Kaplan’s Framing Contests

Sarah Kaplan: Framing Contests: Strategy Making Under Uncertainty Organization Science 19(5), September–October 2008, pp. 729–752.

Information ambiguity is the linchpin of  strategy making in periods of uncertainty, and framing is key to explaining how actors cope with it. The resolution of framing contests allows managers to move forward in the face of uncertainty. The empirical evidence from this study suggests that firms possess the makings of both adaptation and inertia. Strategic response is therefore constructed through the conflicts in frames and the purposeful action of managers seeking to make their own frames triumph over others.


Sarah Kaplan provides a very worthwhile account of the role of perception in the formation of organisational strategies. From a mathematical perspective an organisation has data which – somehow – needs to be converted into a narrative that resonates with stakeholders and that can inform action. Thus the strategy shapes the view of what is going on, what the challenge is, and what is to be done.

In Kaplan’s model (Fig. 1), a frame with enough initial resonance with all stakeholders will be accepted. Frames with less overall resonance will be evaluate with respect to interests. If no clear winner emerges, then there will be attempts to consider other factors, to establish or undermine legitimacy. There will also be attempts to adapt frames. All this seems reasonable. I would add, though, that an important part of frames in practice seems to be what they draw your attention away from, superficially explain away, or otherwise cover-up. For example, prior to 2007/8 the dominant economic frame assured us that we didn’t have to worry about finance ever causing a crash.

One thing to note about this approach is that strategies are essentially one-off affairs, supporting a pragmatic stance. That is, having decided on a frame one sticks with until there is a particular reason to reconsider it. It is not, in itself, a strategy for sustainability. Long-run issues enter in to the various factors in selecting the frame. (In one example there is a desire to hang on to staff who will be useful in the longer term.) Thus the paper seems only to be about making particular substantive decisions, leaving out longer-term strategic aspects. In particular, it seems that the ‘uncertainty’ is really only an ambiguity about which route to go down, an ambiguity which can be ‘decided’ away.

It may be that organisations under existential pressure really do lack a long view, or do think of their situations as relatively certain. But some organisations (e.g., governmental, charities) seem to be different. It would be interesting to model their strategizing. I also wonder about non-western organizations.

Finally, the paper considers the aftermath of the bursting of the high-tech bubble. Thinking of the 2007/8 bubble, some people suppose that financiers and politicians had the wrong frame, and we have since seen framing contests. But if a frame is something that ‘makes sense’ of the data and clearly informs action, then it seems to me – taking Keynes seriously – that no credible frame would have been adequate. Instead, one needs organisations (regulators?) with Keats’ ‘negative capability’ – strategizing through uncertainty. But Kaplan’s model may stand as a model of what currently is.

Dave Marsay

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