Andrew Pettigrew’s message to young scholars (Strategy-as-process and practice: Part 2 of 3)

This time Andrew Pettigrew, a world-renowned management professor from Saïd Business School University of Oxford, came to JIBS for a seminar in the second part of Strategy as Process and Practice course. In his energetic, provocative, and occasionally humorous style, Andrew shared his point of view on process scholarship as well as scholarship in general. Here is my interpretation of his advises for young scholars (especially PhD students).

Don’t put yourself in a box

 Andrew Pettigrew (photo taken from  this source ).

Andrew Pettigrew (photo taken from this source).

More specifically, ontological (philosophical) box. “It’s unnecessary,” Andrew said. “It invites people to have a go at you.”

As a PhD student, you are still in the beginning of the beginning of your career. Claiming that you are a ‘critical realist’ or ‘social constructionist’ or whatever will restrict yourself to that box. And in reality, you are not entirely standing on this or that paradigm.

Once you claim that you are, let’s say, a critical realist, you expose yourself to unnecessary problems. And there are so many versions of critical realism. Which one is yours? Do you really know what critical realism is?

To claim an identity requires others to acknowledge it. As a beginner in the academic career, you don’t have the intellectual capital that legitimates your claim.

Instead of claiming, Andrew advises you to focus in doing the best work at the highest quality you can do. Label comes and go and it could be just a fad. “Don’t jump on band wagons. Fads create ten careers and destroy 200 careers.”

Don’t label yourself. It’s others’ business to label you anything, not you.

Step away from dichotomy, embrace duality

The world is not induction or deduction, it is induction and deduction. It is not just exploration or exploitation, it is exploration and exploitation. It is not just agency or structure, it agency and structure.

Sure, dichotomy helps to make contrast. Its power is in the simplicity. People can easily understand the concept and it is theoretically appealing to be indulged in the extremes. But in reality, these dichotomies coexist more like a continuum. Don’t be trapped in the mindset of ‘either-or’, try to think of ‘and’. 

Andrew would tease you, “Even the old Karl Marx has three (thesis, antithesis, synthesis), why would you divide the world only into two?”

Understand the mechanisms

A regression only tells you about a relation between two variables: “If you wind a watch it will keep running.” Mechanisms, on the other hand, pry the back off the watch and show us how.

As a process scholar, the overriding purpose is to generate ‘how to’ knowledge to complement the predominant ‘what is knowledge' in the social science.

“A mechanism is about the cogs and wheels, the wheel-work of agency by which an effect is produced.”

Andrew is an antique collector, so he is quite fond of a watch metaphor to explain this. It is not enough to merely know the parts making up a watch. More than that, you need to understand how each part is interconnected.

Go for an interesting issue, not a trivial one

What is an interesting issue? It is an issue that include some outcome in the analysis and try to link patterns in the observed context and process to variations in the outcome.

Andrew also said that his works are always issue-driven. Meaning that there are real practical and social issues that he tries to address. Some examples are: Why high-performing companies constantly outperform low-performing companies? In the case of closing down a hospital, why it takes 15 years to close down a hospital in this municipality and only 6 years in that municipality? These questions imply the need to understand ‘when’ and ‘how’ to explain ‘why’ there are outcome differentials.

So, if you can, compacting the research question in this form will help you to link the context, the process, and the outcome. This also implies that studying single company is not enough (or impactful, as Andrew would use the word). Your analyses should incorporate multiple contexts within and between the firms or organizations. Context, process and outcome studies are attention directors in scholarly and policy arenas.

“That’s interesting!” Andrew would say.

Throughout your PhD, what point of view have you developed?

This could be a ‘trouser-around-the-ankle moment’ for you.

This is a ‘final bomb’ Andrew would ask if he is an external examiner of a PhD student. Inability to answer this question implies that you haven’t yet gone above your thesis. Your view is still limited inside your own work. You are still boxed in.

Developing a point of view means you are transcending above and beyond your research to something in a higher level.

But there is a good news. Andrew won’t drop this bomb unless he sees that you are capable enough to answer.

Or is it?

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This is written as a reflection for the second three-day session on “Strategy as Practice/Process” PhD course at Jönköping International Business School, Sweden. The upcoming (final) session will be held on December.