Columns September/October 2022

Strategic Thinking: A Next Step in the Academic Conversation

By Thomas Barker

Strategic thinking is a way of interacting with the world based on accomplishments and outcomes. As such, it is crucially important to how technical communicators see their work in organizational contexts. For the academic technical communicator, the term suggests research into human thinking in general, and ways that such thinking impacts our field.

In this column we look at definitions and scholarly trends in strategic communication to provide an overview of the concept and where it came from. Following that, we examine the concept of strategic communication and how it is evolving in the academic conversation to become one of the most powerful and defining concepts of our era. Strategic thinking is the next step in the world of complexity and uncertainty.

What Is Strategic Thinking?

Strategic thinking can be defined by its opposite: operational thinking. Imagine a box. If technical communicators want readers to use the box, they think operationally: tasks and step sequences. But if they want users to use the box wisely (and to transfer box usage to others,) they think strategically: context and problem solving.

Operational thinking is inside the box: form, fit, capacity. Strategic thinking is outside the box: sharing, replicating, monetizing. Operational thinking is sometimes seen as the opposite of smart thinking. Operational thinking is cutting the stone; strategic thinking is building the cathedral.

According to Moritz Börnert-Ringleb and Jürgen Wilbert, operational thinking is lower-level thinking. They associate it with kids, a stage of understanding, but one that cannot be applied in hypothetical situations and is still limited to concrete situations.1 “Formal thinking” or strategic thinking develops later in kids.

Seen in this light, strategic thinking represents our attempts to move forward in an uncertain world, to act once we have mastered processes and products, to take a broader view, to take the next step in our journey.

Foundations of Strategic Thinking

We can credit various disciplines or arenas of human activity for encouraging strategic thinking. Planning, scheming, plotting, psyching, and proposing: all lend themselves to next step strategic thinking. To see the key areas where thought lifts its head out of the box, I looked at a list of “best books on strategic thinking.”2

Here are the areas where we can find the roots of strategic thinking.

  • Game theory. Game theory — the study of mathematical models of strategic interactions among rational agents3 — is the basis for theories of investing, economics, evolution, politics, biology, and just about any endeavor where winning and losing play a part. It grows out of mathematical and statistical formulas for winning and losing, for beating the odds of probability.
  • Sports. As a metaphor for human and business activity, sports has provided foundational concepts for strategic thinking. Lafley’s Playing to Win, Scott Miller’s Ninety Percent Mental, and Annie Vernon’s Mind Games all capitalize on the nexus of psychology, thinking, and training. This perspective emphasizes the mental dimensions to human activity.
  • War. Robert Greene’s The 33 Strategies of War clearly sets strategic thinking in the realm of military struggle and conflict and makes ample connections to strategic thinking in everyday life. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is also a testament to the growth of strategic thinking during war times. In our times, the aftermath of World War II brought about the disassociation of the self from simple definitions and led to the culture of Irving Goffman’s the Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, one of the most influential voices of strategic thinking.
  • Psychology. Psychological theories of behavioralism since the 1950s have focused attention on mental processes and decision-making that fuel strategic thinking in management and marketing. The Journal of Strategic Studies is all about strategies of conflict and aggression.
  • Communication. Books on strategic communication, many built on metaphors from game theory, sports, war, and psychology cover every aspect of daily life, including leadership and change, education, management, marketing, social media, and human resources. Strategic communication dominates the academic conversation in the field of public relations.

Strategic communication is a way of outlining the directions that scholarship is taking in strategic thinking. As we will see, this field is emerging as the principal direction, the next step in communication scholarship.

Communicating Strategically

For technical communicators, the developments in thinking strategically in communication hold particular relevance. The International Journal of Strategic Communication recently issued a special, very timely, issue on developments in this important field. The discipline of strategic communication is growing, so much so that “strategic communication” has become a common denominator among names for communication programs.

Zerfass et al. look at four approaches to strategic communication:4

  1. Focuses on goals. This approach sees strategic communication as a broad term to signify any kind of goal-oriented communication. The interdisciplinary approach (which includes technical communication) serves to broaden the whole concept, and distinguish it from “lower-case” communication. Lower-case communication is the everyday, how-to-use-the-box approach to meaning making.
  2. Defines organizational actors. This approach puts companies and organizations in the context of society, with distinct “personalities” at high levels. Communication defines these companies.
  3. Expresses power dynamics. This approach sees strategic communication as an alternative to conventional national or international influence and power. The aims of a nation or organization can be supported by strategic commmunication: building alliances, asserting dominance, or influencing outcomes. In this view, operational uses of communication — as in getting things done — is one of the first casualties.
  4. Covers for “public relations.” This approach sees strategic communication as another term for “public relations,” a practice often identified with propaganda and the coercive side of opinion and reputation management. We can see how these attitudes might flourish in the era of questionable corporate environmental, accounting, and employment practices.

In this brief essay, we have seen that strategic thinking has grown out of representations of human activity in various areas. These competitive, thought provoking, enjoyable, and terrible events and actions, at the local and global scale point to one thing: they represent the struggle to get it right. Communication’s focus on goals, actors, power, and relationships explains what these representations can tell us.

Ansgar Zerfass puts it this way, “Strategic communication researchers hold that the answer to each question lies at least partly in communication strategy, strategy communication, and strategic communication management.” He points out that even if much communication wins at a general level, more successful entities, “. . . pay attention to the “right things,” and play their cards right — by deliberate plan, emergent pattern, spontaneous intuition, or lucky accident, their communication has an edge; it stands out in the competition for attention.” [Emphasis added to show the main point.]

‘It’s a Process’

Can we take this further? I think we can. Scholars of technical communication can achieve a kind of everyday distinction by helping to figure out how to represent technology, shape user interaction, and make the world more efficient and safer. But by looking at organizations and products through the lens of strategic communication, scholars can develop insights into why some initiatives win and others flop.

Why is strategic communication the key to understanding success and failure? Allow me to illustrate with a scene from one of my favorite moves: Moneyball. In that movie the little team (the underdog Oakland A’s) beats the big teams (who have all the money), guided by the power of statistics and scheming.

Let’s look carefully at what makes the triumph happen. The wins don’t really start happening until the strategic thinkers (the general manager and his brainy assistant) step out from the background and start articulating “the game.” The protagonist (played by Brad Pitt) explains the strategy to the players themselves. He unleashes the strategy in a montage, the theme of which is “it’s a process.”5 At one point he says, “When your enemies are making mistakes don’t interrupt them.” Pure strategic thinking here.

It’s one thing to have heart, but the real win lies in strategy. And by representing goals, processes, and outcomes, strategic communication takes the next step to make it happen.

References
  1. Börnert-Ringleb, M, and J. Wilbert. 2018. “The Association of Strategy Use and Concrete-Operational Thinking in Primary School.” Frontiers in Education (ital). https://doi.org/10.3389/feduc.2018.00038
  2. Read This Twice. n.d. “Best Books on Strategic Thinking.” https://www.readthistwice.com/lists/best-books-on-strategic-thinking
  3. Wikipedia. n.d. “Game Theory” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Game_theory
  4. Zerfass, A., D. Verčič, H. Nothhaft, and K. P. Werder. 2018. “Strategic Communication: Defining the Field and Its Contribution to Research and Practice.” International Journal of Strategic Communication 12, no. 4: 487-505.
  5. Miller, Bennett, director. Moneyball. Columbia Pictures, 2011. https://youtu.be/5AGY0Y1OiF4

This column focuses on a broad range of practical academic issues from teaching and training to professional concerns, research, and technologies of interest to teachers, students, and researchers. Please send comments and suggestions to column editor Thomas Barker at ttbarker@ualberta.ca.

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