27: Context and Action in the Transformation of the Firm

Andrew Pettigrew

Our Season 3 series of classic articles from the Journal of Management Studies continues with Episode 27 on “Context and Action in the Transformation of the Firm,” written by Professor Andrew Pettigrew OBE and published in 1987. Andrew joined us for the episode, where we discussed the importance of the article as both a ground-breaking study in organizational change and leadership and as a foundational work leading to a whole new literature stream on process scholarship.

The paper summarized key elements of Andrew’s larger work, The Awakening Giant: Continuity and Change in Imperial Chemical Industries, covering his longitudinal research into the evolution of strategies, culture, and change in ICI over the course of two decades. Through personal interviews and archived data, Andrew presented a compelling story of multiple organizational transformational efforts and how political and historical forces shaped them. This contrasts with the management literature of the time that Andrew criticized as “ahistorical, aprocessual, and acontextual” and that studies of transformation was “often preoccupied with the intricacies of narrow changes rather than the holistic and dynamic analysis of changing.” Moreover, Andrew charged that a “large gap” existed between common beliefs about “the potency of leaders” to effect transformational change and the lack of actual empirical evidence supporting those beliefs.

The article introduced what some have called the “Pettigrew Triangle” of context, content, and process, with context being divided into ‘outer’ and ‘inner’ components. The purpose of the triangle was to explain how formulating the content of any new strategy inevitably entails managing its context and process, which analysis from the longitudinal study demonstrated. The article is credited with beginning a whole new stream of strategic management research based on large-scale longitudinal studies into the ‘why, what, and how’ questions of management practice. In Pettigrew’s follow-up article in 2012, also published in the Journal of Management Studies, he commented on a number of other prominent management scholars who followed this same stream, such as Henry Mintzberg (who joined us back in Episode 14), Andy Van de Ven, and Kathy Eisenhardt. The process scholarship that these scholars profess what Pettigrew described as how-to knowledge rather than what-is knowledge.

The discussion in Episode 27 also delved into the challenges of modern scholarship. Echoing the sentiments of Bill Starbuck in Episode 24, Andrew laments the evolution of organizational science literature that increasingly incentivizes narrow scholarship in competitive journals. The podcasters discuss his recommendations for the type of complex and intensive longitudinal studies published in monograph form that provide a more informative and enlightening look at an organization’s deep structure

You may also download the audio files here:  Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Read with us:

Pettigrew, A. M. (1987), Context and Action in the Transformation of the Firm. Journal of Management Studies, 24: 649–670

Pettigrew, A. M. (2012), Context and Action in the Transformation of the Firm: A RepriseJournal of Management Studies, 49: 1304–1328

Sminia, H. and de Rond, M. (2012), Context and Action in the Transformation of Strategy ScholarshipJournal of Management Studies, 49: 1329–1349