Italians like to wear their qualifications where everyone can see them. Accountants style themselves ragioniere, architects are always architetto, and so on. Corporate chieftains whose business successes have long since overshadowed their academic achievements hang on to the handle: so Fiat’s Gianni Agnelli was always l’avvocato, Carlo De Benedetti is still l’ingegnere.
I used to be rather proud to receive letters addressed to “Egregio Dott. Hill”, when I worked in Milan, until I realized protocol dictated that every university graduate was a dottore or dottoressa.
If the Strategic Planning Society (SPS) has its way, Italians will have to break out a new honorific: Stratega, or possibly strategista. The SPS, a 45-year-old charity that says it is the world’s oldest organization of its kind, is throwing its weight behind the development of strategy as a formal discipline, complete with codes, courses, qualifications and a cadre of professionals with certified status: It already offers associate membership for business school students, up to fellowship for experienced “senior strategists.” A conference hosted by Oxford university’s Said Business School will attempt to map out what this might involve.
There is something faintly comical about the idea. Professors and strategy directors will duke it out among academe’s gleaming spires and ivory towers, while executives from Bonn to Beijing cope with the real-world consequences of a crisis few forecast and a future nobody can predict. Let the slide presentations commence!
Most of the managers I questioned still rank experience in the field above qualifications. Kevin Turner, Microsoft’s chief operating officer, told me companies needed “ambidextrous” executives – good at forward thinking and advance planning but also capable of acting on his mantra that “execution is strategic”. He politely dodged the question of what he would say if a certified strategist presented his diploma in a job interview. But I suspect when Steve Ballmer hired Mr. Turner in 2005 – in the middle of the strategic and operational mess that was Windows Vista – it was his record as a successful executive at Wal-Mart that swung the job his way, rather than his BSc in management.
That said, some of the reasons underpinning the SPS initiative look good. In the fat years, many companies lost sight of their strategies, or even their business models. They tailored both to short-term goals and used financial and accounting tools to achieve them, becoming obsessed with their relative profitability rather than their long-term cash flow. Failure to think strategically and inability to disentangle strategy from mere “vision” left many ill-prepared for the inevitable crisis.
At the same time, as Gary Hamel – surely a shoo-in for a future honorary fellowship in strategy – pointed out to me, many universities have allowed their own management research to drift off into financial exotica or business esoterica. The former are potentially dangerous, the latter practically irrelevant to employers of new-minted MBAs. Sharpened up, the new profession could offer clearer guidelines about how to set and measure a successful strategy.
Still, I remain doubtful. In 2008, as Lehman Brothers was imploding, Harvard’s Nitin Nohria (now dean of the business school) and Rakesh Khurana argued that management should become “a true profession,” complete with a Hippocratic oath. Certified managers who had “mastered a body of knowledge and [were]current in their knowledge of new ideas in business” would command a premium, they wrote.
One strong objection to their idea was that the role of manager, unlike that of a doctor or a lawyer, is general, hard to define and of variable focus – one day analyzing sales, the next straightening out a supply chain, the third plotting acquisitions. Strategy is a narrower discipline, but the SPS says it “necessarily cuts across all business functions” and, as a result, should be an “open” profession. But while the alternative of closed shops and feuding trade associations is undesirable, this openness makes strategy sound worryingly like, well, journalism – a “profession” where almost anyone gets called dottore.
The jargon-clogged world of strategy needs some order – greater consensus about its most useful tools, a regularly updated body of knowledge, perhaps some standards of best practice. These are worthy goals. But a new class of certified strategists? No, grazie.