Thomas Powell is Professor of Strategy at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. His areas of expertise include competitive strategy, behavioural strategy, and executive decision making.
Thomas' research on competitive strategy examines the causes and consequences of sustained competitive advantage. His research shows how the dynamics of strategy innovation and imitation bring about the emergence and decline of firm-specific advantages. His highly-cited studies on organisation structure, total quality management, information technology, and formal strategic planning were among the first empirical studies of resource-based competitive advantage.
Thomas' work in behavioural strategy uses brain imaging and neuro-chemical methods to understand the micro-foundations of executive decision making. This experimental research, along with Thomas' 2011 review paper in Strategic Management Journal, have pioneered the emerging field of neurostrategy. Thomas' research in neurostrategy focuses on group decisions in large organisations, and how the brain functions when faced with decisions involving large resource commitments and multiple stakeholders.
Thomas also conducts research on firm performance and the philosophical foundations of strategy. His statistical research on performance shows that the degree of competitive dominance in business does not differ substantially from the dominance found in other competitive domains (games, sports, talent contests), and can be described by statistical laws and generating processes that involve a great deal of randomness. His work on the philosophy of strategy argues that the leading theories of competitive advantage are tautological and unfalsifiable, and yet have truth values that can be established probabilistically (by Bayesian analysis) and pragmatically (by consequences).
Thomas began his career in corporate finance and strategy consulting before earning his MPhil and PhD in Strategy and Economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He has worked as strategy professor in the USA, Canada, Europe, and Australia, and is Fellow of Management Strategy at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. He is a member of the Strategic Management Society, Academy of Management and American Economic Association, and serves on the editorial boards of Strategic Management Journal and Strategic Organization.
Thomas conducts research on competitive advantage, behavioural strategy, and the philosophical foundations of strategy. He works both independently and collaboratively with colleagues at the University of Oxford and around the world.
Thomas' research combines statistical analysis with field observations to examine the competitive strategies and performance of firms and industries. His research shows that most competitive advantages are fleeting and that sustainability does not stem from crucial strategic assets but from the integration and alignment of strategies, people, systems, and the sound execution of strategy fundamentals like best practice and customer service. His statistical research on firm performance introduced new rank-ordering methods for describing performance shifts among competing firms.
Behavioural Strategy merges cognitive and social psychology with strategic management theory and practice, and is one of the hottest new areas in strategy research. Its purpose is to improve the practical usefulness of strategy theory by grounding strategy in realistic assumptions about human cognition, emotion, and social interaction. Thomas co-authored one of the defining papers in Behavioural Strategy and he authored the first paper in Neurostrategy. In addition to his work on brain imaging and neuro-chemicals, he has studied phenomena such as attribution, beliefs, stress and impulsiveness. For example, his research on attribution argues that executives exploit the complexity and ambiguity of large organisations to make performance attributions that are flattering to themselves – for example, nearly all executives claim that their people skills are above-average, a claim that is notoriously hard to falsify.
Thomas' philosophical work challenges the traditional view that the best theories of competitive advantage rely on a combination of sound logical deduction and empirical testing. In fact, these theories are based on tautological reasoning and could survive any conceivable empirical test. Thomas argues that these theories cannot give necessary and sufficient conditions for firm success, and they persist only as inferences to the most convincing explanation. However, according to Thomas these theories can shed light on competition and performance if used along with inductive and probabilistic methods such as Bayesian analysis to test hypotheses about unobservable causes. The epistemological value of strategy theories, according to Thomas resides not in their objective “truth” but in their capacity to drive conversations that people find interesting and productive, and to deal with the current intellectual and practical preoccupations of those who operate in the domain of strategy.
Thomas began his career in corporate finance and strategy consulting, and he continues to advise organisations on strategic issues such as international expansion, corporate strategy, executive decision making, and the design of strategic planning processes. He has worked extensively with executives in financial services, retail, professional services, and the manufacturing sector.
Through his involvement with the Oxford Advanced Management and Leadership Programme (OAMLP), Thomas has worked with managers from all points of the world – including Africa, South America, North America, China, India, Indonesia, and the Middle East – on issues such as competitive strategy, strategic thinking, executive development, and mergers and acquisitions. He provides executive coaching on the OAMLP.
Thomas has won numerous research grants, most recently from the Oxford Centre for Corporate Reputation for his work in neurostrategy. He also received a major research grant from the US Department of Defense to study the effectiveness of performance metrics and quality management, and from the Australian Research Council for the study of competitive dominance in industry.
Thomas teaches strategy to MBA students, doctoral students, undergraduates and senior business executives. At the Saïd Business School he has taught courses in strategic management, corporate strategy, strategic thinking, and competitive advantage. He teaches on a variety of executive programmes, including diplomas, open programmes, custom programmes, and executive coaching. Thomas has won many teaching awards and is consistently praised by students for the dynamic energy and interactivity of his class sessions.
Thomas uses an open and participative teaching style focused on analysing complex strategy cases, testing hypotheses, diagnosing problems and developing recommendations that work. 'Anyone can teach a body of knowledge,' he says, 'and that is not my aim. My main purpose is to change the way people think about strategy problems.'
According to Thomas, 'Strategy problems never have perfect solutions but there’s always an approach that will get the job done. The aim is to help students learn the art of executive judgment: to know what information to look for and how to absorb it quickly; to combine rigorous analysis with wisdom gained from experience; to see patterns and diagnose problems; and to make hard choices when faced with complexity, uncertainty and incomplete information. That’s what we work on: the art of executive judgment.'
In executive seminars, Thomas focuses on improving participants’ critical and analytical skills, and tries to facilitate discussions that bring out the experiences and abilities of each participant. In his words, 'Every seminar room has an enormous amount of accumulated wisdom already in it. My job is to provide an environment that brings private wisdom into the open where everyone can talk about it, evaluate it, learn from it.'
Thomas teaches or has taught on the following programmes:
Saïd Business School
University of Oxford
Park End Street