Tag Archives: framing

Framing: a key concept in the management of uncertainty and disruptions

The fog of war, a long 2003 interview of Robert S McNamara, shows that how one frames an issue has an influence on on how a question can be solved. As soon as they got engaged in Vietnam, the US presented the conflict as a fight between freedom and communism. This happened in the late fifties, after China had become communist and right after the Korean war, in a context in which the communist world seemed to progress inexorably. The domino theory, introduced by the Republican US president  Eisenhower in 1954, stated that once a country fell and became communist, neighboring countries also would. Hence it became crucial to defend any country facing a communist insurgency. As David Halberstam mentions in his book “The best and the brightest”, the US national context also played a role later in the Vietnam process: Harry Truman, Eisenhower’s Democratic predecessor, was accused during the cold war to have “lost” China in 1949 and to have been weak against the communists, particularly during the Mccarthyst period. A longstanding reputation of “Democratic weakness” persists to this day as a result. In the early 60s, the democrats were still traumatized by these accusations that were systematically used by their Republican adversaries. This is the initial cognitive frame with which the Vietnam question was analyzed by President Kennedy’s administration. Right from the beginning then, the administration was prisoner, without being aware of it, from a frame that was in effect imposed by their adversaries. Despite their doubts and mounting skepticism, they would remain unable, right until the very end, to get rid of it.

In the interview, McNamara tells the story of his encounter with his former enemies during his 1995 visit to Vietnam. Much to his surprise, he realizes then that Vietnamese were first and foremost nationalists before being communists. Hence, that the conflict could in fact be framed as a nationalistic fight for union and independence, something Americans could actually have been sympathetic to. He also realizes that there is nothing that the Vietnamese dislike more than the Chinese, thus showing the fallacy of the fear of a great Chinese plot in South-East Asia, and more generally of that of a grand union of communist countries against the western world. A knowledge that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger will use to their advantage in their opening to China to counter the Soviet Union.

Framing the conflict in terms of a moral fight of good versus evil and asserting the inevitability of the domino theory also raised the stake of the conflict considerably for the US, making it more difficult to withdraw and limiting their margin for maneuver. It’s difficult to give up when the freedom of the world is supposedly at stake, but much easier when it’s framed as a civil war in a distant country.

The concept of frame of course also applies to the corporation. It is especially important in periods of uncertainty and turbulence caused by disruptions. Disruptions bring about profound change that require corporations to review the way they perceive and analyze their environment. Any corporation use a frame that is the result of past experience and of what the corporation has learned about its successes and failures. The more the corporation has been successful, usually the stronger the frame and the more difficult to change. For instance, raised in technological excellence, telecom operators denied the significance of internet telephony on account that it was not working well. GM discounted the importance of the Japanese cars in the seventies from the height of its market share. Kodak reacted to the emergence of digital photography by inventing a… digital film (APS) simply because the company was unable to imagine a world without films, and as a result tried to ‘cram’ the new technology into the old, to use Clayton Christensen’s expression. More recently, music majors reacted to peer to peer by framing it exclusively as acts of piracy, and as a result limiting their action to the legal option, instead of taking an open view on the undermining by the Internet of their very reason to exist on the marketplace.

More generally, enabling an organization to change with its environment requires changing its frame. The question, of course, is how to define the new frame and how to adopt it. Some researchers such as Sarah Kaplan show that this can be achieved by organizing ‘framing contests’ between different possible frames within the organization. The chosen frame will be the result of this contest, the process of which creates the conditions for the frame to be properly adopted and used. See a previous post I wrote on Framing here.

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Framing – an important concept for disruptions

The reaction of an organization to a major disruption in its environment (technological, regulatory, etc.) has long been studied by scholars and consultants. An important concept has recently emerged, that of Frames. The idea is that, when facing a disruption, the organization needs to rethink the way it sees the world. Old concepts don’t apply anymore, new competitors emerge seemingly from nowhere, major uncertainties exist in the marketplace, etc. Consider the case of Kodak, struck by the digital revolution, who had to change from a core competence of chemistry to that of electronics and software. The challenge for the organization is to dump old frames and create a new one, which will guide the strategy.

The concept of frames was introduced in the psychology and cognitive literature, but it applies well to the field of strategy. Among the interesting work in this field, let’s mention that of Clarke Gilbert, from Harvard, who wrote his PhD thesis on the reaction of traditional newspapers to the rise of the Internet and digitization. Gilbert shows how newspapers had to rethink their environment, which some did while other didn’t. Unfortunately, the thesis  is only available in paper form (Clarke, a pdf on your page would be cool). Gilbert is also the author of a working paper titled “Can competing frames coexist” (free download) where he shows that the difficulty for an organization to react to a disruption is not always or not necessarily due to a problem of commitment to its value network that hinders change (unlike Clayton Christensen‘s explanation).
On the contrary, the difficulty seems to reside in the way the disruption is perceived by the organization. If the disruption is seen as a threat, the reaction will be one of rigidity (hence the name threat rigidity). If, on the contrary, the disruption is framed as an opportunity, the organization will react more positively and will more easily embrace change. On this notion of frames, the work of Sarah Kaplan, from Wharton, is also worth noting. Kalpan is the author of “Framing contest: micro-mechanism of firm response to technical change“.
The idea is that when facing a new world, or rather an emergent world where everything is so uncertain, the strategy making process consists in a framing contest within the organization between individuals, departments, groups, etc. If everything goes well, at the end of the process, a common frame emerges that forms the basis of the new strategy. Sarah Kaplan also wrote an interesting article on the cognitive factors influencing an organization’s response to a disruption, in the particular case of the pharmaceutical industry: “Discontinuities and senior management – assessing the role of recognition in pharmaceutical firm response to biotech“. It can be downloaded for free and is worth reading.