Four ways digital technologies are changing strategy-making

2 February 2023

The ubiquity of digital technologies in the workplace has precipitated employees and other stakeholders into deeper involvement in strategy-making; a role that has been traditionally limited to the corporate ‘elite’.

Enabled by digital technologies, so-called ‘open strategy’ initiatives are showing greater transparency (more accessibility and visibility of strategic information) and inclusion (involving more people in strategy processes). From a theoretical and practical perspective, studying such initiatives is important as they signal a significant change in the nature of strategy work, and we still understand little about how and why they are occurring on a greater scale, and the role digital technologies play within. To address this, we have had the opportunity to explore such open strategy initiatives through our Digit Innovation Fund project, building on previous work in this area by the research team.

Using surveys, interviews, academic literature, and archival data, we explored how a range of stakeholders in organisations are using digital technology in strategy processes. This led us to consider two crucial, overarching questions: 1. Who is involved in strategy-making in organisations today?  and, 2. what role are digital technologies having as strategy-making becomes more transparent and inclusive? We found three main types of actors involved in strategy – each with different roles, and four different roles that digital technologies play in transparent and inclusive strategy making. We set these out below.

Three groups involved in strategy-making in organisations today

The initiators are people we found to be ‘typically’ involved in strategy in organisations as part of their everyday role. In our cases, this included a mix of executives and board members, internal consultants, senior managers, middle managers, and non-executive directors and these actors are those who also make a conscious decision to ‘open up’ strategy-making to a wider range of actors.

The Contributors  are those not ‘typically’ involved in strategy, who may be classed as ‘erstwhile non-strategists’ and are invited to have some involvement in strategy-making as it becomes more transparent and/or inclusive. We found this category of actors included lower-level managers, employees, customers, partner organisations, and suppliers.

The intermediaries are those who facilitate strategy-making by deploying and managing digital technologies that are to be used as strategy-making is ‘opened’. In our data, this included senior managers and middle managers (showing that some actors took on a dual role as initiators and intermediaries), IT personnel, specialist communication teams, internal and external consultants, research teams, and external subject matter experts.

The role of digital technologies in making strategy-making more transparent and inclusive

We identified four different roles of digital technology in strategy-making.

1 Circulation

We found digital technology is being used asynchronously to enable initiators (e.g., one manager or a group of managers) to generate content and share this inside and/or outside their organisation. This offers potential for contributors (e.g., various employees and/or customers) to respond such as through ‘likes’ or comments. We saw different types of digital technologies being used here, often in combination. These included social media platforms, microblogging platforms, blogs/Vlogs, and online newsletters. For example, at a multinational insurance company, we found that an intranet platform was being used to allow senior managers to communicate their strategic vision for the years ahead with all employees. The platform enabled staff to see updates regarding strategy and to watch videos and interviews with senior management and leave comments. The platform was developed and managed by the organisation’s communications team.

2 Propagation

We also found that digital technology enables initiators to generate content that is disseminated in real-time inside and/or outside an organisation with the potential for commenting and/or Q&A from contributors. A range of digital technologies were being used here, often in combination, such as enterprise social media platforms, microblogging platforms, online blogs, Vlogs, and email newsletters. For example, at a fast-moving consumer goods giant, a large internal leadership conference, which has been established for many years, has more recently been ‘opened’ so that all employees worldwide can view the sessions and meetings. Digital channel experts acted as intermediaries to develop and set-up an internal social collaboration platform to be used for opening the conference. Various presentations and meetings from hundreds of senior managers showcased business strategy and vision and allowed comments and questions from the wider ‘contributors’.

3 Ideation

Here, digital technology enables multiple actors (i.e., both initiators and contributors) to generate content inside and/or outside organisations, iteratively – one interaction at a time. For example, we saw various instances of online systems and intranets being used for posting and commenting about strategy issues. These included discussions on email lists, ideas being developed in online wikis, in online forums, within specialist strategy online communities, on social media, using project management software, and through voice capture and listening tools. We witnessed this ideation at a multinational technology company, who have long used a crowdsourcing process to allow employees and external stakeholders (e.g., clients, suppliers, partners) to share their opinions and ideas on strategic issues. Issues are typically pre-determined by ‘initiators’ and therefore some hierarchy is maintained, with senior managers running the events and also contributing to the discussions.

4 Co-determination

Here, digital technology enables multiple actors (i.e., both initiators and contributors) to generate content at the same time or in real-time, with changes immediately perceivable. For example, we saw live discussions and debates around strategy taking place via video conferencing, in face-to-face meetings mediated by PowerPoint, through meetings using digital mapping technologies, and through live chat technologies. One prominent example in our data was at a global professional services firm, where over 4,000 partners and employees were collaborating and discussing strategy issues in real-time using an internal chat and video platform. The platform was set-up by the organisation’s communications team.

Digital technologies are changing the nature of interactions

Overall, having identified who is involved in strategy-making in organisations today, and the role that digital technologies are having as such processes become more transparent and inclusive, we recognise that much of this comes down to differences in the nature of interactions that digital technologies enable in strategy-making. Digital  technologies can be  used to enable both asynchronous and real-time interactions, such as through strategic information being shared with opportunities for gradual commenting, or through live Q&A.

We also saw opportunities for strategy content to be developed; sometimes this was produced through incremental posts on an online platform, and other times it was through live discussions taking place in real-time. This also shows a difference in interaction being about the role of the individual in strategy-making (e.g., producing or commenting on strategy issues), or this being a shared process through digital technologies involving multiple people at the same time.

As we continue to develop our findings, we hope to further explore such differences in interaction, to better understand the role of different actor groups and digital technology use in strategy-making.

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