Sustainability as it relates to strategy research and practice today

This year’s Strategic Management Society (SMS) International Conference held from September 28th to 2nd October in Atlanta, Georgia. Located conveniently in the downtown, at the OMNI hotel next to the global headquarter of CNN, the conference drew 903 total attendees from 41 different countries. About half of attendants (47%) were from outside the North America. The pre conference activities started with a series of workshops ran from morning until afternoon. I attended the workshop on “competitive strategy junior faculty and paper development workshop”, which set to help early careers with developing their research portfolio. In addition to paper development sessions, the workshop included two panel discussions. The panels focused on how to develop and sustain a robust research agenda and there were some discussions about the future trends in completive strategy. For instance, Bert Cannella from ASU suggested several themes that might be more important in future research of competitive strategy including; competitive dynamics, network analysis, strategic leadership and governance. This discussion was a chance for attendees to get to ask all the burning questions that there may not have been time for earlier in the day.

The opening day of the conference included a series of ’interest group’ sessions. I found one of the most inspiring and informative sessions to be one outside my comfort zone. I’ve worked on innovations, but the session featuring “strategies in the digital age” was fascinating. Featuring panelists from Dartmouth (Ron Adner), IESE Business School (Bruno Cassiman) and Harvard Business School (Andrei Hagiu, Juan Alcacer), it was interesting to hear fresh thinking on how platforms, ecosystems and social networks are emerging as competitive tools in multiple industries. The panel who were a group of pioneers in the field described how this new competitive landscape brings challenges and opportunities to develop new conceptual frameworks, test previous theories and push our understanding of industry dynamics and competitive strategy. I also found a very valuable session on one of the “knowledge and innovation” interest group sessions, which was a conversation with Linda Argote about organisational learning. Linda, the author of “organisational learning”, is quite well known in this field and the session dedicated entirely to a series of Q&A by two PhD students asking her questions on her contribution in this field covering almost 30 years of her career. Linda is best known for her contribution to learning curve theory, knowledge transfer and transactive memory system (TMS). I found the session very inspiring. The first plenary track was focused on “The future of Strategy in a transient advantage world” and delivered by the panelists from academia (Rita McGrath, Columbia University) and industry (Ryan McManus, Accenture and V. Subramanian, Infosys) who laid out their perspectives of what strategy means when advantages are short-lived.

Perhaps the most striking presentation was one by Clayton Christensen (Harvard Business School), author of “The Innovator’s Dilemma”, during the 2nd day of the plenary session, who first discussed the process of building a theory, and then more specifically he referred to the case of disruptive innovations and building his theory of disruptions. Clay made fundamental point that it is important in building a theory to find where the anomalies are and to see if any predictions can be made. He also emphasised the role of his students in helping him to clarify and reflect on his work. This year Clay was recipient of CK Prahalad Award. Within the same session, Lifetime Achievement Award was awarded to Neville Isdell, who is the former chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola Company where he worked for 43 years (by the way Atlanta is birth place of Coca-Cola and there is an interesting Coca-Cola museum in the city). Unfortunately he couldn’t personally attend the session due to health issues but the attendees could watch his recorded 20 minute video. He expanded on the company’s proud legacy of corporate responsibility by embedding sustainability throughout every facet of the organisation. Indeed, Strategy and Sustainability was the main theme of this year conference and there were good conversations around this theme.

SMS conference Clayton Christensen presenting at Plenary Session

I also found valuable sessions on what can be done with business models and how they can create insight into issues of sustainability of firms and of communities. I think this is important as to examine how managers should think more effectively using business models, to generate wealth and to cope with the need for change and create competitive opportunities. It was interesting to hear critical thinking on this topic. Also a session with the editors of the SMS journals (SMJ along with the SEJ and GSJ) about the future of research and publication in the field of strategy was informative. The editors emphasised that whole range of papers are welcome but lack of novelty is the biggest issue in accepting a paper. After a long day, the night event took place at the Georgia Aquarium, which is said to be the biggest aquarium in the world. Attendees had exclusive after-hours access to the aquarium’s galleries and experienced dining alongside whale, sharks and living reefs.

During last day of the conference, key speakers of the plenary track provided some insights from industry and academia addressing ecological challenges and societal needs using innovative strategies. In this plenary, industry executive from GE and UPS and Stuart Hart (Cornell University) discussed the question “is green green”? The discussion surrounded more on how these companies are putting new strategies into action to drive societal impact. For example, by combining technological innovation with new business processes, GE is helping power producers achieve cleaner energy at the supply side of the energy and UPS is providing customers with innovative technology to reduce its carbon footprints. Overall, as strategy and sustainability was the main theme there were interesting insights into sustainability as it relates to strategy research and practice today.

In total around 450 papers in various areas of strategy presented, which covered a wide range of topics. Entrepreneurship and strategy stream followed a wide range, from strategic entrepreneurship in small businesses to recognising challenges of international entrepreneurship. In particular this year the questions concerning financing entrepreneurship received some attentions. For example, Joseph Mahoney and Yong-Li discussed what unique insights does real options theory offer concerning financing entrepreneurship? The focus mainly was on the use of option logic to complement theories of advantage with particular attention considering timing advantages. At the same time innovation/technology and strategic entrepreneurship received good number of papers. Presenters emphasised that there are still challenges to advanced theory building and the need to clarify the process through which opportunities are identified and pursued. Interesting paper presented in particular to develop a system-based framework that reveals the topographic structure of knowledge flows within and across organisational boundaries. This type of study basically helps in understanding the nature and role of knowledge in entrepreneurial organisations. Overall, the conference content and structure were what we should expect from a SMS international conference.

Many thanks to Dr. Kavoos Mohannak, QUT Business School for contributing this story