less likely to present secondary data that challenges or questions the arguments they are trying to construct. Mintzberg’s paper is largely data-free and is therefore conceptual in nature, which the reader should bear in mind. Had he drawn from primary data that he had collected in the ‘messy’ worlds of organisations, his points may not have been as well-defined, but would have had a stronger supporting empirical base.

Does Mintzberg claim his ideas apply universally across all industries: service and manufacturing, public and private, and all geographic regions?

Although Mintzberg draws from several historical examples, he says nothing about which ‘Ps’ apply in which industries and in which geographic areas, or whether all ‘Ps’ apply equally. For a paper in a journal aimed partly at practitioners, this may appear surprising. However, this approach is fairly typical for articles of this type, as they are written at such an abstracted level as to suggest that their concern lies with broad conceptualisations of strategy, not whether these apply to particular industries. That role would be left to researchers who follow in the article’s wake and who would conduct empirical work in specific organisations and industries based on Mintzberg’s abstracted conceptualisations. Clearly, applicability of the ‘Ps’ concept to specific industries or geographic regions is not Mintzberg’s concern here. As the readers, we need to be aware of the type of paper we are reading, what is being argued and what is being left out.