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The OCR Glossary

Strategic Aspirations

Lars Thøger Christensen, Mette Morsing & Ole Thyssen

Strategic aspirations are public announcements designed to inspire, motivate, and create expectations about the future. Vision statements or value declarations are examples of such talk, through which organizations announce their ideal selves and declare what they (intend to) do. While aspirations are often encouraged by social norms, regulations, and institutions—for example, institutionalized standards for corporate social responsibility (CSR) reporting—they live through local articulations and enactments that allow organizations to discover who they are and who they might become. Strategic aspirations, in other words, have exploratory and inspirational potential—two features that are highly essential in complex areas such as sustainability and CSR. This entry takes a communicative focus on strategic aspirations, highlighting the value of aspirational talk, understood as ideals and intentions that current organizational practices cannot yet live up to.

Differences as Productive Idealizations

Managerial communication is a particular genre that often involves differences between what the organization is now and what it aspires to be. Such differences may in fact be considered the driving force of managerial strategy, understood as a process of minimizing the differences between vision and reality. Since visions are usually stated in vague and general terms, there is room for flexible managerial intervention, providing latitude for the manager to decide precisely where it is important to take action. Since a vision is a statement about the future, a visionary organization has to accept a conflict between “now” and “then.” Moreover, to motivate internal and external audiences, managers often pretend that “the visionary future is already now,” thereby creating a gap between what is said and what is currently done. While differences between words and action may produce cynicism among some stakeholders, they are nonetheless essential dimensions of managerial strategies and organizational change efforts. Strategic aspirations are therefore not perfect images of organizational reality.

Corporate managers represent the organization to different audiences, including shareholders, employees, customers, and the general public, and are expected not only to inform but also to motivate. It is obvious that a manager cannot and should not act as a scientist informing us about the true state of the organization. While he or she may need to acknowledge such descriptions to establish credibility, the manager is first and foremost a motivator charged with the complex task of telling us what can possibly be made true, provided the right initiatives are taken and the right people are involved. Telling the whole truth, for example, focusing on what harm the organization is causing, may de-motivate stakeholders and prevent a better reality from becoming true. When news media, for example, describe the economic problems of an organization in realistic and accurate terms, such descriptions may prevent the organization from achieving investor confidence and attracting qualified employees. Although they are also, and simultaneously, faced with demands for truth and transparency, managers are expected to invoke appealing fictions that compensate for a more bleak reality.

Employees may criticize managerial communication as breezy or unreliable, but at the same time, they sense that an organization without fictions and aspirations is dull and alienating. Employees become passive when they experience managerial lack of aspirations or ambiguity about future visions. In the process of initiating necessary changes and improvements, hope for something better is an important resource. Even when employees mock managerial claims and aspirations, such fictions may shape employee behavior by defining a framework for action. Consequently, an organization describes itself not only to confirm its identity as it “is” but also simultaneously to inspire itself and its members to become better. The now, in a sense, becomes impregnated and enriched by the future.

Thus, in the process of instigating change, accuracy and consistency are not the primary drivers. Just like the messages we deliberately convey about ourselves to significant others, managerial messages (e.g., vision statements and value declarations) are idealized stories of identity through which corporate actors hope to seduce themselves and one another to embark on the glorious future already today.

CSR as Aspirational Talk

In many walks of life, however, and especially when it comes to issues of social and environmental responsibility, corporate critics tend to disregard such insight and argue that differences between what organizations say and what they do are intolerable and must be eliminated. Consequently, organizations are told to walk their talk—that is, to practice what they preach. As a general rule, the “walk-the-talk” recipe may provide an appropriate buffer against the type of hypocrisy occurring in simple lies. However, based on the observation that people and organizations act to think, Karl Weick (1995) argues that the walk-the-talk imperative assumes a consistency between the talk and the walk that limits the possibility of discovering new solutions or ideas for which accurate words are inadequate. Therefore, Weick argues, organizations should not implement the walk-the-talk imperative too tightly as it may prevent change and improved action. Importantly in this perspective, talk is also action, and organizations may learn from the ways in which they describe themselves and their relations to others. This is also the case when those descriptions are not fully accurate.

Aspirational talk, understood as idealized self-talk and presented as accurate self-descriptions, is essential in pushing organizations toward higher standards. To announce ideals out loud is to create expectations, thereby subjecting oneself to potential pressure from activists, interest groups, journalists, and other critical stakeholders. Given such pressures, ideals and policies intended at the outset to be purely symbolic or ceremonial may become binding through the combination of regulation, activist pressure, policy commitments, and employee expectations.

There is no guarantee that such recoupling of words and action will actually take place or lead to new ideas and improved behavior. Yet the growing stakeholder interest in corporate affairs indicates that although talk may be seen as “superficial,” corporate action is increasingly subjected to critical scrutiny that juxtaposes organizational talk and action. Moreover, the media’s power to make the invisible visible for all to see has a disciplining effect on those in power, including corporations. To articulate CSR ideals and plans in a public arena is therefore not simply to present a noncommittal version of the organization but also to articulate a future-oriented self-image that is binding in the sense that it potentially obligates the organization to begin performing certain acts. And while many such acts—taking CSR decisions, and confirming the decisions in minutes, and new decisions—may appear inadequate and far too slow, given the serious issues that trigger them, they have the potential to transform the attention and expectations of organizational audiences, both outside and inside the organization.

These observations speak in favor of more tolerance for discrepancies in CSR communication and other types of organizational self-descriptions. Such tolerance allows organizations to discover new solutions and opportunities that benefit not only themselves but also their environment by raising the barrier of expectations among critical stakeholders. From a related school of thinking, James March has recommended developing a tolerance allowing corporate ideals to flourish. Like Nils Brunsson, March does not celebrate hypocrisy as a strategy but sees it as an inevitable by-product of all organizing, especially in situations where organizations want to improve their practices. Strategic aspirations enable organizations to meet conflicting interests while constantly comparing, contrasting, and questioning the status quo against a more desirable future.

Obviously, critical audiences still need to consider how much latitude they are willing to grant organizations in experimenting with new ways of talking about their ideals, values, and plans. The answer to that question may depend on the types of decisions and action that follow the talk. Thus, it may be easier to tolerate such differences between talk and action if such differences are perceived as transitional or preparatory stages toward better practices or if the decoupling we experience between talk and action is due to a lack of current capacity, as opposed to a lack of will.

The observation that gaps between talk and reality may be a resource for change implies two apparently contradictory sets of practices: First, the organization must keep the gap open so that stakeholders are constantly motivated to devote time and energy to ideals that have not yet been realized. If the gap closes in, it must be reopened with new aspirations. Second, the gap needs to be narrowed with visible and effective achievements. The idea, however, is not to reach perfection once and for all but to keep the difference between real and unreal open as a driving force for a permanent effort. A manager, thus, is confronted with a double and self-contradictory set of expectations: He or she must at the same time be on earth and in heaven.

Consequently, strategic aspirations should not be disregarded as hypocrisy or something superficial, detached from organizational practice. Organizational visions and aspirations may serve as orienting devices for internal or external audiences and play a significant role in shaping organizational practice. Talk about plans and intentions constitutes actions, just as actions simultaneously speak. Aspirational talk, thus, may be used strategically to impose pressure on the organization itself. Managerial action needs to be talked about, internally and in public, to become part of practice and the society at large. Even when corporate ambitions to do good vis-à-vis society do not reflect managerial action, talk about such ambitions provides articulations of ideals, beliefs, values, and frameworks for decisions—in other words, it provides the raw material for constructing the organization.

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See Also

Accountability; Communication Management; Corporate Social Responsibility, Communication of; Hypocrisy; Organizational Identification; Organizational Integrity; Reputation Gaps

See Also

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