Goals and strategy

The week began with an enlightening lecture by Geert Hofstede, who returned to deliver a message on business goals for the 21st century to a packed out lecture hall of around 600 students and staff – at least 100 people were turned away. I went hoping to be inspired – I had a course to deliver to a group of Ghanaian doctoral students the following two days, and I knew that my existing material might prove less useful. I needed a spark.

Geert Hofstede

Geert Hofstede

Geert Hofstede told us about a partly serendipitous moment back in the late 1990s when he asked a group of part-time MBA students in Hong Kong about the business goals they perceived as driving their business leaders. Hofstede commented that it was pointless asking business leaders themselves as you would get largely self-serving answers. His students derived a list of fifteen goals, which subsequently were taken up by colleagues in business schools elsewhere in the world. It enabled Hofstede to compare the perception of business goals across 17 countries from his sample of 1900 rankings. It was fascinating to observe that the USA and Germany came out as polar opposites. (Watch the video.)

The inspiration? Try out the same items on my Ghanaian students: no African country had been included in Hofstede’s analysis. Perhaps I would not follow exactly the same methodology as Hofstede’s colleagues did, but it would be near enough. The students were after all working in organizations, and doing their doctoral studies in addition. So they would match the part-time MBAs to some extent; the big difference, though, was that they were mainly in education, not in business. Nevertheless I look forward to the outcome of the analysis.

Business goals are linked to strategy. Firms and educational organization establish strategies to consider how they might achieve their goals. I have often wondered how strategies tend to get forgotten as events overtake them. Universities may set up strategic plans for a five-year period. How are they going to evolve in this period? What are the principle factors of influence? What directions do they want to choose? And so on.

Lawrence Freedman's Strategy

Lawrence Freedman’s Strategy

So the week ended equally appropriately, with a review of Lawrence Freedman’s massive tome Strategy: A History in The Economist. I can’t claim to have read the 751 pages. However, the review contained some striking phrases, apart from the obvious in its title “Why a strategy is not a plan”. Let me quote two: “A strategy that starts with objectives and works backwards is one that is likely to fail.” And: “The climax that concludes a normal drama is denied the strategist, who is more like the writer of a long-running soap opera, with its myriad twists and turns.”

Perhaps we need to elevate JR to the levels of Sun Tzu and Niccolò Machievelli after all.

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