Intentional and emergent digital strategies: How the process affects growth

Digital strategies are extremely inspiring, in terms of the variety of technologies available, the diverse areas affected and the multiple opportunities proposed. In addition to the enthusiasm these strategies generate within most organisations, the digital strategy chosen can often reveal the company director’s personality and his or her form of governance. Intentional or emergent – what does your digital strategy say about your organisation?

The intentional approach

The most commonly used approach for formulating a digital strategy is to begin with a vision. This vision represents what the company wants to do and to offer, the customers it wants to serve and its positioning. It is, in a sense, a way of projecting the company into the future. A diagnostic is performed based on this vision in order to analyse the market, one or more decisions are then made and the digital strategy is executed. This method is referred to as an “intentional approach” because it is guided by a vision and the strategic intent is explicitly formulated before developing a strategy. “We know what we want to do. We don’t know how we’re going to do it yet, but we know where we’re going!“. The intentional approach therefore entails a top-down design: a strategic vision is defined and the method of achieving it is then developed.

The intentional approach is the dominant method and is the most widely practised, regardless of business sector. It is so dominant that investors and banks require this method to be used when a project is submitted. The approach is also underpinned by the popularity of “pitches”: if a candidate is able to clearly express his or her vision, this must mean that the candidate has a clear plan. This may be true, but the fact that this approach has become the norm does not mean that it is the only option. There are credible alternatives, with the “emergent approach” being the most commonly found.

The emergent approach

he specificity of the emergent approach is that it starts in the field. It is not conditioned by defining an initial vision that will be developed during the digital strategy formulation process. The vision is strongly dependent on the resources available and on the resources that can be progressively acquired during the process. Various actions are performed to address the problems encountered during the project’s development, such as marketing, logistics, IS, technological changes, changes in consumer behaviour, etc. Each action contributes to the development of the project, with these multiple actions then being rationalised by the construction of a strategic plan.

Intentional digital strategies are guided by a vision, while emergent digital strategies are guided by actions.

There is no right or wrong way

Both methods have their risks. The intentional approach, conducted without rigour or technical details, risks producing a digital strategy totally disconnected from market constraints and audience behaviour. The main risk of the emergent approach is that a coherent result will never be achieved due to the multiplicity and profusion of actions undertaken. The main difference is that we never really see the “big picture”, the overall project. The digital strategy is effectively defined during the formulation process. In practice, numerous actions are implemented such as launching new products or services. Problems can arise with teams, as members may not understand how the company is evolving. With the intentional approach, the company’s vision is formulated and communicated to its teams, and more generally to stakeholders such as the owners, key customers and partners. Everyone knows broadly what to expect and can position themselves in relation to the strategy, which is not the case with the emergent approach, because there is no initial vision. Tensions may also arise with investors. The lack of visibility leads to higher uncertainty, which may create significant problems of trust.

However, technical aspects should not be underestimated. Regardless of whether the digital strategy is formulated using an intentional or emergent approach, the technical issues, risks and difficulties remain significant. In practice, strategic orientation, whether intentional or emergent, is multifactorial, stemming from directors’ personalities, team dynamics, the technologies used, financing structures, market structure, etc. Ultimately, it is essential that the diagnostics, decisions and implementation are coherent, as the proof of a good strategy is in its execution.

Jean-Philippe Timsit, emlyon business school

Professor in digital strategy, I am Academic Director of the “Digital Transformation of Organisations” programme as well. As an expert in the field of digital strategy and competitive advantage, my research interests focus on the different types of strategies that companies can use to build a profitable and sustainable position on hyper-competitive markets. I am a member of the AIMS board (Association Internationale de Management Stratégique).

More information on Jean-Philippe Timsit:
• His CV online
• His ResearchGate page
• His personal website


Further reading…

Jean-Philippe Timsit - Stratégie Digitale

  • Timsit, J.P. (2018). Stratégie digitale : Méthodes et techniques pour créer de la valeur. Paris: Vuibert, 304 p. ISBN 978-2-311-40580-4.
    Read abstract online
  • Jean-Philippe Timsit – Stratégie Digitale : YouTube channel
    watch videos

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Nov 28th, 2018|

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