How Managers Talk about their Consumption of Popular Management Concepts: Identity, Rules and Situations


  • The authors thank associate editor Monika Kostera and the three anonymous reviewers for their numerous insightful suggestions. This paper has also benefited from the helpful comments of Mark Ebers, Erich Frese, Alfred Kieser and Indre Maurer, as well as conference and seminar participants at the Academy of Management Meeting 2010, the EGOS Colloquium 2010 and research seminar participants at the University of Cologne. The authors extend their appreciation to the study informants for sharing their time and insights.

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This paper analyses how top managers account for their consumption of popular management concepts. By ‘consumption’ we refer to managers acting as active users of popular management concepts within their organizations. After reviewing the relevant literature, we argue that the logic of appropriateness is a better theoretical perspective to view, understand and analyse managers' accounts of concept consumption than is the logic of consequence. We apply this perspective to extensive interviews we conducted with top managers in Germany. Based on the managers' own accounts of how they understand and apply popular management concepts, we identified four discourse categories: (1) learning from others' experiences, (2) controlling organizational change, (3) gaining external legitimacy and (4) collective sensemaking. We argue that these discourse categories all draw on the social norm of rationality central to managerial identity, while differing in socially defined rules about how rationality is realized in typical management situations. Our findings strongly encourage researchers, when investigating popular management concepts in the future, to take into account the situational nature of rationality that circumstantiates the consumption of concepts.