Clearing the conceptual fog – How to overcome bad eyesight in business

To start with a metaphorical view: imagine that you suffer from bad eyesight, but you have come used to it because it has slowly become worse (as it usually does). Proper prescription lenses would do the thing and make you see everything clearer. First you have to realize that you do not see very clearly. Second you have to figure out where you can get help.

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Your mental model of your business represents your eyesight. Everyone has a mental model or theory-in-use as it also has been called, about the business involved in. The mental model determines to what you pay attention, what you see and ultimately what you decide to do. Usually a manager acquires their mental model through years of education and practical experience. That works fine in stable business environments – that we do not see much of anymore. Your colleagues may have similar mental models which reinforces the issue of not recognizing that you (all) may suffer from bad eyesight. The current turbulence in markets and business environments then represent the major challenge.

A person’s mental model consists of assumptions, firm beliefs and and a selection of concepts that together represent the eyesight. To use another metaphor, by late Richard Normann, the issue is the relationship between a map and the terrain. Normann (2001) suggested in his book with the descriptive title “Reframing Business: When the Map Changes the Landscape”, that managers act according to the map they have of the business landscape, not the business terrain as such. The terrain may change but the map prevails. The main managerial challenge then turns into redrawing the map. But back to the core of this story, the conceptual fog.

The most foggy and dangerous concepts are probably those that are widely used by different managers, for example, marketing, market, service, brand, customer relationship. Concepts become foggy in two ways; they are either understood differently by different persons or they are not informative (anymore) in the first place. For example, managers with different backgrounds may talk about “marketing” with completely different meaning. Some see marketing as marketing written with a little m, depicting a subordinate function in company. Others may perceive marketing with a capital M considering it the foundation and core of the company’s strategic business approach.

Already among marketing professionals the difference may exist depending on when and where they have received their initial education and carried out their business career. Even more foggy marketing becomes when used by other managers focusing on finance, operations, or human resource management. There might be no common understanding about what marketing is but this might remain unnoticed, as everyone uses the concept. The fact that the concept of marketing in academic marketing research has undergone a tremendous transformation over the decades since its inception in terms of content and role gives a perspective on the options for practice, too. (Strandvik, Holmlund and Grönroos 2014).

Another type of fog related to central concepts can be exemplified by the concept (corporate) brand. Some understand a brand as company controlled and created. The opposite view is that a brand is what customers and other stakeholders think of the brand when they happen to think of it. The discrepancy in these mental models is significant. Again this shift in the meaning of the concept of brand has happened over the years in academic research as a response to researchers continuously trying to improve the map of different business phenomena. A quite similar fog exists concerning the term customer relationship that became popular some thirty years ago. In general, it seems that the foundational perspective on business has shifted from a provider-oriented view to a systems and customer-oriented view as a response to the increased dynamics in markets and business environments.

Another issue that might be even more surprising is whether particular concepts are relevant any more. What if concepts have a best before date? Concepts are created to capture something considered important to pay attention to. But what if concepts created for stable markets and conditions do not fit current turbulent contexts anymore? Suspects might be for example customer loyalty and customer satisfaction. Are we certain that customer loyalty that used to be a pillar in marketing thinking has retained its role in the dynamic business environments of today? Does customer satisfaction predict something important? Yes, we are used to consider these as self-evidently significant, but here might in fact be room for eyesight improvement.

Creation of new concepts and perspectives are at the core of academic research in marketing, and CERS is internationally well-known in the academic field for its focus on conceptual research. In fact, it has been argued that the most managerially relevant research is related to provide new concepts and frameworks (Jaworski 2011).

So what can be done in clearing the fog and improving eyesight? Managers may engage in reflection about their business by challenging explicit and hidden assumptions to clear the fog.  A first step is of course to become aware of how concepts and mental models direct our attention and actions. It might be surprising to realize that colleagues might not have the same understanding of a concept or assumptions about how something works. Current academic research in marketing has started to pay attention to the role of single managers’ mental models, and it is also a vivid stream of research at CERS in Hanken (Strandvik, Holmlund and Lähteenmäki 2018). Another complementary approach may be to take an interest in new concepts and perspectives and actively explore whether these might be useful in one’s own business. And of course, would we at CERS be delighted to engage in research cooperation to clear fogs.

 

Tore Strandvik

Professor emeritus in marketing, CERS, Hanken

 

References

Jaworski, B. J. (2011). On managerial relevance. Journal of Marketing75(4), 211-224.

Normann, R. (2001). Reframing business: When the map changes the landscape. John Wiley & Sons.

Strandvik, T., Holmlund, M., & Grönroos, C. (2014). The mental footprint of marketing in the boardroom. Journal of Service Management25(2), 241-252.

Strandvik, T., Holmlund, M., & Lähteenmäki, I. (2018). “One of these days, things are going to change!” How do you make sense of market disruption? Business Horizons61(3), 477-486.

 

Photo: Elena Taranenko / Unsplash