Aligning Strategy to Optimize Individual, Organizational, and Societal Impact TXT

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Thank you for tuning into our first podcast series, supporting lifelong learning and business career development needs. This podcast showcases the expertise of our Smeal College of Business professors as thought leaders in business and industry. My name is Jennifer Nicholas, and I'm happy to be here representing Smeal Alumni Career Services. 

today we have Dr. Forrest Briscoe, professor of management and organization, here in the studio. Forrest's research focuses on how organizations decide to adopt new practices and strategies, and how such changes spread across industries and fields of organizations. He is especially interested in how organizational decision makers react when there is controversy surrounding the changes they are considering, and when stakeholders are advocating for and against those changes. Welcome, Forrest. 

Thanks, Jennifer. Thanks for having me. 

To start out, please give us a brief overview of yourself and the programs you teach. 

Great. Well, I came to Penn State in 2003, came to Smeal College of Business in 2007, so I've been teaching and doing research in the college for 12 years. My PhD is in management from MIT Sloan School of Management. So it's really focused on organizational theory and strategy. It's an interdisciplinary area, draws a lot on sociology and economics. And we can talk a little later about the details of my research. 

Forrest, you've taught mid-career business professionals for many years. What do you see as the future for continuing education in business? 

That's a great question, and I think something that as a college we've really been thinking about strategically for a while. As you know, almost every industry these days is grappling with questions of, are we being disrupted? How are new technologies going to change the strategies that we employ? So there's a lot of uncertainty and a lot of questions, no matter what industry you're in, that I think can benefit from the additional training and the opportunity to reflect that you get in an online education program or a continuing education program. 

Yeah, so I think some of the other dynamics that are driving an increasing interest in returning to school, and additional training, and thinking about career transitions that often accompany going back to school is this idea that we've really made the transition now from an organizational career, where you might enter a large organization, regardless of the industry, and kind of progress up through the ranks of that organization. We've really now entered this new era where careers are much more mobile. They're much more crafted by the individual. 

And as part of that process, the individual taking more ownership over the career has to be thinking about what are the trends that are driving change in my industry that I'm going to be making career decisions in response to? So part of going back to school can be getting up on those trends and thinking about what your skill set, coming to know your skill set better, and how these trends intersect with your skill set. And then, of course, the networking with folks in the program and benefiting from the network of the program to make career transitions successfully. 

We do very similar work in our Smeal Alumni Career Services coaching program, so I think that our mission is very compatible here. 


Reflecting on current events in the business sector, what strikes you as most relevant to your research or teaching? Well, some of these themes we've just been talking about that are driving people to think about going back to school, change, disruptive change, societal changes that impact on business are some of the things that I do research on. And of course, it's not that we've moved away from the older disciplines and focus. So for example, when we think about a company's strategy we still think about the traditional market structure and competitors. But increasingly these days, we also think about the societal values that are changing, the expectations of consumers, maybe that firms are not just making profit but also having impacts on society-- whether it's through their products or through their employment practices, through their strategic decisions, their partnerships, where they're operating around the globe-- that all of these factors are kind of in addition to the traditional factors that decision makers and leaders have to think about. 

So I've been looking at some of those changes and how organizations are adapting to them in a couple different sectors, and especially in large corporations. So just to make that a little more concrete, one of the areas that I've been doing research on is how social movements, including social activism going on in society, affects companies and how companies kind of orient, even proactively, to some of these issues. For example, gender in the workplace is a big topic right now, and large corporations across the spectrum are thinking about how to track and assess gender equity inside the company, and how this connects to strategic hiring. 

You've got to attract and retain talent. Increasingly, if there's expectations in the labor market, including hiring managers, that the firm is paying attention to and improving on their gender equity in the firm. This can be a source of labor market advantage. So we've been looking at this and what some of the drivers are for companies' decision making and the top management team to make reports, have transparency on pay gender equity, for example, in the organization, how they benchmark with their rivals, and how this becomes a source of strategic advantage or a strategic necessity for firms. 

And of course, social movement organizations and activists sometimes target companies to try to get them to make change. And the dynamic between the part of civil society and the private sector and business is very fraught but can be a productive tension when you get the NGOs and the corporate leaders to talk to each other. And so we actually look at when those relationships are productive, and when they're conflictual, and what some of the consequences are. 

Can you give us an example, maybe relating this to the situation at Google? 

Yeah. So the tech companies have been particularly both targets of and proactive instigators of social activism around corporate diversity issues, among other things. So Google, for example, was the target of controversy in terms of gender equity. Engineers, which of course Google hires a lot of, have been historically a male-dominated occupation, and they've been trying to provide transparency on both the numbers and the pay of women in the firm, and especially those technical roles. 

And then as they were targeted, you may remember, in the last year, one of their employees came out and wrote a memo kind of calling out the company, saying that they're going too far on this issue. And then in turn, other NGOs on the other side of the issue weighed in saying that their response was inadequate in terms of moving forward. 

So that's exactly the kind of situation. Companies increasingly find themselves in the cross hairs of a social issue, and really having to take a stand. They can't be passive. 

They can't try to avoid cultural issues. As the advice might have been 20 years ago, just stay out of political cultural realm. Today, we're finding that companies can't stay out, they're called out. 

And of course, things like social media are making it easier to call them out. And therefore, they've really got to take a stand on these issues. And it needs to become part of their value set and alignment with their mission. And it needs to become part of their strategic thinking that these social issues and their position on them are part of who they are and what attracts customers and other kinds of stakeholders to them. 

As an outsider, how can we tell the difference between organizations who are genuinely committed to these values and missions that you speak of, and those who are branding themselves that way but not consistently applying these values in practice? 

Well, I think the first thing I should say in response to that question is there are kind of two hats that we wear as researchers and teachers. So the research hat thinks of a question like that from a scholarly perspective as, can we tell the difference between companies taking a stand or claiming that they have a particular position on an issue and having actions that are inconsistent with it, I guess is part of the implication. But then, the kind of other hat-- the teaching hat or the practitioner-oriented hat-- says maybe should you try to be consistent. And how can you try to be successful as a firm in this kind of fraught environment? 

So in terms of the-- are firms actually consistent, we do have a growing literature on companies changing and not necessarily having consistency in their what we would call corporate social responsibility practices over time and across issues, which kind of makes sense, that companies, they need to be changing. And they're not necessarily going to have a prominent position on every issue. But sometimes they come into conflict, and sometimes what they say they're doing and what they find themselves doing could be in disagreement. 

And yeah, we've got a growing literature on that, some mixed findings about how stakeholders respond to it or how it affects your stock price. I would say that there is a growing movement, even in the financial markets, to expect companies to have consistency and to follow through in the commitments that they're making on these social issues. So arguably, it's becoming more costly to be inconsistent. 

In terms of the practice of how you maintain consistency, that's kind of a moving target. And I'm not sure we've worked out the best practice advice, but one of the things that we talk about in strategy classes is kind of alignment. So whatever your market strategy is, alignment between the CSR, Corporate Social Responsibility, things that you've chosen to be your focus, that needs to be well aligned with your market strategy. 

We talk about the same thing in our coaching program, because all of your marketing materials need to be very well aligned so that you're projecting a cohesive image as you're marketing yourself. I don't know if that's relevant, but it sounds similar. 

Yeah, there's certainly-- and this is probably more of a subjective observation, but the sense of authenticity of a company's authenticity in its social claims is really in the air right now. And you see, maybe social media is fueling a lot of accusations of hypocrisy or how authentic are you? So that kind of heightens the importance of really being thoughtful about this alignment. 

Can you give an example of a company that is demonstrating authenticity and integrity well? 

So one example of a company that we've used over time as an example of a company that's had a particular, both market position and position on social issues, or what we might call a non-market strategy, is Starbucks. I mean, even from their early days they had, for example, committed to the employment practices that they have being relatively high commitment practices. So the benefits that the baristas get were an important not only living up to their version of their social obligation, but, they thought that also helped attract and retain this key talent which was part of the face of the store. 

Then, as they've become a big brand that gets attacked by activists on all sides of all issues, they've maintained their commitment to their social issues. And even more recently, when they were in the cross hairs on race relations, they committed to-- the CEO committed to sticking their neck out there and saying this is an issue that really matters to us. We're going to invest in a costly retraining effort. And of course, when you're putting your neck out there, you might not get it all perfect the first time, but you're showing the public that you're still committed to these values. And I think it's pretty clear they've got a good line of sight between that and the loyalty of their customer base, which of course is part of their market strategy. 

In our alumni coaching program, we occasionally support clients beyond the higher and through the onboarding process. If a client wants to effect change as a newcomer to an organization, let's say by focusing on sustainability or diversity inclusion, what would be your recommendation? 

Yeah, so that's a really interesting question and relates to both some of my teaching and research, because increasingly people want to be leaders in the workplace, as defined partly through the expression of their values in the workplace. And that means being some kind of change agent in your workplace. And teaching across our programs, I feel like there is an increasing appetite for that because it's part of where your meaning at work comes from. 

So how to do it? What are the tactics to be an effective change agent? Of course, you don't want to endanger your job, necessarily. 

So we talk about things like building a coalition inside the workplace around issues and how to do that. We talk about things like how to frame the issue or the goal that you have-- or maybe it's a policy change that you're hoping to see-- how you frame that in the language and the values of your organization. We talk about how to analyze the network structure of the organization, or the field might be broader than just the organization, to see where the influencers are that you need to connect with, in order to have a wider change. 

And we talk about classic change agent things like small wins, having a small change effort that's not the grand vision you eventually hope to achieve, but some small change, if it's successful, that's a win that you can build on. And you can kind of promote that and learn from it as you go. So there is a portfolio of change agent tactics that can be applied. Of course, they're general so that they can be applied for almost any purpose. But especially when you're talking about bringing socially driven or ethically driven causes into the workplace, there's particular need to pay attention and think through this carefully because it can have consequences for your career. 

You've got excellent advice for our listeners, Forrest. We're curious about what's the latest with you? Can you tell us about the new course that you're developing for our online programs? 

Sure. And just as a background to that, I've taught across many of our programs at Smeal and several different courses, including strategy, which we often break down into strategy formulation and strategy implementation, which to some extent you can think of in sequence. You need to analyze the strategic landscape and come up with your strategy. And then, once you have that, think about how the parts of the organization, its culture, its reward systems, and its other internal parts align with that strategy. 

So that second piece, strategy implementation, is what I'm going to be teaching in the online programs coming up. It features some core frameworks that we've actually had developed around Smeal. They're frameworks to help ensure, to diagnose and ensure that that alignment exists across the parts of the organization with the strategy. 

And then, of course, the companion piece is how to-- OK, now you know which things you want to change and which things you want to keep. And the process of how you sequence time-- what's the role of leaders in making that change-- that's all part of this strategy implementation process. And that's the class I'll be teaching. 

Many of our constituents are very interested in leadership development. They're seeking this upward mobility. Do you have any final words of advice for those mid-career professionals who are identifying leadership as their next goal? 

The thing I would say about leadership is that, of course there is the aspect to it that is innate for some people. But there is a lot to learn that can be learned. And there's a lot of self-awareness that can come through. 

And you see this in our programs as people develop. They work through cases, they're forced into a scenario of situations where they're practicing the mantle of leadership. There's a lot that can be learned to meet that aspiration. 

Sounds like all seekers and strategists should seek you out before cultivating that leadership potential. Tell me about your latest projects that you've taken on. 

Yeah. So a couple projects that might be interesting in relation to what we've been talking about, one is in the strategy realm, all of these dynamic changes that are bringing uncertainty of course to people's careers, they're also bringing a lot more reorganization, a lot more merger-- kind of almost constant mergers and acquisitions and reconfiguration of organizations in a lot of industries. And so we've been doing some work looking at this post-merger integration process. 

And of course, that's a vast topic. Merging technologies, merging strategies, merging resources, that's always a challenge, but our focus in this work has been on the people side of it. And among-- you've got your high level professionals. If part of the rationale for merging is to get these high level professionals to collaborate, how do you do that? 

We're actually quantitatively predicting which people initiate the collaboration, and which collaborations end up being successful when these are relative strangers coming together. They have a tendency to see one another as a potential threat. And so there's a reason not to necessarily share and collaborate immediately. So looking at that process from a networks, the structure of the networks in the organization's perspective, and from a kind of antecedents of collaboration, perspective. So that's some work that, that's pretty exciting. 

So what are the signs of a high performing collaborator? 

Yeah, so one of the things that is a little surprising or quite attention that we're finding in that research is that individuals who are already embedded in great networks in their legacy organization are often some of the first chef to reach out. They almost have a kind of dynamic network signature to them. But of course, reaching out and making these new collaborations is itself costly, in terms of their old ties. 

So some of those people who are most dynamic at reaching out, which is what we think we want in terms of rationalizing the merger, are also-- it's showing up that they're having some hidden costs in terms of the collaborations that they brought with them prior to the merger. And so that's a real tension that needs to be managed. They also, as they reach out across the divide, there's kind of a mentoring. They're not necessarily attending as much to the folks they were mentoring in the old organization. So that's another tension that we're finding. So if you think about it from a senior leadership point of view, you want to target these people and encourage what they're doing to reach out, but you also want to be attending to what's the almost unintended consequence on the legacy unit that they were embedded in before? 

What are the new topics related to strategy that you've recently addressed? 

Yeah, so the field is constantly changing. And this whole idea of integrating the-- we used to call it the non-market strategy, all these social issues, with the market strategy. That is really come to the fore. 

And one-- I'll just mention one particular area that I've now become very interested in there is data. Companies, all kinds of organizations have data, databases, that include commercially valuable but also privacy sensitive data. It might be on their customers, it might be on their employees, it might even be other parts of their supply chain. 

These data and the responsibilities, the ethical and social responsibilities that firms have to store these data, that is an emerging issue that-- it's a social issue really, and it needs to be integrated with the rest of strategy. Because increasingly, the business model may depend on what you're doing with these data, how you're sharing them with third parties and partners. But at the same time, your stakeholder obligations, your stakeholder expectations depend on what you're doing what these data, as well. 

And as we've seen in the cases of some of the tech companies, Facebook and so forth, if those are misaligned, there's real consequences on the downside. Now if they're aligned strategically, the upside for the firm can be great as well. But I think that's an area where we really haven't brought this in to the high level strategy formulation and strategy implementation domain yet, or we're still working it out. But I think it's going to be one of the most important areas in the coming years. 

It sounds like it's essential for building trust. 

Yes. Building and maintaining trust with these stakeholder groups, including customers, but other parts of your stakeholder ecosystem as well, yeah. 

Well, thank you so much, Forrest. 

Thanks, Jennifer. This has been fun. 

Thank you, Forrest, for sharing your insights. Smeal Alumni Career Services produces these online resources in collaboration with our Office of Professional Graduate Programs and the Penn State online MBA program. Please reference our lifelong learning webinar with Dr. Brian Cameron, associate dean for professional graduate programs, and Stacy Dorang Peeler, managing director of the Penn State online MBA program titled Online Graduate Business Programs, Advancing your Career through Lifelong Learning. All webinar recordings, along with information about Smeal Alumni Career Services, can be found on our website at