A research agenda for 'purpose as practice'

About the author

At time of writing Judith Stroehle was a Senior Research Fellow and programme lead of the Oxford Rethinking Performance Initiative at Saïd Business School.

There is a rich set of writings in the strategic management literature on 'strategy as practice' (or SAP) that has fundamentally changed the way strategy is perceived and studied. While traditional research on strategy would look at the outcomes and effects of strategic action, SAP focuses on 'a more comprehensive, in-depth analysis of what actually takes place in strategy formulation, planning and implementation and other activities that deal with the thinking and doing of strategy' (Golsorkhi et al. 2015). Through this, the ‘black box’ of strategy work was opened and a new body of knowledge with new questions and methodologies to assess success arose.

Research (and implementation) of corporate purpose is in dire need of a similar redirection and a focus on 'purpose as practice'. The research we have been doing at the Oxford Rethinking Performance Initiative (ORP) has been trying to do just that, studying the work and behaviours around corporate purpose at the project-, product-, organisational- and systems-level in order to open the black box of purpose. While ultimately the goal is to understand how purpose can be measured, it is difficult (if not impossible) to measure success where there is no clear understanding of the actions, motivations and behavioural systems that underly this endeavour.

From only one-and-a half years of ORP research, already various insights have arisen that can be relevant for a research agenda on purpose as practice.

First, governance and leadership are key. In all our wildly different case studies we find that the implementation of corporate purpose is only successful when the abstract 'tone from the top' gets translated into clear structures, goals, guidance and motivation from corporate leadership. Capabilities that may already exist within organisations are catalysed by this and deployed in a strategic way. To understand the practice of purposeful governance and leadership, a much deeper assessment of policy, planning and process approaches are needed and require more explicit research attention than has been given to date.   

Second, a deeper understanding of how to implement purpose requires perspectives about the activities at the micro-level of organisations, such as the project- and product-level. For example, an assessment of how norms and social context condition the modus operandi within an organisation could help to illuminate why purpose is often lost in translation between leadership and project- or product-level implementation. Organisational culture and values are likely an integral piece of the puzzle to purpose implementation, but the links are poorly understood.

To understand the practice of purposeful governance and leadership, a much deeper assessment of policy, planning and process approaches are needed.

Third, purpose practice happens both within and outside the traditional firm boundaries. Businesses increasingly find themselves in a position where they need to carefully consider activities and outcomes outside their own operations. Complex value chains and product applications, like in the building industry, create the need for firms to become ecosystem orchestrators – measuring and managing (where possible) the success of others alongside their own in order to find sustainable solutions to the problems that a purpose seeks to address. Understanding how practices and activities outside firm boundaries are effectively managed is a difficult and intriguing task. 

Fourth, monetisation and incentivisation pathways need to be clarified. Whether through impact valuation or cost factors, the trend to translate social and environmental impacts into monetary terms is increasing – and for some good reasons. Yet, very little knowledge exists about the incentivisation pathways that this type of monetisation approaches actually create. What kind of practices do they generate where and of who? Do they trigger new and the right kind of behaviour? And what are the potential unintended consequences of this. The whole field of sustainability accounting should be carefully interested in this.

Finally, let’s loop back to the SAP literature and some of our Oxford colleagues (like Richard Whittington and Eero Vaara) who have done pioneering work on this. Richard and Eero’s work on strategy suggests that to assess purpose as practice in the tradition of its strategic sister, one needs to look at tools and methods of purpose-making (practices), how purposeful work takes place (praxis) and the role and identity of the actors involved (practitioners).

While this may all sound terribly abstract, in fact it truly is of highest practical relevance. With purpose as practice, new perspectives and powerful insights into purpose are guaranteed. Questions of implementation pathways, the effectiveness of these, the impact of measurement, and more, could all be addressed through this line of enquiry about purpose as practice. In addition, due to the blank canvas that is corporate purpose research, enquiries in this area must by default be evidence driven. This is what we seek to do in the ORP workstreams, but what we also want to encourage from others, and where we happily invite collaboration.