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Strategy as practice: Recursiveness, adaptation and strategic practices-in-use.

Paula Jarzabkowski


Paula Jarzabkowski


P Jarzabkowski, Aston Business School, Aston University, Birmingham B4 7ET, UK

July 2002

ISBN No: 1 85449 532 1

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Strategy as practice: Recursiveness, adaptation and strategic practices-in-use. Paula Jarzabkowski


Strategy as practice, strategic practices, social theory, recursiveness, adaptation

Strategy as practice: Recursiveness, adaptation and strategic practices-in-use

In this paper, a social theory framework is developed to explain the common themes of
recursive and adaptive practice underpinning existing strategic management literature.
In practice, there is a co-existent tension between recursive and adaptive forms of
strategic action since both are important to competitive advantage. This tension may be
better understood by examining how practitioners use strategic practices, such as
management tools and techniques, to put strategy into practice. We exemplify this point
with a discussion of how strategic planning may be adapted to the multiple contexts in
which it is used. The paper concludes by proposing a research agenda for the study of
strategic practices-in-use.

Strategy as practice: Recursiveness, adaptation and strategic practices-in-use. Paula Jarzabkowski

Strategy as practice: Recursiveness, adaptation and strategic practices-in-use

Recently, concern over the gap between the theory of what people do and what people
actually do has given rise to the ‘practice’ approach in the management literatures. For
example, there are literatures on knowing in practice, formal analysis in practice and
technology in practice, each of which share a common focus upon the way that actors
interact with the social and physical features of context in the everyday activities that
constitute practice. Most recently, the practice approach has entered the strategy
literature, recommending that we focus upon strategists engaged in the real work of
strategising (Hendry, 2000; Whittington, 1996; 2001a). That is, just as the literatures on
knowing in practice suggest that knowledge is not something that a firm has but
knowing in action, something that a firm and its actors do (Cook and Brown, 1999), so
we should examine strategy not as something a firm has but something a firm does.

The practice approach is commensurate with appeals for a new paradigm to revitalise
strategy theory by addressing key questions and concerns, such as how firms behave
and how and why firms are different (Prahalad and Hamel, 1994). However, we should
be cautious about launching into yet another theory of strategy since the field is already
characterised by a diverse array of approaches from microeconomic theories of firm
positioning to examinations of managerial cognition (Mintzberg et al, 1998). Strategy
as practice can provide a valuable contribution to this problem because it is posited as a
framework for understanding the relationships between different theories (Hendry,
2000). Each existing approach is assumed to provide a partial view of strategy, with
actual practice the point of interaction between different theoretical approaches. While
the points of interaction that constitute practice are richly supported by social theory,
there is no applicable framework for their integration in the strategic management
literature. The dearth of theoretical orientation leaves the strategy scholar with
questions about what practice is, why it is a relevant topic for investigation, and how it
might be studied. In this paper we develop a social theory framework that may be used
to integrate existing strategic management literature and provide a platform for the
empirical investigation of strategy as practice.

Strategy as practice: Recursiveness, adaptation and strategic practices-in-use. Paula Jarzabkowski

The paper is in three sections. The first section of the paper draws upon social theory to
address two themes implied by practice, recursiveness and adaptation. These two core
elements of practice implicitly underpin much of the current strategic management
literature. For example, in a double special issue of Strategic Management Journal on
the evolution of capabilities (Helfat, 2000), all eleven papers deal with some aspect of
strategic change or rigidity, particularly the conundrum of how a firm can embrace
both. A theory of practice brings recursiveness and adaptation into a dialectic tension in
which the two are inextricably linked. Practice is thus a means of integrating diverse
strategy literatures within a more holistic framework. In the second section we suggest
that to empirically investigate these two practice themes, it is important to examine
how strategic practitioners use strategic practices. A theoretical explanation for the role
of practitioners and strategic practices-in-use is provided. The third section develops a
research agenda for the study of strategic practices-in-use, which we posit as a method
for understanding recursive and adaptive forms of strategy as practice. This research
agenda is supported with the example of strategic planning, a persistent strategic
practice that has adapted to multiple contexts over time. In conclusion, the paper
proposes that strategy as practice is a topic for serious academic endeavour being both
theoretically robust and practically relevant.

Section one: Recursiveness and adaptation in practice

In this section, a theoretical foundation for two key practice themes, recursiveness and
adaptation, is built upon four main areas of social theory; structuration (Giddens, 1984),
habitus (Bourdieu, 1990), social becoming (Sztompka, 1991), and communities of
practice (Brown and Duguid, 1991; 2001). These theoretical contributions to practice
are elaborated and then linked to concepts in existing strategic management literature.
While the diversity of approaches might be criticised for eclecticism, practice is posited
as the point of interaction between pluralist epistemologies (Cook and Brown, 1999).
Our intention is to develop a more holistic approach to the study of practice through the
integration of diverse theoretical perspectives (Spender, 1998).

First this section examines the reciprocity inherent in strategy as practice, termed the
problem of recursiveness because it obscures the means by which practice adapts. The
problem of recursiveness penetrates the strategic management literature at multiple
levels from individual cognition to organisational structures and industry environments

Strategy as practice: Recursiveness, adaptation and strategic practices-in-use. Paula Jarzabkowski

(see Table 1). To address this problem, the paper turns to the second theme, that of the
social context in which practice occurs. Practice occurs in macro contexts that provide
commonalities of action but also in micro contexts in which action is highly localised.
The interaction between contexts provides an opportunity for adaptive practice, a theme
that is also present in the strategic management literature (see Table 2). Discussion of
these two themes furnishes a theoretical orientation for recursiveness and adaptation as
key concepts in the strategic management literature that co-exist in strategy as practice.


Reciprocal practice: the problem of recursiveness

The term ‘practice’ implies repetitive performance in order to become ‘practised’; that
is, to attain recurrent, habitual or routinized accomplishment of particular actions. For
example, in sport or music practice develops competence and improves performance.
Practice is thus a particular type of self-reinforcing learning akin to single loop or
exploitative learning theories (cf. Argote, 1999). The routinized nature of practice may
be explained by theories of social order, such as structuration (Giddens, 1984), in
which the interaction between agent and structure is recursive. Structuration examines
the relationship between agents and socially-produced structures through recursively
situated practices that form part of daily routines. Structures are the collective systems
within which human actors carry out their daily activities. Structures constrain and
enable human action and are also created and re-created by actors who draw upon
social structure in order to act. This reciprocity between agent and structure enables the
persistence of social order, embedding it in social institutions that endure across time
and space. Lest this appear excessively deterministic, social order may serve agency,
being drawn upon purposively by knowledgeable actors. However, knowledge is not
necessarily explicit. Rather, action may occur as a function of practical consciousness,
in which tacit, experience-based knowledge is “incorporated in the practices which
make up the bulk of daily life” (ibid:90). Structuration makes three main contributions
to the routinized nature of practice. First, practice is institutionalised in social structures
that persist across time and space. Secondly, institutional social structures are
incorporated in the daily practices that constitute action. Thirdly, structures persist
through the tacit knowledge and practical consciousness of actors who choose familiar
patterns because it provides them with “ontological security” (ibid:64).

Strategy as practice: Recursiveness, adaptation and strategic practices-in-use. Paula Jarzabkowski

Bourdieu (1990) further elaborates the reciprocity between agent and structure. He
refers to a dialectic of social structures and structuring dispositions within which every
practical action occurs. This dialectic is the ‘habitus’, which is socially constructed but
transcends the individual, being “constituted in practice and … always oriented towards
practical functions” (ibid:52). Practice comprises social order residing both in people’s
minds and in the habitus, which functions as a form of collective memory. Bourdieu
imbues the latter with properties akin to genetics “reproducing the acquisitions of the
predecessors in the successors” (ibid: 291). The temporal persistence of habitus shapes
the aspirations of those who enact it in daily practice. Habitus assumes causality by
structuring new information in accordance with the information already accumulated.
This ensures its constancy and resistance to change. Agents’ choices will be influenced
by their consideration of what is possible, this belief being shaped by “concrete indices
of the accessible and inaccessible” (ibid: 64). For Bourdieu, agents are “accomplices in
the processes that tend to make the probable a reality” (ibid: 65).

Both Bourdieu and Giddens provide a rationale for the stable and institutional
characteristics of practice, albeit that structuration predicates this stability on the
ontological security of the actor while habitus is a more structurally oriented theory.
This focus on stability obscures the adaptive nature of practice (cf. Orlikowski, 2000)
and will be termed here the problem of recursiveness.

Recursiveness means the socially accomplished reproduction of sequences of

activity and action because the actors involved possess a negotiated sense that
one template from their repertoire will address a new situation. [While]
recursiveness is always improvised … equally, there can be a durability about
recursiveness that constrains attempts to transform the sequences. (Clark,

This durability may be considered a ‘code-of-practice’ or even ‘best practice’, being

sedimented rules and resources that govern how to act. Recursiveness underpins much
of the strategic management literature and is present at three levels, the actor, the
organisation and the social institution. At the level of the actor, the problem is largely a
psychological one arising from individual cognition. The mental models of actors are
subject to structural influences such as formal operating procedures (Cyert and March,
1963), heuristic devices (Newell, Shaw and Simon, 1962), and, in interpretative

Strategy as practice: Recursiveness, adaptation and strategic practices-in-use. Paula Jarzabkowski

theories, to stored cognitive recipes (Weick, 1969). The relationship between thought
and action arises from procedural memory, the skill-base associated with cognition.
Procedural memory predisposes those familiar routinized actions developed from
experience that actors undertake without conscious thought (Cohen and Bacdayan,
1994). Individual cognition is related to social structure through its manifestation as
collective phenomena shared by groups of actors. Similar to the notion of habitus,
collective memory structures boundarize cognition (Cyert and March, 1963) and create
perceptual filters (Prahalad and Bettis, 1986) that direct choice-making behaviour
towards the known. The reinforcement of routinized and stable structures through
collective cognition is found in literatures on groupthink (Janis, 1972), top team
homogeneity (Wiersema and Bantel, 1992), and restricted learning capabilities (Tripsas
and Gavetti, 2000). The recursiveness arising from actors’ needs for ontological
security (Giddens, 1984) is thus present in much of the literature on cognition,
interpretation and collective cognition.

At the organisational level, the problem of recursiveness is illustrated in path

dependence, persistent organisational routines, and organisational memory. The
strategic and operational routines of an organisation have genetic properties that
predispose it to act in certain ways and, more importantly, define the possible options
that it may take (Nelson and Winter, 1982). Routines are socially complex, embedded,
and interlocked. They comprise a social architecture that penetrates a firm’s
communication channels, information filters and problem-solving strategies making it
difficult for the firm to absorb new technologies (Henderson and Clark, 1990). The
normative influences of routines may be understood as organisational memory (Walsh
and Ungson, 1991) or cultural web (Johnson, 1987), providing embedded repertoires,
rites and rituals for action that are persistent sources of firm identity. These
characteristics may even be considered firm resources, building distinctive traits that
are a non-transferrable source of competitive advantage. However, path dependence
means that resources are difficult to shed or reconfigure quickly. Strategically a firm is
liable to exploit and build upon existing resources (Grant, 1991), exhibiting resource
deepening behaviour that channels evolution along familiar lines (Karim and Mitchell,
2000), even where these are no longer viable. The distinctive social structures of a firm
may thus be seen as its core rigidities (Leonard-Barton, 1992), predisposing recurrent
action patterns (Cohen et al, 1996) and leading to organisational inertia (Hannan and

Strategy as practice: Recursiveness, adaptation and strategic practices-in-use. Paula Jarzabkowski

Freeman,1984; Rumelt, 1995). These concepts of organisational stability are implicitly

underpinned by the social theory of habitus; that social structure assimilates
information that is self-reinforcing and resistant to change.

The problem of recursiveness arising from embedded social institutions is present in

institutional theory, particularly the notion of isomorphism, in which organisations,
particularly those in the same sector or industry, come to resemble each other because
of the common social structures upon which they draw (DiMaggio and Powell, 1983).
Similar to the self-reinforcing structural notions of habitus, social institutions may be
predisposed to particular organisational forms (Hannan and Freeman, 1977). These
institutional forces are also linked to agency through their influence on managerial
cognition (Elenkov, 1997), with isomorphic tendencies evidenced in the choice-making
behaviour of actors who draw upon similar social structures. For example, firms in the
same industry display similar recipes for action (Spender, 1989). This is because
strategic actors are embedded within industry networks that constitute collective
cognitive structures and these influence conformity of choice in different firms
(Geletkanycz and Hambrick, 1997; Porac et al, 1989).

Undoubtedly, social practice is characterised by recursiveness that is evident in the

choices arising from interaction between social institutions, organisations, and actors
(cf. Table 1). This is not necessarily a weakness for firms. Indeed, the literature extols
the competitive advantages of an experience curve (Argote, 1999), successful
companies ‘stick to the knitting’ (Peters and Waterman, 1982), and resource-deepening
behaviour builds distinctive competences and capabilities (Karim and Mitchell, 2000).
From this perspective recursiveness equates with learned efficiencies, suggesting that
‘practice makes perfect’. Since firms display similar choice-making behaviour,
recursiveness may even be associated with best practice. However, the convergence
that underpins best practice may also be associated with organisational inertia and the
destruction of strategic differentiation between competitors (Nattermann, 2000). As
differentiation and change are important factors of competitive advantage in even
moderately dynamic environments, recursive practice is a problem in strategic
management. However, for each of the arguments above, there are counter arguments
that suggest practice also has adaptive characteristics (see Table 2). In order to
understand practice as an ongoing social process, capable of encompassing both

Strategy as practice: Recursiveness, adaptation and strategic practices-in-use. Paula Jarzabkowski

stability and change, we now turn to theories of co-existent and dynamic interaction
between agent and structure.


Adaptive practice: social movement within macro and micro contexts

Adaptation, being varying degrees of change from incremental adjustment to radical
reorientation, may be explained using the theory of social becoming (Pettigrew, 1990;
Sztompka, 1991). Sztompka (1991) exposes three false dichotomies in social theory.
First, he criticises the dichotomy between agent and social structure, proposing that
there is a third ontological dimension; “the unified socio-individual field” (ibid:94).
Secondly he shows the false separation of static and dynamic processes of social
reality. This is because ‘life’ or ‘living’ are constantly undergoing change and self-
transformation. Finally, he posits that potential and actuality are not separable since
potential reality and actual reality are in a continual state of oscillation and feedback in
the process of social becoming. Sztompka’s theory is one of “a living, socio-individual
field in the process of becoming” (ibid:95). The interaction between agent and structure
does not sustain sedimented behaviours; it is ‘becoming’, not became. He identifies
practice as the unit of analysis for observing ‘becoming’, which is the chain of social
events “where operation and action meet, a dialectic synthesis of what is going on in a
society and what people are doing” (ibid:96).

Practice is an evolving process of social order arising from the interplay between
external and internal social structure building. External structure is the wider societal
context, in which there is a current of social movement; “what is going on in a society”
(ibid:96). Internal structure is any given group engaged in their own local construction
of practice, “what people are doing” (ibid:96). Change is carried out within the internal
context in interaction with the external context. There is thus an ongoing process of
social becoming that is realised through a chain of social events, or practice.

These assumptions about changing social order underpin the strategy process field,
which “describes how things change over time” (Van de Ven, 1992:169) through the
study of sequences of events (for example, Abbott, 1990; Glick et al, 1990; Van de Ven
and Poole, 1990). In strategy process studies, change arises from the interaction

Strategy as practice: Recursiveness, adaptation and strategic practices-in-use. Paula Jarzabkowski

between embedded levels of context from the socio-economic to the industry to the
firm (Pettigrew 1987; Pettigrew and Whipp, 1991). Child (1997) incorporates the actor
into the change process through strategic choice, which is “a consciously-sought
adaptation to, and manipulation of, existing internal structures and environmental
conditions” (ibid:67, emphasis in original). Organisations are involved in an ongoing,
adaptive process of internal or within-firm social structure building, embedded within a
wider context of external or environmental social structure building.

The interplay between levels of social structure building may be better understood with
reference to plurality. Modern society has plural social institutions, such as political,
economic, ethnic, and religious institutions that may be regarded as co-existing forms
of social structure (Giddens, 1991; Whittington, 1992). Actors are involved in the
interplay between these institutions, affording opportunities for change. For example,
divergent firm level strategies in the Taiwanese computer industry are found to result
from the varied use that skilled strategic actors make of the different rules and
resources present in three social institutions; political, technological and business
systems (Hung and Whittington, 1997). Strategic behaviour may thus be divergent or
isomorphic depending upon the particular institutions that are invoked, with modern
society characterised by plural social institutions.

This theoretical framing suggests that there are macro and micro contexts in which
strategy as practice occurs (Whittington, 2001b). Interaction between contexts provides
opportunities for adaptive practice because the macro level is characterised by multiple
social institutions, while the micro level is heterogeneous due to the localised social
movement occasioned by “what people are doing” (Sztompka, 1991:96). We now
explore micro context through the literature on communities of practice.

Micro-context: Communities of practice

In a ‘community of practice’ individual thought is essentially social and is developed in
interaction with the practical activities of a community, through living and participating
in its experiences over time (Cook and Brown, 1999; Lave and Wenger, 1991). The
literature on communities of practice provides two important components of a theory of
practice; that practice is local and that local contexts provide opportunity for adaptive
practice. We shall explore these in turn.

Strategy as practice: Recursiveness, adaptation and strategic practices-in-use. Paula Jarzabkowski

While communities may have some broad similarities, each community has specific
social interactions that constitute a unique interpretative context (Brown and Duguid,
1991). Practice is local and situated, arising from the “moment-by-moment interactions
between actors, and between actors and the environments of their action” (Suchman,
1987:179). Rather than looking for structural invariants, normative rules of conduct, or
preconceived cognitive schema, therefore, practice scholars should investigate “the
processes whereby particular, uniquely constituted circumstances are systematically
interpreted so as to render meaning shared” (ibid:67). To understand practice it is
important to move beyond institutional similarities to penetrate the situated and
localised nature of practice in particular contexts.

This concept of a localised and unique interpretative context is central to the literature
on communities of practice. For example, Orr’s (1996) photocopier technicians operate
in a distinctly local setting in which their interactions are strongly influenced by the
particularities of a specific work time and space. Orlikowski (2000) draws our attention
to the localised use of technology that results in contextual specificity of technology-in-
practice, even where the use of these technologies is widely pervasive and normatively
structured in wider contexts. Practice is situated, experiential knowing-in-doing, and
thus particular to the participants in a community (Brown and Duguid, 2001; Cook and
Brown, 1999).

This local context provides an opportunity for adaptive practice. New knowledge about
specific situations may arise from the social activities of dialogue and interaction
(Brown and Duguid, 1991; Cook and Brown, 1999; Wenger, 1998), often about a
problem or failure (cf. Pisano, 1994; Sitkin, 1992). For example, when the formal code-
of-practice for mending a faulty photocopier is inadequate to the task Orr’s (1996)
technicians engage in adaptive social interaction. They tell stories about the problem
that generate new methods for its solution. New practice does not come from external
sources but from participating in the social process of problem-solving within that
community. In this process, existing frameworks take on new meanings that are highly
contextual. Local practice may thus deviate from institutionally established practice.

Strategy as practice: Recursiveness, adaptation and strategic practices-in-use. Paula Jarzabkowski

However, a problem is not essential to the learning inherent in a community of practice.

Communities of practice are concerned with, and always oriented towards social
activity (Wenger, 1998). The social nature of communities constitutes an adaptive
learning opportunity that involves new forms of practice. Through the entry and exit of
their members, communities are exposed to generative practice. New participants learn
from continuing members how to interpret the social infrastructure of a particular
community, in the process resocialising the continuing players and reinforcing existing
practice. However, due to their low socialisation to the community, new members also
question the infrastructure, so creating the potential for its re-evaluation and adaptation
(Lave and Wenger, 1991; March, 1991). Even stable communities may be exposed to
adaptation where their members are also members of wider “networks of communities”
(Brown and Duguid, 2001:205), for example, with professionals in other organisations
or in non-work communities. Communities that have largely stable membership, with
limited external networks, and few crises or problems are liable to engage in recursive
practice while the converse situation promotes adaptive practice.

While these examples tend to look at particular subsets of organisations, such as

engineers (Orr, 1996) or insurance clerks (Wenger, 1998), it is probable that such
concepts also hold true for strategic practitioners. For example, it is important to “know
the ‘done thing’ locally” (Whittington, 1996:732) in order to enact strategy in particular
contexts. Strategy as practice is found to be particular to the organisation that
constitutes its community of interpretation (Jarzabkowski and Wilson, 2002) and to be
situated within a “taken-for-granted and highly contextualised rationality” (Spender and
Grinyer, 1996:30). Firms may thus be conceptualised as a strategic community of
practice. However, firms may also be considered a collection of more or less loosely
coupled diverse communities, not all of which are primarily strategic (cf. Brown and
Duguid, 2001). Therefore, there is some question as to the boundaries for a strategic
community of practice (cf. Whittington, 2001b). Strategic practitioners are liable to act
within specific organisational communities, but also to be involved in strategic
‘networks of practice’ outside the organisation (Brown and Duguid, 2001). The first
provides opportunities for locally adaptive practice while the second enables adaptation
through interaction with external contexts.

Strategy as practice: Recursiveness, adaptation and strategic practices-in-use. Paula Jarzabkowski

Adaptive practice: interplay between contexts in the strategic management literature

The concept of localised practice is present in the resource-based view (RBV), which
posits that localised, and hence distinctive strategic contexts are value-creating. RBV
proposes that firms are heterogeneous with competitive advantage arising from their
unique and idiosyncratic bundling of firm resources (Barney, 1991). In addition to
physical resources, RBV includes intangible assets such as social complexity as a
source of advantage. However, early forms of RBV have been criticised for their
market-based assumptions that commodify socially embedded processes (Cook and
Brown, 1999; Scarbrough, 1998) and ignore the dynamism inherent in strategic action
(Spender, 1996). The learning involved in this type of resource acquisition is
exploitative and resource deepening (Karim and Mitchell, 2000), leading to
recursiveness. Resources may provide competitive advantage at a moment in time but
their adaptation and, thus, the sustainability of competitive advantage in changing
environments, is less apparent suggesting the rigidities and routines of the previous
section (cf. Cockburn et al, 2000).

A more adaptive form of RBV may be found in theories of competitive advantage

based upon knowledge resources (Grant, 1996; Spender, 1996) and dynamic
capabilities (Helfat, 2000; Teece et al, 1997). While continuing to emphasise the
heterogeneity arising from idiosyncratic and localised practice, the knowledge-based
and dynamic capabilities literatures focus more upon the learning and adaptation
involved in competitive advantage. Dynamic capabilities are “processes that use
resources – specifically the processes to integrate, reconfigure, gain and release
resources – to match and even create market change” (Teece et al, 1997). New resource
configurations, that is, adaptive practice, may be generated from the use of existing
resources. Importantly, dynamic capabilities are perceived to generate change inside the
firm and also to lead to market change.

How does this adaptive practice within the micro-context of firm strategy lead to
adaptation in macro-context? With reference to social becoming (Sztompka, 1991),
how does the local context of “what people are doing” interplay with the macro context
of “what is going on in a society” (ibid:96)? If the firm is viewed as a set of loose-tight
coupled communities, each comprising a local context, the strategy literature on
adaptive practice is rather limited. There is a nascent body of research into new forms

Strategy as practice: Recursiveness, adaptation and strategic practices-in-use. Paula Jarzabkowski

of organising that examines networked, strategically decentralised firms such as ABB,

which begins to capture these phenomena (Whittington et al, 1999). There is also an
increasing interest in micro-strategising (cf. Johnson et al, forthcoming), looking, for
example, at how innovations in firm micro-contexts and peripheries are important to
firm strategy (Johnson and Huff, 1998).

If, however, we take the view that a firm is a micro-context, interaction with the macro
context is examined in strategy process research on change as multi-level phenomena
(for example, Pettigrew, 1987; Pettigrew and Whipp, 1991). There is also a growing
literature linking firm idiosyncrasies to competitive advantage (Barney, 1990; Grant,
1991; Teece et al, 1997). This relationship between within-firm practice and the more
general context of markets offers opportunities for cross-firm and cross-sector
adaptation. Since competition is associated with imitative behaviour, lesser performers
will move to adopt the practices of successful performers, leading to the spread of best
practice (Cockburn et al, 2000). Particular practices will be efficacious across a range
of industries, increasing their uptake from micro-contexts into macro-contexts. Indeed,
even where firms start from quite different positions, they tend to converge upon
similar capabilities over time (Eisenhardt and Martin, 2000). While best practice
indicates how micro-context practice is transmitted to macro-context and spread
throughout a group of firms, constituting adaptation, it also poses the problem of
institutional isomorphism. That is, best practice is overly concerned with mimetic
behaviour that leads to convergence (Nattermann, 2000).

However, the concept of pluralism is also present in the notion of new markets.
Strategy textbooks abound with cases of firms, such as Honda, Southwest Airlines and
Ikea, which developed divergent strategies and targeted new markets in seemingly
saturated and normatively structured competitive conditions. Adaptation is not simply a
matter of transferring practice between contexts. Rather it is a matter of adaptive
interplay between contexts that may generate new practice. This is perhaps best shown
in the strategy literature on different velocity markets. For example, dynamic
capabilities may be more repetitive and resource deepening in moderately dynamic
markets and involve newly created knowledge in high-velocity markets (Eisenhardt and
Martin, 2000). In high velocity markets, which are characterised by plurality, firm
heterogeneity and localised variations in practice are common. Firms in these markets

Strategy as practice: Recursiveness, adaptation and strategic practices-in-use. Paula Jarzabkowski

are complex adaptive systems (Pascale, 1999) that display unique solutions and rapidly
changing responses such as patching (Eisenhardt and Brown, 1999), simple rules
(Eisenhardt and Sull, 2001) and time-pacing (Brown and Eisenhardt, 1997). These
examples of continuously evolving firms show that rapid interactions between micro
and macro-contexts may result in even radically adaptive rather than recursive practice.

While such recent literatures permit us to understand adaptive practice in high velocity
markets, they focus on a subset of extreme example firms. For most firms,
recursiveness is also important. Firms need both recursive and adaptive practice to
capitalise on routines of success as well as developing the capacity for reinvention.
There is thus a coexistent tension between recursive and adaptive modes of practice.
These coexistent tensions are based in the social interactions that span the plural micro
and macro contexts that comprise the strategy as practice arena. Any given practice
community must be considered in terms of the micro-strategies that constitute reality
for its practitioners but also the community’s interactions with some wider practice
arena that has more general application (Whittington, 2001b). Unique practice in
particular contexts may penetrate wider spheres and so be adopted and adapted to other
contexts stimulating further social movement that contributes to the ongoing chain of
practice. Interaction between contexts is important to a theory of strategy as practice,
permitting us to move between the specific and the general and to understand both
recursiveness and adaptation. However, the many literatures on which we have drawn
illustrate only partial components of recursive and adaptive practice (see Tables 1 and
2). How then, may strategy scholars and practitioners better understand this problem?

Section two: Strategic practitioners and strategic practices-in-use

In this section we propose that a study of the way that strategic practices are used may
furnish a better understanding of recursive and adaptive forms of practice. We theorise
the role of strategic practitioners and the strategic practices they use drawing again
upon Giddens (1984) and Bourdieu (1990) and also incorporating de Certeau’s (1984)
notion of practice as usage and Vygotsky’s (1978) emphasis on the tools used in
practical activity. Using this framing, we posit that strategic practices-in-use are a
methodological entry point for examining recursive and adaptive forms of strategy as
practice (see Table 3).

Strategy as practice: Recursiveness, adaptation and strategic practices-in-use. Paula Jarzabkowski


Practitioners: Skill and bricolage

In lay terms a practitioner is a professional; one who has undergone training in order to
go into practice, for example legal or medical practice. The practitioner draws upon
‘codes-of-practice’, learned through formal training, to guide professional action. As
individual practitioners become more accomplished, practice also involves tacit
experiential elements that imply differential levels of skill and ability. However, in
strategy the training, skill and experience involved in becoming a strategic practitioner
are rather less obvious. To address this problem, we shall develop a theoretical
orientation for strategic practitioners as skilled actors.

Practitioners as knowledgeable, purposive and reflexive

In structuration theory actors are knowledgeable, purposive, and reflexive and so, able
to enact structure to their own ends (Giddens, 1984). These three concepts are
important to our understanding of how strategic practitioners act. Knowledge resides in
both discursive consciousness and practical consciousness, which are discussed in the
cognition literatures as declarative or ‘fact’ based memory and procedural or ‘skill’
based memory (Cohen and Bacdayan, 1994; Moorman and Miner, 1998). Essentially,
actors have knowledge that they can articulate and skill-based, practical knowledge that
they express through doing. While the cognition and knowledge based literatures have
made considerable ground by examining these as separate forms of knowledge (for
example, Nonaka, 1994), Giddens is more concerned with permeability between the
discursive and the practical and this is the central tenet of the practice perspective on
knowledge. Knowledge is not a possession to be codified and transmitted. Rather, it is
knowing in action, created and shared through social activity (Brown and Duguid,
2001; Cook and Brown, 1999). A strategic practitioner is thus engaged in knowing,
some of it explicit, discursive or declarative, and some of it tacit, practical or
procedural, but all of it occurring through the social medium of practice.

Actors are also purposive and reflexive. Purposive actors have intent, which is essential
to the largely teleological, goal-seeking assumptions underpinning strategy (Van de
Ven, 1992). While the literature on emergent strategy indicates that strategic action
does not always comply with intent (Mintzberg and Waters, 1985), this does not deny

Strategy as practice: Recursiveness, adaptation and strategic practices-in-use. Paula Jarzabkowski

its fundamentally teleological nature. As Giddens (1984) notes, intentful action may
have unintended consequences that may shape subsequent intent. The continuously
evolving interaction of the intended and the actual is located within the inherent
reflexivity of actors. They are able to monitor the outcomes of action and consequently
reframe their orientation towards subsequent action. Due to the routinization implicit in
procedural forms of knowing, orientations may be slow to change, suggesting
recursiveness. However, adaptation is enhanced where social activity increases the
dynamic interplay and reflexivity involved in knowing (Cook and Brown, 1999).

Bourdieu (1990) enhances our understanding of both intent and knowing in action.
Using the example of a football game, he discusses skilled action as anticipatory of the
future. A player sees in advance where the game is going and acts in accordance with
that supposition of the future by being in position for the ball. While this may be a
calculated response, based on past experience of this and other games, it is also tacit
and immediate. The practice world that makes up the actor’s reality presents all the
components of interaction from which to make a response that comprises both reason
and intuitive reaction. In the rather limited literature on practitioners this process is
referred to as reflection in action (Schon, 1983). It combines repertoire and
experimentation, using the past to conjecture the present and future and being
spontaneously reflexive in expanding the repertoire in accordance with the outcomes
attained. While reflection may be deliberate and post-action, it is the capacity for
‘thinking on one’s feet’ that characterises differential skill levels in practitioners. These
concepts are applicable to strategic practitioners who position themselves and their
organisation in accordance with anticipation of the future. Skilled practitioners are
liable to have a greater repertoire of strategic practices to draw upon but also to be more
reflexive in their use, displaying routinized or adaptive behaviour as called for by a
situation. Therefore, to understand skilled practice we should look not only at what
strategy is done but also at how strategy is done, the characteristics of usage that may
show the skill of the practitioner.

Practitioners and skill: Bricolage

To elaborate this point, we turn to de Certeau (1984) who examines practice through a
study of ordinary actors engaged in using the artefacts of everyday practice to their own
ends. Practice is the art of combination; “A way of thinking invested in a way of acting

Strategy as practice: Recursiveness, adaptation and strategic practices-in-use. Paula Jarzabkowski

… which cannot be dissociated from an art of using” (ibid:xv, emphasis added). Social
structure contains the established artefacts to use for action. These artefacts were
developed with particular intentions. However, artefacts are only guidelines containing
multiple potentialities according to use. The use of artefacts in ways other than
intended may change the artefact, the practice and, over time, the intent associated with
the artefact. Where the intent implied in artefacts complies largely with the intent of
actors, habitual, routinized use may be expected, leading to recursiveness. However,
the appropriation of artefacts for particular, unanticipated outcomes may well involve
their adaptation. This is referred to as bricolage, the making do and “artisan-like
inventiveness” (ibid:xviii), by which actors produce their own intentful activities from
the artefacts that structure everyday activity.

Bricolage, meaning ‘do-it-yourself’, involves improvisation with the materials at hand,

particularly under conditions of resource scarcity (Moorman and Miner, 1998). While
bricolage may involve quite mundane forms of practice, it also involves high levels of
skill and experience to perform the familiar well and, particularly, to deploy the
familiar in novel ways that lead to its adaptation. Bricolage is a point of interaction,
bringing together actor, intent, artefacts and contextual features of time and space,
within an act of usage. It is, therefore, particularly apposite to our concept of practice as
the doing of strategy. For example, some authors have drawn upon de Certeau (1984)
to explore the complex interactions involved in ordinary activities such as cooks doing
cooking (Giard, 1998). Whittington (2001b) suggests that these concepts also apply to
strategists doing strategising, recommending that we examine what constitutes the
ingredients and utensils of strategic practitioners. We explore this notion in our next
section on strategic practices, which we propose are the tools that strategic practitioners
use to do strategy.

Strategic practices-in-use
In this section we posit that strategic practices are a means of examining how strategic
practitioners are involved in recursive and adaptive forms of practice. There is a
distinction between strategy as practice and strategic practices (Jarzabkowski and
Wilson, 2002; Whittington, 2001). Practice is teleological, “an activity seeking a goal”
(Turner, 1994:8) whereas practices are the “ingrained habits or bits of tacit knowledge”
(ibid:8) which constitute the activity. Much of the literature on strategy as practice

Strategy as practice: Recursiveness, adaptation and strategic practices-in-use. Paula Jarzabkowski

actually deals with practices, those socio-cultural artefacts through which strategy is
instantiated. For example, Whittington (1996) advises us to look at the form filling and
number crunching involved in doing strategy, and Hendry (2000) recommends strategy
documents and other formalised types of strategic discourse as empirical artefacts that
provide insight into practice. The theoretical rationale for a study of practices may be
found in activity theory.

Activity theory premises that psychological development is a social process arising

from an individual’s interactions within particular historical and cultural contexts
(Vygotsky, 1978). Interaction provides an interpretative basis from which individuals
attribute meaning to their own and others actions (Vygotsky, 1978; Wertsch, 1985).
The outcome of interaction is practical activity, being the purposive, outcome-oriented
work in which actors engage (Kozulin, 1990; Leontiev, 1978; Zinchenko, 1983).
Interaction is enabled through the technical and psychological tools that actors use to
engage with their environments (Engestrom, 1993; Kozulin, 1990). The use of such
tools is practical, being directed towards constructing outcome-oriented activity. Since
these ‘tools’ are used to establish practical activity, they may be defined as the practices
through which activity is constructed.

If we marry activity theory’s emphasis on the practices through which activity is

constructed with de Certeau’s (1984) notions of bricolage, we may better conceptualise
how strategic practices are used by practitioners to construct strategy. Analogously, this
interaction may be considered as the toolkit, the homebuilder, and the ‘do-it-yourself’
project. The homebuilder sets out to build a conservatory with normative
considerations of what this structure is, regulatory influences from town planning
authorities, and personal taste. The resulting edifice will combine these institutional and
individual aspects of intent with contextual features, such as terrain, space constraints,
and existing structure. Equally, however, the outcome will be influenced by
characteristics of use, such as the skill and resourcefulness of the homebuilder in using
the tools and materials available for construction. The tools and materials do not create
the practice but mediate its usage and outcomes in a given context. Similarities in
construction are likely to be due to institutional influences and access to broadly similar
tools and materials while differences will be more attributable to context and the skill
involved in usage.

Strategy as practice: Recursiveness, adaptation and strategic practices-in-use. Paula Jarzabkowski

What then, are the tools and practices used by strategic practitioners to construct
strategy? In this paper, we identify the strategy toolkit as those frameworks, techniques
and practices that are the basis of many strategy textbooks and teaching. While other
interpretations of the strategy toolkit might be derived, this definition has resonance
since, in an annual Bain and Company survey into management tools and practices,
senior executives are found to draw upon such tools (Rigby, 2001). There has been a
proliferation of management practices over the last century. These range from the
Taylorist views of efficient labour management, to the planning schools of the 1960s
and 70s that offer rational techniques for strategy formulation and resource allocation,
to the more recent, process focused tools of just-in-time, quality circles and core
competences. These tools have both technical, object-focused uses and psychological,
subject-focused uses. For example, tools such as divisionalisation, enterprise resource
planning, and strategic architecture platforms are oriented towards the arrangement and
coordination of material resources. By contrast, conceptual schema, such as Porter’s
(1980) five forces, Boston boxes, and scenario planning assist strategists to generate
meaning from and impose meaning upon their surroundings. While these distinctions
are not totally discrete, management practices may be seen as the repertoire of
‘strategic utensils’ through which strategic practitioners may display knowledge and
skill in constructing strategic activity.

Strategic practices as mediators of recursive and adaptive practice

Strategic practices are implicated in the recursiveness and adaptation that characterises
strategy as practice. Whittington (2001b) suggests that strategic practices are regular,
socially-defined modes of acting while Jarzabkowski and Wilson (2002) focus upon
them at the within-firm level as the formal operating procedures and planning
mechanisms involved in key strategy processes of direction setting, resource allocation,
and monitoring and control. These two perspectives, one aimed at the macro,
institutionalised uses of practices and one dealing with the micro, localised uses of
practices are key to understanding their role in recursive and adaptive practice. We now
examine each of these in turn.

Strategic practices are part of the macro-contexts of what is going on in a society,

arising from co-production within different communities of practice; industry,

Strategy as practice: Recursiveness, adaptation and strategic practices-in-use. Paula Jarzabkowski

academia, consultants, and the press, each with some common points of discourse.
They are diffused through the teachings and research of business schools, their use by
consultancy firms, and through management fashion (Abrahamson, 1996) in which the
popular press plays a part (Mazza and Alvarez, 2000). Particular types of practices may
become institutionalised during different periods of social evolution. For example, the
ideologies underlying prevalent practices have been associated with wider economic
expansions and contractions and broad cultural shifts (Barley and Kunda, 1992).
During an economic upswing when profitability is related to management of capital,
rational practices that focus upon efficient structures and technologies are prevalent.
Conversely, during economic downswings there is emphasis on normative practices
related to the management of labour. This perspective relates management practices to
wider social events and explains their rapid diffusion, or ‘fashion’ during particular
periods, illustrating how ‘best practice’ spreads from macro to multiple micro contexts.
As per our earlier argument, plurality of macro contexts is implied since management
ideologies are characterised by inconsistency and contradiction. Interplay between
ideologies explains the dynamics of ideological change (ibid). Institutional fields are,
therefore, not hegemonous but pluralistic and contradictory, providing opportunity for
variation in management practices (cf. Dacin et al, 2002).

Strategic practices also form part of the localised context of what people are doing.
They occur within particular companies. For example, the introduction of scenario
planning to the business arena is widely attributed to Royal Dutch Shell, where it was
adopted to counteract tendencies for recursiveness in managerial cognition. Some
practices, such as the BCG portfolio matrix, originated in consultancy firms and were
subsequently widely adopted. Practices particular to national cultures have been
recognised as productive and so become more widely assimilated, such as the Japanese
techniques of kaizen and kanban. Still other practices are uniquely associated with a
particular academic, as with the five forces, which are indelibly Michael Porter’s
(1980). Such practices occur in localised ways and then are articulated, evolved, and
given a wider presence through their usage, creating diffusion from micro to macro
contexts. For example, knowledge management is being articulated in a multitude of
practices from core competences to intrapreneuring, self-managed teams, and even
communities of practice (for example, Prahalad and Hamel 1990; Nonaka, 1994;
Wenger and Snyder, 2000), which are associated with a knowledge economy.

Strategy as practice: Recursiveness, adaptation and strategic practices-in-use. Paula Jarzabkowski

The proliferation of practices in macro and micro contexts may be considered an

interaction between what people are doing in different communities and the zeitgeist of
what is happening in society, that is, the dominant ideologies of a particular era. While
there is always the urge to converge, evident in terms such as best practice and
benchmarking, there is also ontinual evolution of new practices within particular
communities. While current literatures suggest that firms in high velocity environments
are evolving new strategic practices (for example, Brown and Eisenhardt, 1997;
Eisenhardt and Martin, 2000; Eisenhardt and Sull, 2001; Pascale, 1999), Mintzberg
(1993) notes that every turn in strategic management from the design school onwards
has evolved new practices on the premise that their era is characterised by greater
complexity in which the old rules are no longer relevant. Adaptation appears chronic in
the doing of strategy, with communities continuously seeking new practices or ways of
doing strategy in order to evolve better practice. Strategic practices are not beset by the
stasis of attainment implied in best practice, but by the ongoing teleology of
‘becoming’ inherent in better practice. We may therefore study how they are used and
adapted, why they persist or become obsolete, and when new practices are developed,
as a means of penetrating the recursive and adaptive modes of strategy as practice.

Section three: Towards a research agenda for strategy as practice

Building upon the discussion of practices and of practitioners engaged in usage, in this
section we develop a research agenda for strategy as practice based around an
investigation of strategic practices-in-use. While the literature on strategic tools and
techniques is widespread and diverse, rather little is known about tools in use. Extant
research is often prescriptive, using tools and techniques to explain how strategy
‘should be’, but is rather less concerned with how they are actually used in particular
contexts and what influence this has on strategy as practice. Yet a study of strategic
practices-in-use would illuminate practice, bringing to the foreground the interplay
between strategic practitioners and their various communities of practice as they
engage in recursive and adaptive modes of strategic action.

Strategic business planning provides an example of the relationship between strategic

practices and strategy as practice. It has been a prevalent practice in the literature since
the 1960s as both a technical tool for the designation of material resources and a

Strategy as practice: Recursiveness, adaptation and strategic practices-in-use. Paula Jarzabkowski

conceptual tool for the interpretation and diffusion of strategic action. Strategic
planning originated as an essentially rational approach to strategising through diagnosis
and forecasting, strategy formulation, resource allocation, and strategy implementation
(cf. Andrews, 1971; Ansoff, 1965; Bower, 1970). Subsequently, it has been the subject
of considerable academic debate, criticised because its predictive assumptions do not
reflect the uncertainty of strategy in practice (Mintzberg, 1990; 1994) and defended
because it was designed to assist practitioners to engage with uncertainty (Ansoff,
1991). While Mintzberg (1987) contends that strategic planning ignores thinking in
action, other authors suggest that planning can indeed aid strategic thinking if it is used
to provide synthesis between thought and action, that is, for putting practitioner
thinking into action (Heracleous, 1998; Liedtka and Rosenblum, 1996). While the
academic community of practice has debated the merits of strategic planning, the
community of strategic practitioners has continued to use it. The annual Bain and
Company survey of management tools and techniques finds that strategic planning is
consistently popular. In 1999 it ranked first out of 25 common practices, being the
principal technique used by 81% of managers worldwide (Rigby, 2001).

How should we interpret this finding? Does it mean that managers are so subject to
recursive modes of thought, either for individual, organisational or institutional reasons,
that they continue to use an obsolete practice from the 1960s? It is more likely that
strategic planning has persisted through the economic and cultural shifts of the past 40
years because it is a flexible practice that may adapt to changing circumstances and
contextual contingencies. Its potential adaptability is as diverse as the contexts in which
it is used. For example, firms in high velocity environments that are characterised by
dynamism and discontinuous change (Bourgeois and Eisenhardt, 1988), such as
telecommunications tend to use strategic planning in less formal, fast-paced and
experience-based ways that enable practitioners to cope with rapidly shifting
environments (cf. Eisenhardt and Brown, 1998; Eisenhardt and Sull, 2001). Firms with
extended value chains are likely to link strategic planning to internal architectures of
enterprise resource planning and data-mining, using it for more efficient coordination
and projection of resources (Pereira, 1999; Teo and King, 1997). Still other firms in
regulated environments, such as privatised utilities and public sector organisations, may
use strategic planning as a means of demonstrating accountability and transparency to
regulators and government authorities (Oakes et al, 1998).

Strategy as practice: Recursiveness, adaptation and strategic practices-in-use. Paula Jarzabkowski

These varied institutional and environmental parameters suggest that quite different
uptakes and uses of strategic planning that indicate evolution from its initial theoretical
provenance as a tool for rational action. Inside individual firms, strategic planning may
be further altered in accordance with the intentions of practitioners and the
considerations of context. For example, strategic planning has evolved into strategic
story-telling at 3M to meet the company’s needs for strategy diffusion, creativity, and
innovation (Shaw et al, 1998). This may influence firm actions since the adaptive use
of strategic planning to incorporate strategic creativity has been found to increase the
capacity of firms such as GE Capital to grasp acquisition opportunities (Beinhocker and
Kaplan, 2002). Strategic planning is, thus, a practice with generic characteristics in
macro strategic contexts but also adaptable to the skill and bricolage inherent in micro-
contexts, developing locally specific and contingent uses.

Other examples of adaptive, localised use of strategic practices may be found. For
example, Skandia has developed its own version of the balanced scorecard, the Skandia
Navigator, which attempts to capture and manage intellectual capital and futurizing
within the firm (Earl and Nahapiet, 1999; Nahapiet, 2001). Kostova and Roth (2002)
found that, despite the broader institutional context, there is a strongly localised
component in the adoption and use of TQM practices, even within the same
corporation. These adaptive, localised uses of practices are able to diffuse between
plural macro and micro contexts through international business awards, professional
networks, management teaching cases, academic research and the business media.
Strategic practices thus reflect both the dominant modes of practice in any given era
and also the individual skilled and knowledgeable uses of practices that contribute to
the ongoing becoming of practice.

Operationalising the research agenda: studying strategic practices

In Figure 1, the relationship between macro and micro contexts and strategic practices-
in-use is conceptually modelled. The usage of strategic practices by skilled and
knowledgeable strategic practitioners is positioned at the nexus of plural macro and
micro contexts of practice. Interactions between macro and micro contexts in the usage
of practices generates a stream of strategic action that may either be prone to greater
recursiveness, becoming more stable and practiced, or be involved in the adaptive

Strategy as practice: Recursiveness, adaptation and strategic practices-in-use. Paula Jarzabkowski

practice by which strategic action evolves and changes. We maintain that a study of
strategic practices-in-use is a primary entry point to empirically investigate this model.


Practices provide a more rigorous basis of comparison for strategy as practice than an
attempt to study practice itself or even to study strategic practitioners. Drawing upon
surveys such as that of Bain and Company, commonly used strategic practices may be
defined and their theoretical properties identified in the academic literature, serving as a
benchmark against which to compare their actual use. Through observation of
practices-in-use, we may examine the knowledge, skill and bricolage of practitioners as
they engage in recursive or adaptive modes of strategy as practice. Some research
questions we might ask across a sample of firms are:

1. What strategic practices are commonly used, in order to identify the degree to
which particular practices have diffused into localised contexts;
2. Who uses practices, which would help to define who might be termed a
strategic practitioner and the degree to which usage is distributed throughout the
levels of a firm;
3. Why are these practices used, establishing the practitioner intent and normative
rationales for selecting particular practices;
4. How are the practices used, developing an understanding of the generic and
localised uses of practices, their adaptation to context, and the skill and
bricolage of the practitioners in using them in different situations;
5. Under what circumstances are established practices found to be obsolete, and
why do new practices emerge?

Such questions would provide the basis for robust multiple-site comparison and
contrast of the practice of strategy and the skill of strategic practitioners. By contrast,
an attempt to study either strategy as practice or strategic practitioners in different
contexts is beset by methodological problems in defining comparative criteria on which
to examine the doing of strategy. It is of little benefit to find that ‘strategy is done
differently’ since we wish to know what is done differently, how it is done differently,
why it is done differently and, most importantly, what is the point of generic similarity

Strategy as practice: Recursiveness, adaptation and strategic practices-in-use. Paula Jarzabkowski

from which difference may be understood. Practices provide the generic similarity of
identifiable artefacts. As with the example of strategic planning, the study of practices-
in-use illuminates contextual influences upon practice, how individual practitioners
deploy practice, and provides a basis for relating these specific micro-findings to
dominant and changing ideologies in society. Therefore, we propose that the study of
strategy as practice is well served by beginning with strategic practices-in-use as the
primary unit of analysis.

A research agenda into strategic practices responds to recent calls by the academic
community and the research funding bodies for management research that is both
academically challenging and intimately connected with and relevant to the concerns of
practice (cf. Pettigrew, 1996; Rynes et al, 2001; Starkey and Madan, 2001). In
focussing upon strategic practices-in-use, we move the study of strategy as practice
from richly detailed single case studies of doing strategy, that, while fascinating, are
hard to relate to wider circumstances other than at the conceptual level. Instead, we
have a means of developing equally rich but also methodologically robust comparisons
of doing strategy in multiple case studies that may be practically as well as
conceptually related to wider issues. While the former allows us to take strategists and
their work seriously, the latter also permits us to come closer to the concerns of these
strategists to develop better practice. Comparative analysis may highlight more or less
effective uses of practices, differential skill levels, and the applicability, adaptation, or
obsolescence of practices within particular activities or contexts. In particular we may
develop a link between practice and performance by analysing tendencies towards
recursive or adaptive usage of practices and the impact this has upon strategic action
over time. Such analyses are both theoretically important and have practical
implications for cross firm and cross sector learning about the nature and uses of
strategy as practice.

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Strategy as practice: Recursiveness, adaptation and strategic practices-in-use. Paula Jarzabkowski

Table 1: Recursive practice in social theory and strategic management literature

Social theories Contributions to strategy as practice Examples in strategy literature

Structuration Practice is durable because of: Individual:
(Giddens, 1984). • Ontological security of actors; • Bounded cognition
Habitus • Reciprocal interaction between • Heuristics
(Bourdieu, agent and structure are • Cognitive recipes
1990). embedded within the daily • Procedural memory
routines of practice; Organisational
• Sedimented structures are self- • Strategic routines
reinforcing; • Organisational memory
• Social institutions persist across • Resource deepening
time and space. • Core rigidities
Therefore, strategy as practice is Social Institutions
recursive, routinised and prone to • Institutional isomorphism
inertia. • Industry recipes
• Cognitive groups

Strategy as practice: Recursiveness, adaptation and strategic practices-in-use. Paula Jarzabkowski

Table 2: Adaptive practice in social theory and strategic management literature

Social theories Contributions to strategy as Examples in strategy

practice literature
Social becoming • Social movement occurs through • Strategy process
(Sztompka, 1991). interaction between macro and • Strategic choice
Modernity, pluralism micro contexts. • Resource-based view
(Giddens, 1991). • There are many macro-contexts, • Knowledge-based
Communities of thus social institutions are view
practice (Brown and divergent. • Dynamic capabilities
Duguid, 1991; 2001; • Micro contexts are prone to • Organisational
Lave and Wenger, adaptation and learning through learning
1991; Wenger, 1998). internal tensions generated from • New forms of
problems or the displacement organizing
and renewal of members. • Time-pacing in
Therefore, strategy as practice is dynamic markets
adaptive, flexible and prone to • Patching
learning and becoming.

Strategy as practice: Recursiveness, adaptation and strategic practices-in-use. Paula Jarzabkowski

Table 3: Social theory contributions to the study of strategy as practice

Entry points Social theory Contributions to the study of strategy as practice

Strategic • Giddens • Practitioners are knowledgeable, purposive
practitioners (1984) and reflexive.
• Bourdieu • Practitioners have different skill levels in their
(1990) ability to anticipate, draw upon and use
• de Certeau practice.
(1984) • Differential skill is best seen in the context of
usage and the bricolage that applies to
ordinary, everyday practice.
Therefore, we may study strategy as practice by
examining strategic practitioners using the
artefacts of practice within a given context.
Strategic practices • Turner (1994) • Practice is instantiated through practices.
• Vygotsky • Practices are the technical and psychological
(1978) tools that mediate the objects and subjects of
• Engestrom practical activity.
(1993) • Practices may be developed with a particular
• de Certeau intent that applies to a macro context but this
(1984) is mutable to the micro-context and
circumstances of usage, providing interplay
between contexts.
Therefore, we may study strategy as practice by
conceptualising strategic practices as
management tools and techniques and examining
how these are used in different strategic contexts.

Strategy as practice: Recursiveness, adaptation and strategic practices-in-use. Paula Jarzabkowski

Figure 1: Conceptual model of strategy as practice

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