From Knowledge at Wharton
After riding a wave of unprecedented industry growth and branching into fiber optics products, an established communications technology manufacturer faces the unthinkable: The market takes a sudden turn for the worse, leading to budget cuts and layoffs across companies in the sector. Meanwhile, the firm's R&D lab is pushing for the company to invest in a comprehensive expansion of its high-bandwidth fiber optics network to increase consumer access and drive sales. Others at the company strongly disagree, believing that the market for fiber optics has dried up.
What should the company do?
According to Wharton management professor Sarah Kaplan, the best answer wouldn't be immediately clear, and for good reason: Whereas managers often push for quick, bottom-line analysis when facing uncertainty, it might be more beneficial to encourage employees to champion alternative scenarios, or "frames."
In her research paper titled, "Framing Contests: Strategy Making under Uncertainty," Kaplan details the decision-making process of an actual company (which she calls "CommCorp") as it faced the bursting of the telecommunications bubble in 2001-2002. What she found was that employees interpreted the market's ambiguous signals from their own frames of reference and then engaged in a series of "framing activities to mobilize others around a particular point of view."
Frames that come to predominate and ultimately drive strategy are not the result of static points of view or sheer political maneuvering, but rather emerge from a "dynamic, purposive and politically-charged process ... " Kaplan writes. It's a contest over what strategies should be pursued. Individuals' frames can be transformed along the way, as each actor attempts to gain legitimacy for his or her interpretation, until one frame prevails.
In her analysis of CommCorp, Kaplan writes that she employed observation-based, ethnographic techniques to "uncover 'the soft underbelly' ... of strategy making by looking at what actors did individually and collectively to construct strategic choices." Over eight months in 2002, she studied two key initiatives that were strategic responses to the optical technologies market crash during that time.
To trace how individual frames contributed to strategy decisions, Kaplan looked at specific, key choices that were made in relation to these initiatives, and identified the cognitive frames of the actors involved. "It is ... useful to conceptualize participants' frames as the encoding of a variety of previous experiences -- including individual career histories, project experience, functional membership, position in the hierarchy -- and contexts, including the firm, the industry and the prevailing technological paradigm," Kaplan writes. "Each of these arenas had its own institutional logic that guided views and behavior."
Kaplan's observations at CommCorp suggest that an understanding of the sources of frames elucidates their effect in enabling and constraining an individual's scope of action. One of the initiatives that Kaplan studied, dubbed "Last Mile," calls attention to this dual effect of frames. Hugh, a senior scientist in CommCorp's R&D lab, proposed that the optical market crash should be met with aggressive investment in fiber optic networks to increase consumer access. While Hugh's pro-optical view guided his data collection efforts and presentations, employees outside that particular frame weren't so certain, expressing doubt about whether the larger picture supported his view, or whether there were other, non-optical solutions.
Ultimately, Kaplan notes, Hugh and an associate reframed the project to minimize opposition and build "a coalition of supporters. The final decision was to make a small investment to support a single product line rather than pursue the originally proposed major development project."
Kaplan's analysis of the "Last Mile" initiative reinforces some specific conclusions about framing practices:
-- People have a number of frames to draw upon, built up through past experiences across multiple contexts. These frames shape how they see a situation and what strategies they think a company should pursue.
-- Just as actors have a repertoire of frames, they have "multiple, sometimes conflicting, interests, only some of which (in the CommCorp example) were relevant in a particular decision context. Some interests were tangible, such as getting a promotion or preserving one's job. Other interests were intangible, such as being seen as an expert, gaining peer recognition or working on 'cool projects.' Other interests had a collective aspect, such as a chance to contribute to the project team or support one's own functional group," Kaplan writes.
-- Where frames about a decision don't align within the organization, actors engage in framing practices to increase the resonance of their own frames and mobilize action in a desired direction. Those actors who most skillfully engage in these practices will shape the frame which prevails. Therefore, frames shape strategic choices -- not in a deterministic fashion but rather in one mediated by organizational framing contests.
-- When framing activities are successful, interests can shift, and new coalitions can form. "Coalitions are built around powerful frames (ones which resonate broadly), and powerful coalitions can shape policy," Kaplan notes.
To realize the benefits of framing contests, conflict needs to be encouraged, Kaplan says. Her first rule of thumb? "Absolutely no 'quickie' brainstorming sessions," she says. "People schedule themselves for two hours and expect to have brilliant ideas. It can't happen in one session -- it's a process." Instead, she suggests that managers plan a series of meetings and events that are not tied to regular operating goals, interspersed with periods for new data collection, analysis and reflection.
In terms of developing new frames and seeing the world in new ways, Kaplan suggests that managers "experience new data, instead of just reading about things. Go out into the world and look at things differently -- visit a company that does something completely different from yours but has some common threads. Visit other divisions of your company to see what other frames are operating."
Finally, Kaplan suggests that CEOs not always push for a quick answer or "the bottom line." "Take time to find out what the alternate scenarios are," she says. "This may appear to be deeply inefficient, but in fact going slow up front might help you go faster down the line."