Sociomaterial struggles at the frontline of strategy : a postphenomenological view of practice and power. (2022)
An important line of inquiry aligned with the ‘strategy as practice’ domain considers how strategy work is an exercise in power. Applying a lens influenced by—among others—Foucault, such work shows how actors shape their identities through and in relation to strategic discourses. Upper echelon managers discursively construct themselves as strategists, holding power over the subjectivities of those involved in implementing strategy. These discourses thus also work to shape the roles, identities and actions of these lower echelon actors to align with strategic intent. In turn, these same actors then construct their own identities in relation to these dominant discourses. Some studies build upon this position by attending to the role of technologies (e.g., accounting systems) in these flows of power, highlighting how such systems impose ways of working and thinking, and so define identities. However, such studies tend to dichotomise control and resistance, and tacitly view technology as an embodiment of pre-existing managerial intent. This under-emphasises the relational, co-productive nature of power and of technology’s role therein.
This thesis aims to develop such an emphasis. I adopt a strong view of sociomateriality which sees the social and material as ontologically entangled. This is informed by Heideggerian conceptualisations, and also by ideas from ‘postphenomenology’, a school which further develops Heideggerian thought while also considering Foucauldian power in relation to technology use. Working with these ideas allows me to conceptualise human and technology as co-constitutive of (and within) the struggles that take shape as power flows through an organisation.
Adopting this position, I examine ‘sociomaterial struggles’ in a study of frontline practitioners in a subsidiary company of a multinational health technology firm. Over 10-months, I collected their self-reported accounts of working with a new software suite as part of a ‘digital customer engagement strategy’. Analysing these accounts as ‘narratives of practices’, I show how the sense of self of each practitioner was first threatened and then (re)claimed through their individual, idiosyncratic relations with the technology—specifically, relations that set up struggles over subjectivities through a play of technology mediated objectivities, technology mediated intersubjectivities, and technology mediated subjectivities. Their stories weave together to reveal how the praxis that unfolded through these struggles shaped the local work of strategy. Overall, my thesis extends our understanding of how strategy is accomplished, attending to workers’ involvements with novel managerial ‘technologies of control’. It also contributes to theory, specifically to theorising power/resistance in strategy on the basis of a strong sociomaterial ontology.
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