- Original Article
- Open Access
Future creation in the strategising practice of a Hungarian company
© The Author(s) 2016
- Received: 9 August 2016
- Accepted: 18 November 2016
- Published: 26 November 2016
The core research question that is discussed in this paper is: “How is the future constructed in corporate strategy-making practice?” The answer is provided through the analysis of a single case study that was conducted in the context of a Hungarian children’s book publishing company. The results show that apart from consciously and deliberately applied future anticipation and/or foresight tools and techniques in strategising practices, other managerial activities may also lead to foresightful actions, specifically, everyday strategy-making practices, e.g., future-oriented product design, employee selection and cooperation with supply chain partners. In summary, moderate growth, risk management, trust and fair stakeholder management practices are the key factors that comprise an active future-creating strategy. With a few examples that are taken from the everyday life of the subject company, the paper describes these characteristics and examines their roles in shaping the corporate future in the strategising practices of the present.
- Case study
Most of the literature on Foresight and strategy engages in theoretical concepts and frameworks, but we rarely see literature that addresses “real practice”, i.e., how these concepts are put into practice and how they are framed by those who apply them. This paper argues that conscious future strategising can be identified on the level of the everyday practices of strategy makers. This is the point at which theory and practice meet, and this paper aims to offer the possibility of mutual learning and fruitful dialog among practitioners and theorists. This paper provides both theoretical and practical implications that are derived from a case study that was conducted in a Hungarian enterprise, which is classified as a Small and Medium Enterprise (SME).
Berger and Luckmann  discuss the social construction of reality in their knowledge-sociological thesis. Adhering to this philosophy-of-science trend, using the case study method, this paper explores the process of the unfolding and/or construction of the future by applying the organisation theory trends of the so-called interpretative and constructivist paradigms of the social sciences [2, 3].
I classify my research and choice of value as part of the interpretative paradigm because I do not consider social reality to be an objective and existing phenomenon, but rather it is an (inter-) subjective reality that can be approached and understood through methodologies such as interviews. Each individual interprets their world through their individual filters, cognitive schemes and perception, and I will investigate that subjective, individual understanding and its evolution into collective thinking through common future construing activities.
To summarise [2, 3], what is meant by a subjective approach under the interpretative paradigm, according to the ontological interpretation, reality is not an objective factor in everyday life, but it is the result of a common construction, which becomes common reality through communication. According to that approach, the future exists as the cognitive creation of individuals and society. The method of understanding (epistemology) therefore can only be based on the criteria of actors (in this case, those who are involved in strategy building) by taking into account the cultural and social medium. The image of a human being from this perspective assumes the freedom and relative independence of individual decisions, in which sense the topic of responsibility can also be relevantly associated with people who have free will. In terms of methodology, a credible picture may be provided to facilitate an understanding of a subjective world conception (in this case, future-construing thought) through qualitative case description.
According to Stake’s  interpretation, as a concept, the case study has a dual meaning: it refers to the “process of studying a case” (i.e., the research process), and it also refers to the product of the research and/or learning process, i.e., the case report. According to Stake, the choice of a case study by the researcher is in fact not a methodology choice, but it is rather the choice of the case that is of interest to the researcher and that drives his intention to study it. He recommends that qualitative researchers definitely choose a case (field) from which we can learn the most in terms of the topic of the research . Nevertheless, I use a research method that, although it starts from a particular analysis, is aimed at understanding the analysed phenomenon of “constructing the future” in a more complex environment and capturing the factors that affect the phenomenon and their interrelationship.
In my research, I took the role of the “travelling” researcher , where the researcher and the interviewee jointly discover and interpret the world and the life world of the interviewee. My objectives were to understand the world of the interviewees and (their own and corporate) Foresight activity and to identify their everyday practice in that regard. I conducted in-depth interviews during the course of which the world and everyday (corporate) struggles and issues of the future of the interviewee, the relationship between their actions and their desires emerged and developed in me as the interviewing researcher (despite the fact that I began the interview with as few preconceptions as possible). Dilemmas and common ideas may emerge and are often rejected, but the interviewee can also develop a deeper understanding of their own world and can be enriched by recognition and the revelations that may arise. With regard to the future, we certainly encountered issues that occasionally reached the borderline of being “too” personal or for which there were no ready responses. We also observed former explanations that were intensified as well as the creation of new interpretations.
I have identified some of the decisions and actions from the everyday activity of the publishing house, which are also referred to in the interviews, to present the company’s corporate strategy-making and future-making practice. These will serve as the means to present and explore the process where the company shapes its own future and that of the environment on a daily basis.
I collected the strategic actions and events that were mentioned by the interviewees (dwelling engagement ), and although they relate to everyday practice, they also reveal strategic and longer-term thinking. According to the strategy-as-practice approach [12, 13], it is through everyday action and events that one can describe a company’s operation and identify its implementation of an espoused theory and its theory-in-use values and thus produce a snapshot of the company’s future-making in progress. In addition, in this way, one can also bridge any gap that may exist between the company’s theoretical principles and their practical implementation .
In advance and in summary of the crystallised and more generic realisations that are obtained in response to the research question “How and what future is created in corporate everyday practice?”, moderate growth, risk management, trust, fair market and human conduct are the keywords of the active future-making activity that defines the content and the process of the long-term corporate relationships among the employees and the strategic partners. In the following section, I will present these characteristics and examine their roles in shaping a corporate future through a few examples that are taken from the everyday life of the company.
Strategy making practices – future-oriented activities
Creating future in the present – main characteristics (motivators)
4.1. Product design
Book series; progressive, contemporary literature
Value creation (for owners & costumers) risk taking
4.2. Supplier selection
Brand creation (writers, illustrators);
Trust & risk taking with care; Creating future in the “here and now”
4.3. Employee selection
Convergence of values, habit represented by the management team
Professional and human trust; Sharing spirit/passion for the company (own child)
4.4. Cooperation within the supply chain
Mutual trust: participation and involvement; moderate growth
Future-oriented product design
By future-oriented product design I mean the current, deliberate, activity of the company to build the future of its products and its market. On the one hand, this means the progressive approach that has already been presented in connection with the profile and the credo of the publishing house. They are committed to affecting their readers through fresh contemporary voices (authors) and pictures (illustrators) that have been identified and published by them. As they describe in the above-quoted interviews, theirs is a “premium commodity”, and they want to keep it like that. In the first period, the feedback that confirmed the relevant consumer demand was a welcome surprise for the publishing house, establishing the domestic and international children’s literature as their focus of interest.
Supporting contemporary literature is not distinct from the goal that was expressed by the founders in the beginning in terms of their business approach: the efforts to produce profit cannot be overwritten by a theoretical “mission”. Nevertheless, for the consumers, the publishing house that entered the industry with a market-generating impetus after the transition is the flagship of contemporary children’s literature.
Identifying the authors and illustrators is only the first step. The building up of their prestige is closely linked to that of the publishing house, and it occurs in the context of a thoroughly considered strategy that is based on the “make it a series” approach as a building block. The publishing house forges bonds through this strategic approach with its suppliers and its consumers, whose “returning customer” status makes the revenues of the company increasingly programmable. It is a sign of deliberate portfolio construction and expansion that the age-group-specific product ranges expand in parallel with the ageing of the company (and in line with that of the founders’ children).1
The children’s book market is typically one in which the range of consumers is distinct from that of the costumers. Therefore, the two groups should to be addressed through different channels. Parents, teachers and librarians are important target groups of corporate communication. Qualification for compulsory school literature, writer-reader meetings with school and kindergarten teachers, and the information events that are held for librarians as well as the festival of children’s literature that was founded by the company are all intended to promote information supply and education. There is also a blog on the publishing house site that addresses the topic of the limited space that is assigned to contemporary Hungarian children’s literature in the training of kindergarten and primary school teachers. In addition to the promotion of their own business interests and the dissemination of their credo, the company events are also meant to change attitudes.
I think this is what their market success derives from, that they are very temperate with everyone. And if I can say another thing like that a positive thing, that’s their absolute competency. […] Really if someone can choose so well, can hit the mark to this extent: there is not only one author and illustrator here who have already made brands through the publishing house. […] This is no accident, never. The reason why more books have been sold here is not marketing, but when, say, the fifth part of a book is sold out or the fifth episode is on, still with success, then it can’t be simply that in the subway there are three illuminated billboards opposite you, and that’s why so many copies are sold. The good choice, with excellent sense, the matching of the author and the illustrator and the book format, a lot depend on that. And, of course, the business approach.
Several minor publishers of children’s books were established at approximately the same time when the publishing house was established. One could describe the proactive and market creating skills of the company management by the foresightfullness concept of Prahalad and Hamel , i.e., they create and invent products and services that had not existed before; that is, they are not safeguarding the past, but inventing and creating the future. This is the case whether we speak of the future of the market of the authors and illustrators or of the children’s books. The books are associated with many other services (such as exercise books, audio books, mobile applications, board games, theatre pieces, and movies), and thus instead of positioning itself and its products in an established market, the company creates a new market space. Competition is not as yet high in this marketplace, and the consumer group continues to expand, even in the domestic framework and, in parallel, new publishers are appearing in the market. These companies are potential rivals, but their everyday activity is characterised by co-operation for the sake of the growth of the entire industry.
The authors and illustrators create their own brands with the help of the publishing house, but it is obvious from the relevant processes that this development is not based on exclusive contracts, as the “suppliers” also appear at other publishers: trust is an important component of co-operation. The economic rationale, which is the deliberate construction of the future, is present in supplier selection not only at the company but also at the market level: in addition to a focus on its own market share, i.e., its “tranche”, the company strives to expand the industry itself by expanding the range of authors and illustrators.
The main drivers of employee selection decisions are emotions rather than rational considerations, finding a common voice, convergence, and gradually evolving professional and human trust.
In the beginning, the total management did employee selection, but as company operations became increasingly complex, the tasks had to be divided, and a manager was selected who became “responsible” for this functional field. However, we cannot address a fixed position for this role, as the employee reports show that every member of the “family enterprise” is in contact with the person who holds that position, so the managers can provide their respective experiences and opinions on whether a selected assistant or publishing house worker fulfils the hopes that are placed upon him or her.
The main driver of employee selection is sympathy, the recognition of a common voice. The owner couple identified this as personal interest, a curiosity concerning others, turning to each other, and “habit”. The main criterion of employee selection is the capacity to relate to the spirit that is represented by the management team.
The interviews provide a view of a dual approach to employees: the exploration of inner values, the common linkage points and the enhancement of the bonds and commitment to the company and “instrumentalism”, seeing the employees as a means along the road to success, who represent the company to customers through their professionalism and expertise. Despite this prudent selection process, which reflects genuine interest, the employees are not involved in either the decisions that concern them or in the everyday processes in the planning of their common future.
In the period that I studied, the company required no job-advertisement to select employees; the applicants came from the street, with different motives: a young mother who was looking for a part-time job while caring for a young child, a person with librarian background who applied because he (she) had “fallen in love” with the bookshop storefront, arts graduates, due to the shortage of jobs or actually seeing their own future (as illustrators, literary editors) in the publishing house, using the shop assistant job or some other administrative one as a stepping stone, in the hope of future progress. Could these qualities be representative of the “habit” that was identified by the owners at the first meeting: the common values and the identification with the core objectives and spirit of the company? To remain with the basic child-raising metaphor, the process can be compared to a babysitter who learns to love the child who is relegated to her care; it is obviously not her own child, but whom she loves and cares for as if it were. For the owners, they select their employees to take care of their so-called children with this level of caution and care. “Habit” means, on the one hand, this type of caring value-based approach and biased admiration that the owners themselves feel and, on the other, the personal motivation of the employees, the way in which they see the fulfilment of their individual objectives in the company. If the opportunity arose, some employees would gladly be the owners of the bookshop. As title holders, they would see their own future from a longer perspective and in a different light; instead of being the executors of the decisions of others, of strategy-making, they would be the inventors. In their case, planning for the longer term is hindered by their employee status, which is interpreted as “serving” others.
For the managers, strategic decisions through which the future is created in the present include the finding and keeping of the appropriate people. However, apart from certain cases, the thoroughness that characterises the selection of strategic partners and suppliers was not as deliberate at first. With the growth of the company and the division of the functions, the management was compelled to realise that they could not be present everywhere so they had to identify the persons whom they felt they could trust with the shop and the publishing house to secure their own future.
How is a corporate future created through employee selection? A possible answer is that of Penrose , who observed employees (particularly managers) as resources, as priority factors of corporate growth, who can contribute to the growth of the company with their knowledge and skills.
Co-operation in the supply chain
Considering the strategy-making practice of the company under study, the next area of inquiry is the design and operation of the supply chain. In the present case, I will only examine a few components of the way in which the products (the books) of the publishing house are passed on to the consumers. I will highlight from what is the classical supply chain in this industry (publishing house) – printing houses – publishing house – wholesale/retail trade – customer and/or consumer, the relationship of the printing house and the publishing house. In this case, a printing house mediator (printing broker) has been intercalated between the printing house and the publishing house, which is not unusual in this industry, and he has become an important actor in the strategy-making process of the publishing house. At the time of the interviews, this co-operation had been in place for almost four years, and it had attained such degree of trust that the publishing house had handed over almost its entire printing house order stock and the related strategic and operative issues to the mediator. However, we cannot address questions of outsourcing because strategic decision-making has remained within the competence of the publishing house, albeit with the contribution of the printing house mediator. Strategic planning occurs with the involvement of the printing house mediator and through him, the printing house and, actually, the requirement of predictability and Foresight, with common planning based on transparency, reliability and trust, also came from the side of the printing house.
Along the supply chain, long-term co-operation that is based on trust is part of everyday strategic thinking. The role that is occupied by the supply chain, the deliberate design of the strategy, the network of partners represent the framework in which deliberate strategic planning, the construction of the future, occurs in everyday practice. In the case under study, we do not address dependence relationships, reporting lines and hierarchy, leaders and followers, but we instead focus on mutually advantageous co-operation based on thoroughly designed cost-efficiency criteria, which means long-term thinking along the dimensions of programmability and predictability. This approach has primarily brought stability to the life of the company, the construction of a predictable course several years ahead through the entire supply chain – from the authors to the finalised books. This cautious planning, i.e., the company’s scheduling strategy, emerged gradually and, moreover, it can also be stated that the actors of the supply chain (the printing house mediator and the printing house itself) push the company towards more specific and longer-term planning.
The status quo that is described from the side of the printing house also confirms that the publishing house can be assigned to the category of innovative (large) companies, formulated as a theoretical and practical category, where the analysis of Quinn  highlights the importance of organisational culture and the capacity of the foresight of the top management, which indicates that they operate a specific practice that underlies the large-scale plans that places innovation along a realistic time horizon.  Large-scale conceptions, visions can be achieved with a small steps policy (incrementalism), on the basis of cautious and relaxed internal operation. This partly overwrites the approach that corporate strategy-making and decision-making are dynamised and structured by changes in the environment. Because of the idea that “we do as is convenient”, the attitude of the leaders, owners and strategic partners is, therefore, of paramount importance.
This tight, trust-based co-operation between the publishing house and the printing house mediator is an important component of long-term co-operation. The mediator, who is also engaged by the company managers as a counsellor in connection with strategic issues, sometimes becomes an inner stakeholder of the company in addition to being an external one. The common interests, the pledge of economical and quality operation for both parties are objectives that they seek to promote jointly, day-by-day, through to the present.
I will not present the industrial trends here, although I agree that it is inevitable to refer to them in the context of the embeddedness issue and the strategy-making process. The question of “how do the books get to the consumer?” is also important for the discussion of the supply chain; here, future-orientation and long-term planning are incorporated in the shop (in fact, by now, the company operates several shops in the countryside, in Buda and in Pest) and the web shop offers a possibility to move forward from the industrial “roller-coaster2”.
Timing or event-timing?
Regular, rhythmic and proactive strategy, predictable, scheduled. – Active strategy-making, redefinition of industrial frameworks, leading/managerial role
Regular, rhythmic and proactive strategy, predictable, scheduled changes. Strategy accepting the industrial frameworks, adhering/adjusting to them.
Strategy decisions taken in response to events (e.g., technological change, modification of economic indicators, new consumer demand in sight).
Easy to predict and plan, focussed attention, proactive. Time available for other things as well: planning for the longer-term future. Role of long-term relationships, trust.
Easy to predict and plan, focussed attention, proactive.
Method of change management in stable markets.
Closer linkage, co-movement of the actors of the supply chain may lead to excessive dependence, company autonomy may be reduced; the flexibility of decision-making/change may decreasenn
No time for anything else
Almost no need for thinking
Often leads to hurry
That is, the industry specifics determine corporate strategy: here cyclicity and seasonality. The increasing consumer needs that are generated by the “book festivals” and Christmas add certain pivoting points to the operation of the publishing house. This requires a specific approach to timing (Table 2), which is a predictable strategy for most companies in the industry. However, what occurs if most companies schedule the printing house tasks/orders in these periods? Significant free capacity will be produced at certain components of the supply chain (in particular the printing house) outside of the concerned periods, and they will suffer from capacity shortages in the concerned periods.
For the publishing house, they now must plan and contract 1–2 years ahead due to the internalisation of the economic rationality criteria, which are understood as being due to the advice of the controller and which are under the effect of the printing house mediator and the printing house itself.
As is also shown in column 1 of Table 2, timing makes longer-term planning possible, and by adhering to certain regularities, the company can integrate proactivity into its strategy. Thus, it can take predictable steps in certain fields that will bring it into an active, strategy-maker’s, position. As a result, time is liberated in the everyday operation of the strategy-makers, which allows them to consider the future and to recognise new options, as the case may be, that have the potential to make the company a market leader at the industry level. Close, trust-based, long-term relationships with the actors of the supply chain offer some security in the present, but they can also make active future-making somewhat inflexible and more cumbersome due, for example, to the need for frequent consultations. The latter, however, can also be an advantage: the appearance of common interests and the creation of a mutually inspiring environment can give rise to genuine new opportunities, some of which have already presented themselves.
The desire to create, the faith and joy of acting, awareness of one’s own excellence, moderate and decent growth and operation, trust-based relationships, individual self-fulfilment – these are some of the declared and/or observed guidelines of corporate operation that affect the future-creation activity of the company that is under study.
The factors that are listed in Fig. 1 within the “funnel” express the factors that influence future-making as it has been identified by strategy researchers. This is why “foresightfullness”, as expressed by Prahalad and Hamel , appears as the resultant of an identified, existing, market niche, professional expertise and a sense of business; and as future-making activity deduced from the capabilities of the professional and business partners following the logic of Major et al.  and identifying the foresight approach as a core competence.
The funnel form partly symbolises the course through which the ambitious targets that are expressed in general terms are converted to practice through the everyday activities of the strategy-makers, through which the general management principles are given concrete meaning as we travel downward in the funnel to the practice of strategy-making. The funnel itself is a symbol of future-construction: as we move from its bottom (the narrow part) upwards, viewing the expanding horizon, the targets and the foundations that generate everyday practice become increasingly visible. The factors that are inside of the funnel are mostly the organisational factors from which the strategy-makers deduce the relationship to the future in a deliberate and reflective manner. However, the arrows point to the underlying meanings, i.e., the interpretations that are explored next to the specific factors.
This is how Fig. 1 becomes (1) a snapshot of the factors of corporate future-making that are identified in the case study and (2) a reference framework that is suitable for interpretation at a more general level on the practice-oriented approach of the companies in terms of time and the future. (This framework is related to the practice-oriented approach of Orlikowski and Yates  who assume the co-existence of the objective and subjective interpretations of practice).
Finding and formulating a common target is the point of departure of the construction of the future. The case study revealed that the “target” can be overwritten with time, while “common” does not mean commonly defined. As we have seen, it is possible to create a vision without involving co-owners or employees: an objective or basic idea that is defined in this way can also have a pull effect on a company’s followers [22: 110–111].
Different approaches to organisational foresight
Foresight as … (or/or; and; both…/and)
Not thinking on planning the future
Probing the future
SWOT analyses – position/fits in a competitive environment
Making sense of the future having based on what is learned from external environmental effects
Creativity in the future-visioning processes
Probing the future  is typical when creativity and innovation are given priority roles, and instead of planning the future, making sense of it on the basis of the lessons that are drawn from the events of the external environment is the preferred approach. This is how opening new shops or closing one, transformation into a publishing house and forming another can become meaning-giving, future-creating processes in the present.
The research results by Costanzo , which constitute the basis of Table 3, highlight the corporate decisions that are taken by common agreement, by consensus in the interpretation of foresight as inventiveness. The stakeholders reported similar issues in the present case.
The success of the co-operation of the management group also derives from the specification of common goals, the shared values that were experienced at the beginning and their engagement, emotional commitment (participation through feelings ) to the company that they think of as their common child. The same is witnessed by the fact that whichever of the co-owners I asked about the publishing house, they always used the pronoun “we”, which is indicative of the unity and real community of the management group.
In summary, the two approaches to foresight (i.e., prediction and inventiveness) co-exist in the practice of the company: their programmable and predictable future-creating operation provides a solid basis for organisational operation, thus integrating the construction and fathoming of the future into everyday practice.
In my answer to the research question, I analysed and interpreted the strategy-making practice of the case company and highlighted the nature of the future-constructing process. In doing so, I align this study with scholars who define the corporate foresight activity not as a one-off, periodic intervention, but as a process that is part of the operation of an organisation, through which the company seeks and finds its own way in the context of its everyday operational practice [25, 26] The relevant processes are characterised by specific levels of instinctive, reflexive or deliberate action, interpreted day-by-day in time, space and interpersonal relationships. Through this exploratory research, new fields of knowledge emerged in relation to the foresight approach. It makes contributions on both the theoretical and practice levels between the fields of organisational learning and strategic foresight and the role of organisational identity in the construing and/or construction of organisational future.
Upon reaching the age of 13 and entering adolescent age, the publishing house opened a new publishing house unit, which focuses on teenager readers.
Characterised by vertical integration; some (2–3) giant companies have been formed that acquired the publishing houses and also spread through retail and wholesale networks. Their increase in size implied a clearly dominant position that they have exploited: they paid (did not pay) their suppliers after several months, and thus the smaller publishing houses, if they wanted to be present in the shops of the store networks’ display, they supplied their books even if they were paid at depressed prices and with a significant delay.
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