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When we forget what is critical amongst our success factors

I recently needed to remind myself about the construct of critical success factors.  As a result of my inquiries I stumbled upon, what I shall call, academic drift. Most of us will be familiar with the idea of strategic drift: many will also be familiar with the Harvard academic Scott Snook’s construct of practical drift. Both forms of drift, which occur over time, present a danger to the organisations that they affect. My question is, does academic drift present a similar danger to academic endeavours?

Let me use the construct of critical success factors to illustrate my point.

In 1979 John Rockart started to expound the idea of critical success factors based on earlier research by D. Ronald Daniel.  Rockart’s motivation for doing this work is important. The title of his first article on this subject was “Chief executives define their own data need”. His concern was that executives were being swamped by the data available to them.  He saw the need for a clear definition of the type of information that the executives required and for organisations to move away from the trap of building control systems based on the data that is easiest to collect. His message was very simple: it was for organisations to concentrate on what is critical. Over the next few years he worked with Bullen (publishing in 1981) and Treacy (also publishing in 1981) to develop his ideas. Over this period the message remained consistent:

“Critical success factors … are, for any business, the limited number of areas in which results, if they are satisfactory, will ensure successful competitive performance for the organization. They are the few key areas where “things must go right” for the business to flourish. If results in these areas are not adequate, the organization’s efforts for the period will be less than desired.”[1979:3]

“Critical success factors are the few key areas of activity in which favorable results are absolutely necessary for a particular manager to reach his goals.”[1981:3].

As a result, the critical success factors are seen to be the areas of activity that should receive constant and careful attention from management.

In 1984 Boynton and Zmud stated that ‘Critical success factors are those few things that must go well to ensure success for a manager or an organisation’ [p.17]: the focus remained on identifying a limited number of issues that are really important to the business. How limited?: I see the answer to that question being somewhere around Miller’s magical number 7 rather the larger scale of 50 factors offered Desai, Jiju & Patel (2012). A more detailed discussion of this issue is for another day.

I see the drift having started in 1987 with Pinto and Slevin. They defined critical success factors as “factors which, if addressed, would significantly improve project implementation chances” [p.22]. Critically they had dropped the notion of the number of factors as being “few”. By 1993 Wasmund  saw them quite differently. He defined critical success factor as a “method basically over how was one to create a project out of the problem definition. This is done by decomposing a well-defined goal into a comprehensive list of subgoals called factors.  From there a list of activities follows, whose purpose is to obtain the factors and eventually accomplish the specified goal.” Wasmund had moved a long way from the notion of the few.

In 1996 Brotherton and Shaw added the ambiguity necessary for successful drift. They defined critical success factors as the essential things that must be achieved by the company or which areas will produce the greatest “competitive leverage”. To me the ambiguity comes in the term essential. While some may interpret it to invoke the idea of the few, many factors are able to sneak in under this umbrella. Brotherton and Shaw also emphasize that “CSFs are not objectives, but are the actions and processes that can be controlled/affected by management to achieve the organisation’s goals”. This provides a second area of drift. Rockart’s construct was more existential “areas of activity”: Brotherton and Shaw have moved towards them being somewhat more substantial, “actions and processes”. In 1998, after misspelling Rockart’s name and then misquoting him, Freund moves in the same direction.  He states  ‘John Rockard (sic), … codified critical success factors as , “those things that must be done if a company is to be successful” which again provides a more tangible entity than originally proposed.

By 2004 critical success factors had been linked to performance measurements and key performance indicators. Bauer links these subjects in his statement, “The vision of the future (mission) must be supported by the how (strategy), the what (objectives), the focus areas (critical success factors), the metrics (KPIs) and the action plan (key action initiatives) to realize full actuation” (2004:63). Over time these areas of focus become even more general. For example, in terms of an enterprise resource planning implementation, Finney (2007) says “CSFs are those conditions that must be met in order for the implementation process to occur successfully.” Others have become even more general saying “there are general points which are important in the process and could result in ERP success or failure” where these general points are defined as critical success factors.  In other area authors have described critical success factors as “those that can bring a competitive edge” and “generic factors critical to the success”.  In these statements we can see a considerable drift from Rockart’s original idea.

Finally I took a random sample of  20 papers published in 2012-13 which purported to define the critical success factors for subjects as wide ranging as “Quality Improvement of Management Education in India”, “business intelligence in the South African financial services sector” and “the Cultural and Creative Industries of Taiwan’s County and City Governments”. Only half of the papers defined what they meant by this term. The consequence of this lack of definition is that it opens up further ambiguity as the Oxford English dictionary defines critical as “fault-finding, censorious, express criticism, decisive, crucial,   …. maintaining a self-sustaining chain reaction”.  Before any reader dismisses these potential usages as being ridiculous, they need to note that, as part of the 2013 crop of papers, Garg & Garg provide an interesting twist. They have tried to deduce critical failure (CFFs) for enterprise resource planning projects. They defined CFFs as the “key aspects (areas) where “things must go wrong” in order for the ERP implementation process to achieve a high level of failure. ” Their critical factors were fault-finding!

So, how far has this drift gone? In a recent paper (2013), Makhopadhyay says: “Critical success factor is a management concept designed to take quantifiable goals and break them down into simpler elements. The concept of using critical success factors maintains that goals are only achievable when broken down into simpler objectives and tasks, thus making the elements critical. The critical success factor (CSF) approach to management says that business managers and leaders should identify and stay doggedly focused on CSFs … If the goal is “what,CSFs are the “how.”” This use of the construct is difficult to reconcile with Rockart’s original work.

To set the record straight a number of the recently produced papers have stayed faithful to Rockart’s construct. However a sizable proportion suffers from academic drift. I define academic drift as “when a term, phrase or quote that has been given a specific meaning has, through use and over time, mutated to the point that it no longer represents the original understanding”. Academic drift is different to the deliberate evolution of ideas where an idea or construct is debated, argued and changed intentionally.  In this case, Pinto and Slevin did not argue against the idea of critical meaning a few factors, they simply dropped this condition. In the same way, small step by peer reviewed small step, the existential idea of “areas of activity” became “how” thus destroying the original idea. I leave you with one question, where else are we now using a term, a phrase or a quote where our use is a distortion of the original meaning and thereby leading to failures of cross-understanding of these well thought out ideas?

Mike Lauder


One thought on “When we forget what is critical amongst our success factors

  1. Two things about this blog

    Firstly, in academia subjects do evolve, but i agree with you that we should keep our eye on where the original concept came from to maintain the purity of our thoughts and discussions.

    Secondly, there is the practical aspect of what critical Success Factors are for and what they are all about. How do we maintain direction in a company if we are unclear about the purpose of strategy? Do we let things simply evolve or do we need to guide and direction development? The Steve Melinik et al paper (that has just appeared on early view in the special issue of the journal of Management Accounting Research that I just edited) discusses just this. What happens if we know the outcome we are trying to achieve but not the path to get there, and what happens if we know what we are doing but have no guiding objective?

    Mike Bourne

    Posted by Prof Mike Bourne | November 13, 2013, 9:56 am

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