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Bénédicte Deryckere

DBA Graduate - 2018

Thesis title

Linking Thinking with Doing: Strategic Cognition and Strategic Management of Societal Issues - The Case of Public Health -


Caroline Gauthier
Firms have a role in society and addressing growing societal concerns requires strategic and radical change. However, research shows that this change does not occur at the individual level - when facing societal issues, managers rarely push for strategic change - what happens then at the organizational level? Strategic cognition is usually used to enter the “black box” of decision-making, linking cognitive structures with strategy formulation and strategic change, but how and why organizations address societal issues remains underexplored. Empirical studies in the context of societal issues are rare and offer few insights into why certain firms belonging to the same field and confronted with the same societal issue take more strategic actions than others. Based on a qualitative, inductive and multiple case comparative analysis of the strategy formulation of 10 multinational companies active in the Consumer Goods industry, cognitive structures are inductively defined and conceptualized using theoretical constructs provided by existing literature in strategic management and organization studies. This conceptualization allows for cross case comparisons and a first accumulation of knowledge on the differences in strategy formulation. In a second phase, the linkages between cognitive structures and strategy formulation are explicitly addressed through an inductive and in-depth analysis of the cognitive process through which more than thirty top managers make sense of a societal issue and address this issue on behalf of their organization. Finally, the two most contrasted cases are longitudinally studied and compared to identify the factors and processes leading to strategic change.Substantial differences in strategy formulation are found between firms belonging to the same field and addressing the same societal issue. Two cognitive structures – the strategy frame of the enterprise logic and the organizational identity emerge from this study as concomitantly influencing and explaining differences in firm responsiveness. Explicitly addressing the linkage between cognitive structure and strategy formulation, empirical evidence is provided that whereas the enterprise logic influences strategy formulation through a mechanism of cognitive alignment, the organizational identity influences strategy formulation through an orientation logic. Firms responding more strategically to a societal issue depict a complex enterprise logic centered on innovation and long-term value, structurally align the issue with the strategy frame of their enterprise logic, and are characterized by a collectivistic and pragmatic organizational identity orientation. Firms responding more tactically, depict a simpler enterprise logic centered on competitive advantage and economic growth, superficially align the issue with their enterprise logic, and are characterized by an individualistic or relational organizational identity orientation. These findings are reinforced by the comparison of two extreme cases in the tobacco industry. The longitudinal exploration of the two polar cases reveals three stages of strategic cognition – denial, externalization, and internalization – and the instrumental role of the organizational purpose in fostering strategic change. Data shows that the strategic decision to internalize a societal issue induces a modification of the organizational purpose of the firm to embrace the paradox inherent to the issue. This triggers strong interweaving dynamics between both the firm’s strategy work and identity work, leading to a substantial alteration of the cognitive structures and triggering strategic change. Finally, this research leads to an integrative and dynamic model of firm responsiveness to societal issues, which links strategy and identity related constructs (organizational purpose, enterprise logic, organizational identity) with core processes in strategic cognition and strategic management (strategy formulation, strat