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Strategizing in a Focused context: Whither generalizability?

Due date for Submission: May 1, 2016

Guest Editors

Daniel Degravel, California State University – Northridge ([email protected])
Lalit Manral, University of Central Oklahoma ([email protected])
John Parnell, University of North Carolina – Pembroke ([email protected])

The Call

Current mainstream research in strategy

The mainstream strategy literature has traditionally emphasized a ‘general theory’ approach to developing concepts (e.g., competitive advantage, dynamic capabilities, business models, innovation eco-systems, positioning, resource-based view, upper echelons perspective, evolutionary theory, etc.) and their empirical validation. Despite the emphasis on considering the entire economy and searching for absolute generalization the literature continues to produce an increasing array of concepts that seek to illuminate a variety of observed phenomena related to superior firm performance (e.g., investments, competition, innovation, alliances, mergers and acquisitions, and diversification). However, the emphasis on developing and testing generalizable propositions for purpose of theory building often compels empirical researchers to conduct inter-industry studies of firm behavior and performance. The main criticism of this approach is that it produces a limited number of generalizable predictions that do not render themselves easily amenable to managerial applications. Potential for use constitutes one critical aspect of scientific quality. Thus mainstream strategy literature often fails to address the specificity of the context in which companies operate. The trade-off between generalizability and precision often shifts in favor of generalizability. By doing so, we gain in generalization what we lose in precision and, therefore, in relevance.

A trend towards ‘focused’ research

Focused research in strategy can be defined as “any research that focuses on one or several subsets of organizations as an object of strategic study instead of englobing indistinctively the entire set of existing organizations”. This focused context can be external and relates to the relationship of the organization with its environment and other players, but also internal, through variables that can constitute valuable lines of division among organizations. For example, Mintzberg, studying firms’ organizations, has created typologies of organizations based on structural dimensions such as formalization or decentralization.

The richness and variety of internal and external contexts has stimulated a large number of ‘focused’ empirical studies that have adopted a hybrid approach of stylized theory with an emphasis on generalizable findings. The “stylized theory enables relatively precise predictions due to a sharper focus. By focusing on a particular context (often the industry criterion is used), researchers can observe more details and the theory imposes tighter restrictions on real world data. Hence, even though the sample of organizations that is studied does not intend to be representative of the entire economy, such a study generates useful examples to understand, to illustrate the focal issues, and to make valuable recommendations to the relevant players (the so-called “Managerial implications” section).

This research may select various criteria of selection for a subset of organizations, among which the industry criterion immediately comes to mind. Other possible criteria include: 1) Size of organization; 2) Meso-economic level (e.g. production industries vs. service industries); 3) Public or private ownership; 4) Type of governance; 5) Status of organization (for profit vs. nonprofit); 6) Geography; 7) Structural attributes such as decentralization, structure type; or formalization; 8) Organizational culture type; 9) Technology type; and 10) Any dimension that has the potential to create clusters of business organizations.

Is focused research valuable?

We believe that such a research is valuable because it is useful and valid from a scientific standpoint.

The usefulness of theory development is emphasized in the epistemological literature and often forgotten in quantitative studies using sophisticated statistics to confirm hypotheses so large and disconnected from the contexts that managerial implications vanish. Reversely, in a focused research, selecting/preparing a theory for a specific (internal and/or external) context and empirically researching organizations members of the created subset creates richness and relevance of findings.

Several dimensions in contextual variations can be used simultaneously. For example, firms selling widgets may differ not only in terms of their institutional environment but also in terms of the geographic markets they serve. In an increasingly complex world, firms in a typical industry serve a variety of customers, operate in a variety of markets and geographies, using internally various managerial tools, structures, and processes.

From a scientific viewpoint, the reduction of the research scope does not influence the scientific quality of the findings, as long as all the principles of validity and reliability are respected. The generalizability to the entire set of organizations is not automatic but depends on the studied topic. Sometimes, partial generalization is possible under certain conditions. If total generalization is not possible, we still have valid findings applicable to organizations within a sub-set of the economy. “Absolute” generalization (for the entire economy) can be considered as a “scientific bonus” if we can achieve it but that reward should not come at the price of zero relevance for managers. Despite a few concerns regarding its applicability towards developing causal theories, it seems that editors of the mainstream strategy journals tend to now accept single-industry research.

What is expected?

We expect conceptual and empirical studies to provide insights into non-general strategies that are specific and unique to the context in which they are formulated and deployed. The varied contexts featured in these studies can range from industrial (i.e., a specific industry) to narrower market-level (i.e., product- or geographic sub-markets) or even niche-level idiosyncratic contexts. Conceptual papers should provide a theoretical explanation of the adaptations and adjustments of the strategy that firms in a particular context design and deploy. This strategy may have to depart from the prescribed models of general strategy.

Empirical papers must provide empirical evidence of non-general strategies in the real-world and generate empirical explanation of the influence of the unique "context". For example, the study of how national culture impacts strategy attempts to understand how an external variable constraints the exercise of strategy and creates lines of divide between firms operating within different national cultures, for instance between firms based in China and in the USA.

The variety of articles that exhibit any of the following approaches or attributes and that aim at achieving high quality “focused research” is welcomed:

1) Multi-level Analysis: to build theoretical and empirical bridges across different levels of analyses of behavior and performance of firms, we invite articles featuring concepts, theories, and phenomena that are based on internal or external contexts rooted into dimensions at various levels of analysis. Examples at three levels include: 1) Macro level (service organizations; large size organizations; collectivist culture born organizations; 2) Meso-level (consulting industry; automobile industry; food industry; construction industry); 3) Micro-level (market or product defined quite narrowly such as luxury car market; organizations operating in the display technology industry for mobile phones).

2) Interdisciplinary: to bridge the divide across various disciplinary approaches to strategy research, we invite papers that draw on a wide variety of disciplines (e.g., economics, political science, psychology, and sociology, etc.) as the roots of the strategic theories. While we welcome papers that integrate the theory and empirical works in other disciplines we specifically encourage papers that challenge the underlying assumptions in these disciplines. The main topic of the paper should remain in the strategic field but can explore other fields as its source.

3) Actionable knowledge and relevance of findings: to build bridges across the research-practice divide, we invite articles that advance the field of strategic management by contributing to the body of actionable knowledge that tackles real-world problems through a multi-level and multi-disciplinary approach, but also through an emphasis on human agency in the strategic phenomena.
4) Scientific quality: to ensure the scientific quality of the contributions we invite articles that specifically address the particularities of that type of research from an epistemological standpoint and especially discuss its potential for generalization. We invite authors to justify the interest of their chosen topic and the subset of focal organizations.

Submission process

We invite original, unpublished manuscripts, not currently under review at other journals. All submissions are subject to the standard double-blind review process. The manuscripts must be submitted through the journal’s online submission system at:

All submissions must comply with the journal’s standard formatting guidelines:

The co-editors of this special issue intend to play a developmental role with the authors. We encourage authors to submit a brief proposal to any of the co-editors through e-mail to seek feedback if they are unsure of their manuscript’s fit with the special issue. This feedback does not preclude the result of the classic review process with outside reviewers to determine the quality of the submissions.

Due Date for Submission: May 1, 2016
First Round Review Decisions: Jul 1, 2016
Second round Submission: Sep 1, 2016
Final round Revision/ Acceptance Decision: Oct 1, 2016
Issue of Publication: Vol 10 Issue No. 1 January 2017