What is strategy?
What is strategy?

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What is strategy?

2.1 Applying the five Ps to an example organisation

If you have studied in higher education before, you might be familiar with how course assignments often invite you to make use of your experience and reading to illustrate, test or apply ideas. This not only helps you to get hold of an idea, but can also throw up interesting questions, which challenge that idea and demonstrate its limitations – inspiring us to think critically. In Box 3, The Open University (the OU) is used as an example organisation to which Mintzberg’s five Ps can be related. As you read the material, see if you can apply the arguments to any other organisation you know.

Box 3 Using the OU as an example


As a large organisation, the OU has plenty of plans. These are often expressed in documents, briefings and presentations, which are circulated and updated regularly to ensure adequate consultation and ‘ownership’ (i.e. to check that a wide range of people in the organisation know about and feel responsible for the plans). Different parts of the organisation periodically use these plans to assess their progress by comparing what they have actually achieved in comparison to what they planned to achieve. For example, in areas like ‘inclusion’, meaning the social and cultural diversity of the student population; or ‘retention’, meaning keeping students on track to finish a course or qualification.


It’s important for any university to have a good reputation. The deceptive ploys, mentioned in Mintzberg’s article, are not available to the OU. But it can still manage its image by carefully selecting what it wants to say about itself to its various publics. For example, in order to maximise its attractiveness to funders the OU emphasises achievements, notably in high profile areas such as space science. Other areas, while no less important to the university’s mission, will receive less public relations effort as they are less newsworthy. This could be seen as a misrepresentation of the university’s total activities (for example, if you are a researcher doing internationally important work in a less glamorous area, you might well feel the amount of attention some of your other colleagues receive is unfair, or at least unbalanced). On the other hand, it makes sense to put your media relations resources behind stories with the best chance of gaining media coverage.


An example of what Mintzberg called ‘consistency in behavior’ would be the OU’s policy of collaborating with local partners in many international markets, rather than always going direct to students (though this is also an option in a number of countries). This is partly deliberate (in order to benefit from the local knowledge of the partner institution, and to support the development of distance learning in a local context) and partly emergent (in some countries, political and/or cultural factors would make a direct route to students unfeasible). This strategy thus shares characteristics from both ends of the continuum, which Mintzberg presents in his Figure 1; it can be both an ‘intended’ (or planned) strategy, centrally endorsed by the university, and an ‘emergent’ (or imposed) strategy, forced by political circumstances.


Since its foundation in the 1960s, the OU has positioned itself as an exclusively distance-learning establishment. As has already been noted, the idea of ‘position’ is connected to military strategy. In a battle, troops attack or defend a position. In a market, competitors attack the market share of others and defend their market share. While the appropriateness of talking about education in terms of customers and markets may be debated, it might be agreed that the OU’s viability cannot be separated from its ability to attract students. As the number of distance-learning providers increases, it is increasingly important for the OU to adopt positions that are compatible with its changing circumstances.


People who are new to the OU, either as staff or as students, often take a while to get used to its way of doing things. It seems vastly bureaucratic at times, and obsessed with set processes and procedures. But this can be seen as the practical consequence of its ‘ingrained way of perceiving the world’, in Mintzberg’s phrase. Its mission to be ‘open to people, places, methods and ideas’ (The Open University, 2009), which means that it has to deal with very large numbers of students and courses. While its critics may claim that ‘the OU way’ is overly bureaucratic, supporters might counter that the OU is committed to openness, which implies a necessary degree of formality in its systems and speed of operation.

The five definitions on which Mintzberg draws thus act as a set of themes around which perceptions of an organisation can be shared, in order to understand it more clearly, and to evaluate its strategies. Doing this might even allow the opportunity to envisage and recommend better strategies. So the five Ps are a useful checklist, based on what Mintzberg took to be the most influential ways of defining strategy when he wrote his article. But, like any organisation, the OU is bigger and more complex than any checklist – even a comprehensive one like the five Ps.


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