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ArticleEnhancing the ability to thinkstrategically: A learning modelAndrea J. CaseyGraduate School of Education and Human Development, George Washington University, Washington, DCEllen F. Goldman*Graduate School of Education and Human Development, George Washington University, Washington, DCAbstractThe ability to think strategically is critical for managers at multiple organizational levels, yet we knowlittle about how this ability develops in individuals. Drawing on literature in strategy, cognitive science andadult learning, we propose a model of learning to think strategically that follows the ‘learning school’ ofstrategy making (Mintzberg et al., 1998). The model depicts a dynamic, interactive, and iterative experientiallearning process. It identifies individual factors, work experiences and organizational factors that contributeknowledge and act together to develop the ability to think strategically. Areas for research are suggested tobetter understand the learning process.Keywordsleadership development; management learning; strategic thinkingIntroductionStudies across industries and countries have identified top management’s absence of strategicthinking as a major detractor of firm performance (Bonn, 2001; Mason, 1986; Zabriskie andHuellmantel, 1991). Recent theories of strategy making focusing on organizations’ processes androutines indicate strategic thinking is also useful to those working close to the customer (Floydand Wooldridge, 2000; Johnson et al., 2003). Despite the importance of strategic thinking tomanagers at multiple organizational levels, we know little about its development.Firms have attempted to enhance their managers’ strategic thinking ability through work and class-room experiences (Vicere, 1998). In both settings, strategy research has focused on collective versusindividual processes, such as methods to teach strategy concepts (e.g. case study, scenario building), oron understanding group decision making (Bates and Dillard, 1993; Easterby-Smith and Davies, 1983;*Authors are listed alphabetically; they contributed equally to the manuscript.Corresponding author:Dr Andrea Casey, Graduate School of Education and Human Development, The George Washington University,2134 G Street NW, Washington, DC 20052Email: acasey@gwu.eduManagement Learning41(2) 167–185© The Author(s) 2010Reprints and permissions: http://www.sagepub.co.uk/journalsPermission.navDOI: 10.1177/1350507609355497http://mlq.sagepub.comat WALDEN UNIVERSITY on January 31, 2016mlq.sagepub.comDownloaded from
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168Management Learning 41(2)Liedtka and Rosenblum, 1996; Porac and Thomas, 2002; Senge, 1994; Stumpf, 1989). The literatureis descriptive, not prescriptive, and focused on singular events versus longitudinal learning.The other likely source for understanding how the ability to think strategically develops, theleadership literature, identifies strategic thinking-related skills important to organizational leadersbut offers few specifics to guide their development (Barnard, 1938; Jaques and Clement, 1991).The largest study on management work experiences indicated that doing staff work related to corpo-rate planning is helpful to strategic thinking (McCall et al., 1988). Not specified was how this workcontributes or what aspects of strategic thinking it aids. Learning from participation in corporateplanning may be difficult for managers: enterprise-wide strategy does not change frequently, limitingthe experience, and the results may not occur for some time, limiting feedback (Crouch and Basch,1997; Garratt, 1995; Hanford, 1995; Steiner et al., 1982; Zabriskie and Huellmantel, 1991). Otherempirical work indicated that a broad array of work experiences is valuable to developing strategicthinking ability; additional research is needed to confirm the generalizability of these findings(Goldman, 2007).The three major components of adult learning theory—the learner, the learning process and thecontext (Merriam et al., 2007)—are underdeveloped in relation to strategic thinking. Learners(strategic thinkers) are identified in the literature solely by organizational role (leader, manager),without considering their history or learning preferences—factors important to how, what, whenand where individuals learn. The process of learning to think strategically is described as chaotic,experiential and informal (Mintzberg, 1994a). These characteristics apply to management learninggenerally, not just to learning to think strategically. The components of the learning process andwhat supports it are not identified. The context in which strategic thinking takes place is organiza-tional by definition (Liedtka, 1998). Context is the area where the most research about strategy hasbeen completed; however, the literature concerns detractors from thorough decision making (e.g.perceptual filtering) rather than developers of strategic thinking (Porac and Thomas, 2002). Giventhese limitations in our knowledge, it is difficult to comprehend how the three major componentsof theory related to learning (the learner, the process and the context) interact to foster the develop-ment of an individual’s ability to think strategically.This article fills a gap in the literature by describing and relating theoretical concepts and empiricalwork to comprise a model of the development of an individual’s strategic thinking ability. We areconcerned here with how individuals learn to think strategically over time—not how they craftstrategy in a given situation, although that experience may contribute. To acquaint the reader withthe direction of our theoretical arguments, we first provide a general overview of the model. Wethen describe the theoretical foundations. At that point, the model is reviewed in further detail andthe interactivity between its components explained. We close by discussing the practical uses of themodel and suggesting areas for future research.Overview of the modelThe immediate challenge is defining the concept. The term ‘strategic thinking’ is often used inter-changeably with ‘strategy’, ‘strategic management’ and ‘strategic planning’ (Bonn, 2001; Liedtka,1998). Steiner et al. (1982: 14) noted ‘serious semantic problems’ with the aforementioned termsand their use as substitutes, and also as both nouns and verbs. Attempts to understand strategicthinking are further thwarted by its distinctiveness as ‘an immensely complex process, whichinvolves the most sophisticated, subtle, and at times, subconscious elements of human thinking’(Mintzberg, 1994a: 111).at WALDEN UNIVERSITY on January 31, 2016mlq.sagepub.comDownloaded from
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