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4.2 Analysing the material

Where was the article originally published?

The original site of publication was the California Management Review (CMR) in 1987. A visit to the journal’s homepage [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] reveals that the title is owned by the University of California, Berkeley, Haas School of Business. Therefore, it is administered by a university business school, rather than a purely commercial publisher. However, all publishers, academic or otherwise, have agendas they wish to advance, so we need to find out what stance on management and strategy CMR take. By clicking on ‘Submission Guidelines’ we can read a little about how CMR sees itself, the audience it is aimed at and, therefore, what sort of papers it welcomes.

First, CMR sees itself as addressing both an academic and practitioner audience (some journals address only an academic audience, e.g. ‘Organization Studies’ or ‘Human Relations’, while others a practitioner audience, e.g. ‘Management Today’). What this suggests is that the academic rigour you would expect from ‘Organization Studies’ reviewers, for example, may not necessarily be the same as for CMR reviewers, but this process may well be more thorough than that used by ‘Management Today’. However, it also suggests that the article is much more accessible than those typically found in ‘Organization Studies’, and that Mintzberg would have practicing managers in mind when writing it and not necessarily fellow academics.

The guidelines also state that CMR is particularly interested in articles that focus on ‘corporate strategy and organization’. Implicit in this is the belief that strategy is best addressed at a corporate level, so we are unlikely to find any articles on strategy that do not use a level of analysis lower than this. This means that articles in CMR are unlikely to address the actual goings-on occurring in the day-to-day events that managers and supervisors experience. Instead, it concentrates on broader generalisations of activity.

What time has elapsed since its original publication? Does this matter?

The article appeared in CMR in 1987. Articles of this type generally go through several drafts before they are accepted for publication and this process alone can take two years or more. So, the version that was published in CMR in 1987 was probably written in 1985 or 1986. Does this matter? The short answer is, it depends! Seminal articles, such as Mintzberg’s, can still be relevant to how strategy is understood today, but the thinking surrounding them will have developed in the intervening years. So, it is reasonable to assume that Mintzberg’s ideas in the ‘five Ps’ paper will have been examined, tested, criticised and discussed in the intervening decades since its original publication. To undertake a critical analysis of the paper it would be important to do a literature search on the key terms in the article to find out how more recent thinking treats these ideas. Academic databases are the best places to conduct such a search.

What are the article’s strengths?

A key strength of Mintzberg’s paper is his central argument of providing alternative and sometimes complementary conceptualisations of strategy. It is well-written, accessible and helps to develop a fundamental argument that strategy may be much more than we ever thought.

What are the article’s weaknesses?

The key weakness is one that applies to most conceptual papers – the article is not based on strong supporting evidence, in the form of data. This is inevitable in a conceptual paper, and does not devalue the content or central idea, but does flag that we should look for how and why Mintzberg arrived at his conclusions. The very best conceptual papers present ideas that immediately resonate with the reader, offering a new theoretical language for describing and explaining what they instinctively ‘feel’ to be right. Mintzberg’s paper, on first reading, appears to do this, but a closer and more critical reading raises questions about the assumptions and abstractions he deploys to make his key points.

Are limitations acknowledged?

Limitations to the conceptualisations Mintzberg proposes are not openly acknowledged. This may relate to where the article is published (California Management Review). Remember, this journal is aimed at a practitioner audience more than an academic one. Academic journals tend to require their authors to write a short section that identifies the limitations of their work, which usually highlights their doubts and contingencies, and where further work is required to more broadly validate their findings and increase their generalisability.