Darden Graduate School of Business Administration
University of Virginia
Working Paper No. 01-02
A Stakeholder Approach to Strategic Management
A Stakeholder Approach to Strategic Management
The purpose of this chapter is to outline the development of the idea of
“stakeholder management” as it has come to be applied in strategic management. We
begin by developing a brief history of the concept. We then suggest that traditionally the
stakeholder approach to strategic management has several related characteristics that
serve as distinguishing features. We review recent work on stakeholder theory and
suggest how stakeholder management has affected the practice of management. We end
by suggesting further research questions.
A HISTORY OF A STAKEHOLDER APPROACH TO STRATEGIC
A stakeholder approach to strategy emerged in the mid-1980’s. One focal point in
this movement was the publication of R. Edward Freeman’s Strategic Management- A
Stakeholder Approach in 1984. Building on the process work of Ian Mitroff and Richard
Mason, and James Emshoff [ For statements of these views see Mason and
Mitroff,(1982) and Emshoff (1978)]. The impetus behind stakeholder management was
to try and build a framework that was responsive to the concerns of managers who were
being buffeted by unprecedented levels of environmental turbulence and change.
Traditional strategy frameworks were neither helping managers develop new strategic
directions nor were they helping them understand how to create new opportunities in the
midst of so much change. As Freeman observed “[O]ur current theories are inconsistent
with both the quantity and kinds of change that are occurring in the business environment
of the 1980’s…A new conceptual framework is needed.”[Freeman, 1984, pg. 5] A
stakeholder approach was a response to this challenge. An obvious play on the word
“stockholder”, the approach sought to broaden the concept of strategic management
beyond its traditional economic roots, by defining stakeholders as “any group or
individual who is affected by or can affect the achievement of an organization’s
objectives”. The purpose of stakeholder management was to devise methods to manage
the myriad groups and relationships that resulted in a strategic fashion. While the
stakeholder framework had roots in a number of academic fields, its heart lay in the
clinical studies of management practitioners that were carried out over ten years through
the Busch Center, the Wharton Applied Research Center, and the Managerial and
Behavioral Science Center, all at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania by a
host of researchers.
While the 1980’s provided an environment that demonstrated the power of a
stakeholder approach, the idea was not entirely new. The use of the term stakeholder
grew out of the pioneering work at Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International) in
the 1960’s. SRI’s work, in turn, was heavily influenced by concepts that were developed
in the planning department of Lockheed and these ideas were further developed through
the work of Igor Ansoff and Robert Stewart. From the start the stakeholder approach
grew out of management practice. 1
Recently, Mr. Giles Slinger has revisited the early history of the idea of stakeholders.
Through more extensive interviews, and the examination of a number of historical
documents, Slinger rewrites the history as told in Freeman (1984). The essential
SRI argued that managers needed to understand the concerns of shareholders,
employees, customers, suppliers, lenders and society, in order to develop objectives that
stakeholders would support. This support was necessary for long term success. Therefore,
management should actively explore its relationships with all stakeholders in order to
develop business strategies.
For the most part these developments had a relatively small impact on the
management theories of the time. However, fragments of the stakeholder concept
survived and developed within four distinct management research streams over the next
twenty years. Indeed, it was by pulling together these related stakeholder concepts from
the corporate planning, systems theory, corporate social responsibility and organizational
theory that the stakeholder approach crystallized as a framework for strategic
management in the 1980’s. What follows is a brief summary of these building blocks of
The Corporate Planning Literature
The corporate planning literature incorporated a limited role for stakeholders in
the development of corporate strategy. Ansoff’s classic book Corporate Strategy (1965)
illustrated the importance of identifying critical stakeholders. However, stakeholders
difference is that the early use of the stakeholder idea was not particularly oriented
towards the survival of the firm. Slinger’s argument can be found in his doctoral
dissertation, Stakeholding and Takeovers: Three Essays, University of Cambridge,
forthcoming in 2001. An abridged version is in “Spanning the Gap: The Theoretical
Principles Connecting Stakeholder Policies to Business Performance”, Centre for
Business Research, Department of Applied Economics, Working Paper, University of
were viewed as constraints on the main objective of the firm and Ansoff actually rejects
the usefulness of the idea. Here there is a fundamental difference between the SRI
approach and corporate planning. Corporate planning simply recognized that stakeholders
might place limits on the action of the firm. Thus, management should understand the
needs of stakeholders in order to set the bounds of operation. However, within these
bounds management should develop strategies that maximize the benefits to a single
stakeholder group, the shareholders. In contrast SRI saw the support of all stakeholders as
central to the sucess of the firm. Therefore, successful strategies are those that integrate
the interests of all stakeholders, rather than maximize the position of one group within
limitations provided by the others.
The process of strategy development is also entirely different under these two
approaches. Corporate planning has two main elements: prediction and adaptation. First,
management carries out an environmental scan to identify trends that help predict the
future business environment. Second, management identifies the best way for the firm to
adapt to the future environment in order to maximize its position. Within corporate
planning stakeholder analysis is carried out as part of the environmental scan. As such
stakeholders can defined by their roles rather than as complex and multifaceted
individuals. Therefore, corporate planners could carry out stakeholder analysis at a
generic level, without having to develop a detailed knowledge of the actual stakeholders
in the specific firm under question. This level of abstraction led to many analytical
breakthroughs in strategy formulation. Both Mason and Mitroff (1982) and Emshoff
(1978) produced a method called Strategic Assumptions Analysis to address these issues.
The progress that was made in strategy formulation by the corporate planning approach
did however have some drawbacks. First, the generic level of analysis tended to lead to
generic strategies that could be applied regardless of industry or circumstances. Second,
the use of particular analytical techniques put an emphasis on measurement in purely
economic terms. Strategists measured what could be measured. Thus, aspects of strategy
formulation that are difficult to quantify, such as the nature of specific stakeholder
relationships or tacit skills and knowledge, tend to be neglected.
Systems Theory and Organization Theory
Systems theory has complex roots, but the strand that is relevant to stakeholder theory
was pioneered by Russell Ackoff and C. West Churchman (1947). These ideas were
applied to organizational systems in the early 1970’s (Ackoff 1970, 1974). Systems
theory emphasizes the external links that are part of every organization. Thus,
organizations described as ‘open systems’ are part of a much larger network rather than
as independent self-standing entities. Identification of both the stakeholders and the
interconnections between them is a critical step in this approach. From a systems
perspective, problems can only be solved with the support of the all the members, or
stakeholders, in the network. Systems theory emphasizes the development of collective
strategies that optimize the network. Individual optimization strategies are not the focus
of analysis of this type of approach. Individual strategies would simply result in suboptimal network solutions.
Traditionally organizational theory comes from the same roots as systems theory. In the
1960’s Katz and Kahn (1966) began to develop organizational frameworks that defined
the organization relative to the system that surrounded it. Thompson  introduced
the concept of “clientele” to take into account groups outside the traditional boundary of
the firm. These approaches foreshadowed attempts to emphasize the external
environment as a significant explanatory factor of the organization of the firm (Pfeffer
and Salancik, 1978). The intention behind these organizational theories was to describe
and explain the existence and nature of the organization. However, there was little
attempt to deal with the choices and decisions that managers make, nor with prescriptive
attempts to set new directions for the organization. Nevertheless, the discovery that it is
difficult to describe the firm without full recognition of the relationships on which it
depends, has helped underline the fundamental importance of the stakeholder concept
Systems theory and organization theory suffer some limitations in its application
in the world of business. First, the collectivist nature of the approach makes it difficult to
incorporate the autonomy of the firm. If firms have no autonomy then it is difficult to
understand either the meaning of corporate strategy or the role of management. Second,
once problems have been formulated there is no obvious starting or ending point for the
analysis. Thus, the value of these approaches to business strategies seems limited to
monopolistic markets, such as utilities, where the objectives of the firm and the
objectives of the network come into alignment. However, despite the inherent problems
in applying these ideas, the approaches have been helpful in emphasizing the importance
of expanding analysis of strategic problems to include all stakeholders.
The Corporate Social Responsibility Literature
This area of academic research represents a collection of approaches rather than a
coherent theoretical grouping. A broad range of business and social agendas falls under
this banner. However, what most of these approaches share is the inclusion of stakeholder
groups that have traditionally been omitted from analysis. Indeed, many of these groups
were have been ignored because they were assumed to have adversarial relationship with
the firm. Thus, a major contribution of the social responsibility literature was to broaden
the scope of stakeholder analysis and to impress on management the importance of
building relationships with previously estranged groups. The social activist movement
has demonstrated the dangers of developing strategies that ignore the influence of
Most of this stakeholder analysis has been carried out at a generic level,
independent of the strategies of individual firms. However, because of the influence of
several high profile cases of catastrophic damage to corporate reputations, some attempts
have been made to incorporate these findings into general strategic business objectives.
Many of these corporate social responsibility initiatives have simply ended up
characterizing stakeholder relationships as constraints, much in the same way as the
corporate planning literature. This separation effectively isolates certain (societal and
environmental) stakeholder relationship from the other (business focused) stakeholder
relationships. This has resulted in corporate social responsibility being seen as either an
“add-on” luxury that can be only afforded by the most successful businesses, or as
damage limitation insurance, rather than as a core input to corporate strategy.
Additionally, there has been some confusion in the corporate responsibility literature
around the priorities of stakeholders. There is one point of view that all stakeholders are
equally important, simply because all have moral standing. It is difficult to document this
position in the writings of stakeholder theorists, for instance in Freeman (1984), yet this
idea that all stakeholders, defined widely, are equally important has been a barrier to
further development of this theory.
THE DISTINGUISHING CHARACTERISTICS OF A STAKEHOLDER
The idea of stakeholders, or stakeholder management, or a stakeholder approach
to strategic management, suggests that managers must formulate and implement
processes which satisfy all and only those groups who have a stake in the business. The
central task in this process is to manage and integrate the relationships and interests of
shareholders, employees, customers, suppliers, communities and other groups in a way
that ensures the long-term success of the firm. A stakeholder approach emphasizes active
management of the business environment, relationships and the promotion of shared
Insert Figure 1 About Here.
A Typical Stakeholder Map [Freeman (1984)]
A stakeholder approach suggests that we redraw our picture of the firm, along the
lines of Figure 1. For good or ill, there are myriad groups who have a stake in the success
of the firm. Many traditional views of strategy have ignored some stakeholders,
marginalized others and consistently traded-off the interests of others against favored
stakeholder groups. Such an approach may well be appropriate in relatively stable
environments. However, in a world of turbulence and accelerating change the limitations
of traditional approaches to strategic management become increasingly apparent. The
interests of key stakeholders must be integrated into the very purpose of the firm, and
stakeholder relationships must be managed in a coherent and strategic fashion. The
stakeholder approach that was developed from this work has several distinct
First of all, a stakeholder approach is intended to provide a single strategic
framework, flexible enough to deal with environmental shifts without requiring managers
to regularly adopt new strategic paradigms. The intention is to break the confusing circle
of “environmental shift → new strategic problem →development of new strategic
framework →adoption of new strategic practices→ new environmental shift→ new
Second, a stakeholder approach is a strategic management process rather than a
strategic planning process. Strategic planning focuses on trying to predict the future
environment and then independently developing plans for the firm to exploit its position.
In contrast, strategic management actively plots a new direction for the firm and
considers how the firm can affect the environment as well as how the environment may
affect the firm.
Third, the central concern of a stakeholder approach is the survival of the firm,
seen in Freeman’s words as “the achievement of an organization’s objectives”. To
survive in a turbulent environment management must direct a course for the firm, not
merely optimize current output. To successfully change course, management must have
the support of those who can affect the firm and understand how the firm will affect
others (as in the long run they may make a reactive response). Therefore, understanding
stakeholder relationships is, at least, a matter of achieving the organization’s objectives
which is in turn a matter of survival. The stakeholder framework does not rely on a single
over-riding management objective for all decisions. As such it provides no rival to the
traditional aim of “maximizing shareholder wealth.” To the contrary, a stakeholder
approach rejects the very idea of maximizing a single objective function as a useful way
of thinking about management strategy. Rather, stakeholder management is a neverending task of balancing and integrating multiple relationships and multiple objectives.
Fourth, a stakeholder approach encourages management to develop strategies by
looking out from the firm and identifying, and investing in, all the relationships that will
ensure long-term success. From this perspective it becomes clear that there is a critical
role for values and ‘values-based-management’ within business strategy. Diverse
collections of stakeholders can only cooperate over the long run if, despite their
differences, they share a set of core values. Thus, for a stakeholder approach to be
successful it must incorporate values as a key element of the strategic managmenet
This characteristic helps explain the success and influence of the stakeholder
concept within the fields of Business Ethics and Business and Society. Scholars in these
fields have added greatly to our understanding of how morality and ethics should play a
role in the world of business and stakeholder theory has played a very significant role in
this progress. However, despite its association with business ethics as a separate
discipline, a stakeholder approach remains a powerful and under-exploited theory of
business strategy. Good stakeholder management develops integrated business strategies
that are viable for stakeholders over the long run. While individual stakeholders may
lose out on some individual decisions, all stakeholders remain supporters of the firm.
Moreso than in the early 1980s, when such an approach was being invented by a number
of scholars, a stakeholder approach is even more appropriate to today’s fast changing
business environment. We propose that as the business world becomes ever more
turbulent, interconnected and as the boundaries between firms, industries and our public
and private lives become blurred, a stakeholder approach has more and more to tell us
about both values and value creation.
Fifth, the stakeholder approach is both a prescriptive and descriptive approach,
rather than purely empirical and descriptive. It calls for an approach to strategic
management which integrates economic, political, and moral analysis. Such an approach
has implications for research in the discipline as well as practical results for managers.
The purpose of a stakeholder approach to strategic management is to actively plan a new
direction for the firm. It builds on concrete facts and analysis, and thus is descriptive, but
it has to go beyond such description to recommend a direction for the firm, given its
stakeholder environment. Stakeholder management suggests that stakeholder
relationships can be created and influenced, not just taken as given. This is not merely a
process of adapting the firm to management’s best guess of the future environment.
Strategic management is a process where management imaginatively plans how its
actions might affect stakeholders and thus help to create the future environment.
Stakeholder management is used to enrich management’s understanding of the strategic
options they can create.
Sixth, the stakeholder approach is about concrete “names and faces” for
stakeholders rather than merely analyzing particular stakeholder roles. As such what is
important is developing an understanding of the real, concrete stakeholders who are
specific to the firm, and the circumstances in which it finds itself. It is only through this
level of understanding that management can create options and strategies that have the
support of all stakeholders. And it is only with this support that management can ensure
the long-term survival of the firm. It matters less that management understands the
reaction of “customers-in-general” to a price rise. It matters much more that they
understand how our actual customers react, bearing in mind the priority they were given
during last winter’s snowstorm, bearing in mind that they have ‘tuned’ their machinery to
our product’s specification and bearing in mind the industry annual trade show is next
month. It matters less that management understands that “shareholders-in-general” expect
steady dividend growth. It matters more that we understand that our shareholders expect
us to increase internal investment as fast as possible because they invested expecting us
to be “first to market” with the next generation product. Good strategic management,
according to this approach, emerges from the specifics rather than descending from the
general and theoretical.
Finally stakeholder management calls for an integrated approach to strategic
decision making. Rather than set strategy stakeholder by stakeholder, managers must find
ways to satisfy multiple stakeholders simultaneously. Successful strategies integrate the
perspectives of all stakeholders rather than offsetting one against another. This approach
does not naively suggest that, by delving into the details, management can turn all
constraints and trade-offs into a series of win-win situations. All stakeholders will not
benefit all the time. Obviously, even with a detailed understanding of concrete
stakeholder relationships, most strategies will distribute both benefits and harms between
different groups of stakeholders. Win-win situations are not guaranteed. Indeed, it is just
as important for management to develop strategies that distribute harms in a way that
ensures the long-term support of all the stakeholders. Yet, over time stakeholder interests
must be managed in the same direction.
RECENT WORK ON STAKEHOLDER MANAGEMENT
Since 1984 academic interest in a stakeholder approach has both grown and broadened.
Indeed the number of citations using the word stakeholder has increased enormously as
suggested by Donaldson and Preston (1995). Most of the research on the stakeholder
concept has taken place in four sub-fields:, normative theories of business; corporate
governance and organizational theory; corporate social responsibility and performance;
and, strategic management.
A Stakeholder Approach to Normative Theories of Business
A stakeholder approach emphasizes the importance of investing in the
relationships with those who have a stake in the firm. The stability of these relationships
depends on the sharing of, at least, a core of principles or values. Thus, stakeholder
theory allows managers to incorporating personal values into the formulation and
implementation of strategic plans. An example of this is the concept of an enterprise
strategy. An enterprise strategy [Schendel and Hofer 1979] describes the relationship
between the firm and society by answering the question “What do we stand for?” In its
original form a stakeholder approach emphasized the importance of developing an
enterprise strategy, while leaving open the question of which type of values are the most
appropriate. “It is very easy to misinterpret the foregoing analysis as yet another call for
corporate social responsibility or business ethics. While these issues are important in their
own right, enterprise level strategy is a differently concept. We need to worry about the
enterprise level strategy for the simple fact that corporate survival depends in part on
there being some “fit” between the values of the corporation and its managers, the
expectations of stakeholders in the firm and the societal issues which will determine the
ability of the firm to sell its products.” [Freeman, 1984, pp. 107] However, the illustration
that values are an essential ingredient to strategic management has, indeed, set in train an
inquiry into the normative roots of stakeholder theory.
Donaldson and Preston  argued that stakeholder theories could be
categorized from descriptive, instrumental or normative points of view. A descriptive
theory would simply illustrate that firms have stakeholders, an instrumental theory would
show that firms who consider their stakeholders devise successful strategies; a normative
theory would describe why firms should give consideration to their stakeholders. Thus,
the search for a normative justification for stakeholder takes the theory beyond strategic
issues and into the realm of philosophical foundations.
The question this research stream is trying to answer is “ above and beyond the
consequences of stakeholder management, is there a fundamental moral requirement to
adopt this style of management?” Various attempts have been made to ground
stakeholder management in a broad range of philosophical foundations. Evan and
Freeman  developed a justification of a stakeholder approach based on Kantian
principles. In its simplest form this approach argued that we are required to treat people
“as ends unto themselves.” Thus, managers should make corporate decisions respecting
stakeholders’ well being rather than treating them as means to a corporate end. This
framework has been further developed by Norman Bowie (1999) into a fully fledged
ethical theory of business. From a different perspective Phillips  has grounded a
stakeholder approach in the principle of fairness. When groups of individuals enter
voluntarily into cooperative agreements they create an obligation to act fairly. As such,
normal business transactions create a moral obligation for firms to treat stakeholders
fairly and thus to consider their interests when making strategic decisions. Others [Wicks,
Freeman and Gilbert 1994, Burton and Dunn, 1996] have tried to justify a stakeholder
approach through the ethics of care. Contrasting the traditional emphasis on an individual
rights-based approach to business, an ethics of care emphasizes the primacy of the
network of relationships that create the business enterprise. This approach advocates the
use of a stakeholder approach because of the need to formulate strategy in the context of
the relationships that surround it, rather than with the firm as a lone actor. Finally,
Donaldson and Dunfee  have developed a justification for a stakeholder approach
that is based on social contract theory.
Recently, Kochan and Rubenstein  have developed a normative stakeholder
theory based on an extensive study of the Saturn automotive manufacturer. In this study
they try and answer the question “Why should stakeholder models be given serious
consideration at this moment in history.” For Kochan and Rubenstein this is both a
normative and positive inquiry “and one that requires research that both explicates the
normative issues and poses the theoretical questions in ways that promote tractable
empirical research”. They conclude that stakeholder firms will emerge when the
stakeholders hold critical assets, expose these assets to risk and have both influence and
voice. However, stakeholder firms will only be sustainable when leaders’ incentives
encourage responsiveness to stakeholders and when stakeholder legitimacy can overcome
society’s skeptical ideological legacy towards stakeholder management.
A Stakeholder Approach to Corporate Governance and Organizational Theory
This stream of stakeholder research has grown out of the contrast between the
traditional view that it is the fiduciary duty of management to protect the interests of the
shareholder and the stakeholder view that management should make decisions for the
benefit of all stakeholders. Williamson  used a transaction cost framework to show
that shareholders deserved special consideration over other stakeholders because of “asset
specificity.” He argued that a shareholder’s stake was uniquely tied to the success of the
firm and would have no residual value should the firm fail, unlike, for example, the labor
of a worker. Freeman and Evan  have argued, to the contrary, that Williamson’s
approach to corporate governance can indeed be used to explain all stakeholders’
relationships. Many other stakeholders have stakes that are, to a degree, firm specific.
Furthermore, shareholders have a more liquid market (the stock market) for exit than
most other stakeholders. Thus, asset specificity alone does not grant a prime
responsibility towards stockholders at the expense of all others.
Goodpaster  outlined an apparent paradox that accompanies the stakeholder
approach. Management appears to have a contractual duty to manage the firm in the
interests of the stockholders and at the same time management seems to have a moral
duty to take other stakeholders into account. This stakeholder paradox has been attacked
by Boatright  and Marens and Wicks  and defended by Goodpaster and
Holloran . Others have explored the legal standing of the fiduciary duty of
management towards stockholders, Orts , Blair . Many of these debates are
on-going, with some advocating fundamental changes to corporate governance and with
others rejecting the relevance of the whole debate to a stakeholder approach.
There have also been a number of attempts to expand stakeholder theory into what Jones
(1995) has referred to as a ‘central paradigm’ that links together theories such as agency
theory, transactions costs and contracts theory into a coherent whole [Jones, 1995,
Clarkson, 1995]. From this perspective stakeholder theory can be used as a counterpoint
to traditional shareholder-based theory. While it is generally accepted that stakeholder
theory could constitute good management practice, its main value for these theorists is to
expose the traditional model as being morally untenable or at least too accommodating to
immoral behaviour. This literature has historically consisted of fractured collection of
viewpoints that share an opposition to the dominant neoclassical positive approach to
business. Because of its accommodating framework the stakeholder concept provided an
opportunity to develop an overarching theory that could link together such concepts as
agency theory, transactions costs, human relationships, ethics and even the environment.
More recently Jones and Wicks  have explicitly tried to pull together diverging
research streams in their paper “ Convergent Stakeholder Theory.”
A Stakeholder Approach to Social Responsibility and Social Performance
A significant area of interests for theorists of social responsibility has been the
definition of legitimate stakeholders. It has been stated that “one glaring shortcoming is
the problem of stakeholder identity. That is, that the theory is often unable to distinguish
those individuals and groups that are stakeholders form those that are not” [Phillips and
Reichart, 1998]. Mitchell, Agle and Wood addressed this issue by developing a
framework for stakeholder identification. Using qualitative criteria of power, legitimacy
and urgency, they develop what they refer to as “the principle of who and what really
counts.” This line of research is particularly relevant in areas such as the environment and
grassroots political activism. The critical question is whether there is such a thing as an
illegitimate stakeholder, and if so how legitimacy should be defined. Agle, Mitchell and
Sonnenfield  have taken an opposite approach. Rather than try and theoretically
define stakeholder legitimacy, they have conducted an empirical study to identify which
stakeholders managers actually consider to be legitimate.
A large body of research has been carried out in order to test the ‘instrumental’
claim that managing for stakeholders is just good management practice. This claim infers
that firms that practice stakeholder management would out perform firms that do not
practice stakeholder management. Wood  pointed out that causality is complex, the
relationship between corporate social performance (CSP) and financial performance is
ambiguous, there is no comprehensive measure of CSP and that the most that can be
demonstrated with current data is that “bad social performance hurts a company
It has often been hypothesized that firms who invest in stakeholder management
and improve their social performance will be penalized by investor who are only
interested in financial returns. This has been referred to as ‘the myopic institutions theory.
‘Waddock and Graves  have demonstrated the growth in importance of institutional
stakeholders over the last twenty years. On further investigation they found that firms that
demonstrated a high level of corporate social performance (CSP) tends to lead to an
increase in the number of institutions that invest in the stock [Graves and Waddock,
1994]. This result is “consistent with a steadily accumulating body of evidence that
provides little support for the myopic institutions theory [Graves and Waddock 1994].”
A range of recent studies have been carried out using new data and techniques to try and
shed light on the links between stakeholder management and social and financial
performance [Berman, Wicks, Kotha and Jones , Harrison and Fiet , Luoma
and Goodstein . At a more practitioner level Ogden and Watson  have
carried out a detailed case study into corporate and stakeholder management in the UK
water industry. At present most conclusions in this area are somewhat tentative as the
precision of techniques and data sources continue to be developed.
A Stakeholder Approach to Strategic Management
Harrison and St John have been the leaders in developing an integrated approach with
many of the conceptual frameworks of mainstream strategy theory. In their words “
[stakeholder management] combines perspectives from other traditional models such as
industrial organization economics, resource-based view, cognitive theory, and the
institutional view of the firm.”
They distinguish between stakeholder analysis and stakeholder management.
Stakeholder management is built on a partnering mentality that involves communicating,
negotiating, contracting, managing relationships and motivating. These different aspects
of stakeholder management are held together by the enterprise strategy which defines
what the firm stands for. Ethics are a part of these processes, first, because unethical
behaviour can have high costs and second, because codes of ethics provide the
consistency and trust required for profitable cooperation.
Harrison and St John are able to combine traditional and stakeholder approaches
because they use the stakeholder approach as an overarching framework within which
traditional approaches can operate as strategic tools. For example, they divide the
environment into the operating environment and the broader environment. Within the
operating environment the ‘resource based view of the firm’ can operate as a useful
framework to study the relationships of internal stakeholders such as management and
employees. Equally Porter’s five-force model [Porter, 1998] can be used to shed light on
the relationships of many external stakeholders such as competitors and suppliers.
However, strategic management does not stop at this analytical/ descriptive phase.
Prioritizing stakeholders is more than a complex task of assessing the strength of their
stake on the basis of economic or political power. “Priority is also a matter of strategic
choice.” [Pp. 61] The values and the enterprise strategy of a firm may dictate priorities
for particular partnerships and discourage others. Thus, a stakeholder approach. allows
management to infuse traditional strategic analysis with the values and direction that are
unique to that organization.
Stakeholders must not only be understood in the present, they must also be
managed over the long run. Harrison and St John distinguish between two basic postures
for managing stakeholders: buffering and bridging. Buffering is the traditional approach
for most external stakeholder groups and it is aimed at containing the effects of
stakeholders on the firm. It includes activities such as market research, public relations,
and planning. Buffering raises the barriers between the firm and its external stakeholders.
In contrast bridging involves forming strategic partnership. This approach requires
recognizing common goals and lowering the barriers around the organization. Partnering
is proactive and builds on interdependence. It is about creating and enlarging common
goals rather than just adapting to stakeholder initiatives. They propose a framework for
determining the importance of developing partnering tactics and when it is appropriate to
rely on more traditional methods.
Insert Figures 2 and 3
Harrison and St. John
With this framework as a guide they have been able to identify a wide range of
partnering tactics that can be used by management to manage their critical stakeholders
and develop critical strategies.
A STAKEHOLDER APPROACH AND MANAGEMENT PRACTICE
The impact of a stakeholder approach on management practice is difficult to
establish. Much of contemporary debate and commentary is trapped in the rhetoric of a
‘stakeholder versus shareholder’ debate. Once strategic management is divided into this
false dichotomy, stakeholder theory can be mischaracterized as anti-capitalist, anti-profit
and anti-business efficiency. For this reason the words ‘stakeholder management’ have
mostly been relegated to descriptions of a small number of radical businesses that are run
very differently from mainstream corporations, for example Body Shop and Ben and
Jerry’s. However, the premise of the stakeholder approach that it is necessary for all
firms would suggest that we should find many firms, rather than a radical few, using a
stakeholder approach. Indeed that is what we find when we examine three recent books
on the practice of management
In Built to Last [Collins and Porras, 1994] Jim Collins and Jerry Porras put the
“shareholder versus stockholder’ debate in a new light. Collins and Porras attempted to
explain the sustained success of firms across many industries by contrasting them with
less successful peers. They proposed that a necessary condition of long-term financial
success is a strong set of core values that permeates the organization. “ Core values are
like an ether that permeates an organization… you can think of it as analogous to the
philosophy of life that an individual might have. Core values are analogous to a
biological organism’s genetic code.”[pp. 29] The authors confirmed this hypothesis with
a rigorous financial analysis of successful and unsuccessful firms over the last century.
Not only does “Built to Last” provide strong support for the importance of an enterprise
strategy as proposed in a stakeholder approach, many of the core values identified in the
research confirm the importance of basing strategy on collaborative stakeholder
relationships. For example 3M’s core values include “ a respect for individual initiative
and personal growth”; Merck’s core values include “profits, but profit from work that
benefits humanity”; Hewlett-Packard’s core values include “ respect and opportunity for
HP people” and “affordable quality for HP customers” and “profit and growth as a means
to make all else possible”; Marriott’s core values include “people are #1- treat them well,
expect a lot, and the rest will follow’; and Walt Disney’s core values include “to bring
happiness to millions, and to celebrate, nurture and promulgate wholesome American
“Built to Last” tells a story of the widespread use of a stakeholder approach by dozens of
successful firms that include many elite multinationals. More importantly they found that
the stakeholder approach in practice predates the formal articulation of stakeholder theory
in academia. Thus, Collins and Porrit provide both empirical support for the success of a
stakeholder approach and they confirm that the academic theory grew out of management
practice rather than vice versa.
In The Stakeholder Strategy [Svendsen, 1998] Svendsen investigates firms who
are building collaborative stakeholder relationship as part of their business strategy.
From Wal-Mart, Marks and Spencer, Saturn, BankBoston and British Telecom to BC
Hydro, Motoman Inc., Stillwater Technologies, and Van City Credit Union she
demonstrates how managements across the world are continuing to develop and
implement their strategies by developing collaborative relationships with the stakeholders
in their firms. Svendsen concludes that in an increasingly volatile world “ the ability to
balance the interests of all stakeholders will be a defining characteristic of successful
companies in the next decade. This is not to say that companies will be able to satisfy
everyone’s interests all the time. However, companies that have a strong set of values and
that can communicate their business goals clearly will maintain stakeholders support
when the results are not in their favor.”[Pg. 188]
Wheeler and Sillanpaa [The Stakeholder Corporation, 1997] trace the use of a
stakeholder approach from Robert Owen, William Morris, Thomas Watson of IBM to
The Body Shop. Their research illustrates the history, the rationale and the practical
implementation of stakeholder ideas. They develop, and illustrate the use of, positively
reinforcing cycles of inclusion that help build stronger and more cooperative stakeholder
relationships. They also emphasize the need to redescribe the world of business in ways
beyond, but not necessarily in contradiction to, the profit maximization view. As Anita
Roddick points out in the Foreword to the book “Some of our best companies still retreat
into “shareholder value” justification for excellent community outreach programs when
they should simply celebrate and say “this is what business should be about.””[Pp. Vii].
AN AGENDA FOR FUTURE RESEARCH
So what are the critical issues facing a stakeholder approach to strategic
management today? There are two main theoretical issues that stand out from the rest.
First of all theorists must deal with what Freeman (1994) and Wicks and Marens have
called “The Separation Thesis”. The Separation Thesis states that we cannot usefully
analyze the world of business as if it is separate from the world of ethics or politics. Our
personal values are embedded in all our actions, therefore unless our theories take this
into account, they will do a poor job of explaining our world. The separation thesis was
formulated because of the widespread adoption of a stakeholder approach within business
ethics and because of the continued neglect of a stakeholder approach in the area of
strategic management. This distortion has resulted in stakeholder theory being seen as an
ethical rather than a business theory. This categorization serves to isolate ethical issues
from the mainstream business theories and to isolate a stakeholder approach from
mainstream business strategy.
Second, Wicks and Freeman have recently called for a pragmatist perspective to
the study of management. A stakeholder approach grew out of a practical study of
management problems. A pragmatic approach to strategic management would focus
academic research on the detailed study of concrete business situations. Over time
general theories might emerge, but not through abstract theory development.
Those who have called for a pragmatic approach to stakeholder theory have been
seeking to combine a post-modern anti-foundationalist approach to theorizing with a
Rortian desire to reform and redescribe the human enterprise [Wicks and Freeman]. The
post-modernist seeks to abandon the quest for Truth that began in the Enlightenment.
These theorists argue that there is no truth about the world of business to be found. There
are no irrefutable foundations for business theory or economics. The frameworks and
laws that we use to describe business are simply ideas that have achieved a broad level of
agreement among informed practitioners. To search for higher levels of abstraction, that
would provide a foundation for these laws as Truth, is a distraction to the progress of
business strategy. To the contrary, the priority for business theorist should be to study the
world of business and develop new ways to describe value creation and trade. New
descriptions of bad or harmful business practices will inspire us to challenge existing
practices, norms and attitudes. New ways of describing excellent ways of creating value
will provide hope and stimulate change and innovation.
This approach to business research would challenge the idea that there is a
separate world where “business is business” and where the fundamental principles, selfinterest, unfettered competition and the maximizing of shareholder wealth, have already
been discovered. This approach would encourage researchers to challenge the language
and metaphors of existing theories of business and economics. It would challenge the
accepted laws and truths about business and to abandon the search for an overarching
‘true’ paradigm of business. Rather, researchers should expect a multitude of theories and
frameworks that describe different approaches and different aspects of business. There
will still be good and bad theories of business strategy, but the value of the theory will
depend on its ability to help mangers make sense of their world, rather on the basis of
What would pragmatism mean for a stakeholder approach? First, it would mean
the end of separate streams of business ethics and business strategy research. Second, it
would mean an end to the search for normative or foundational roots for stakeholder
theory. Third, it would mean abandoning the search for absolute object definitions of
such things such as stakeholder legitimacy. These issues would depend on the question at
hand and on the circumstances under consideration. A stakeholder approach might
consist of a collection of interacting, reinforcing and contradicting theories of business
strategy. Each theory would be based on concrete studies of real business case studies.
This is not to say that we need to abandon the idea of general principles for the sake of
contingent theories. At any point in time there will always be theories, based on specific
examples, who’s message holds true for a great many businesses and mangers. These will
still be general principles of business; indeed the idea that businesses should be managed
in the interests of stakeholders is one of those ideas. However these principles will, over
time, be continuously under review and will eventually be replaced by a description that
are more useful. The work of Kochan and Rubenstein  is, in many ways, at the
vanguard of this approach. As outlined above there are theoretical, epistemological and
research challenges for a stakeholder approach to strategic management. The authors
believe that these challenges should be met by turning our faces towards practitioners and
the development of a set of narratives that illustrate the myriad ways of creating value for
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