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'Control - What Control?' Culture and Ambiguity Within a Knowledge Intensive Firm


  • Maxine Robertson
  • Jacky Swan


This paper explores the distinctive culture that existed within a knowledge-intensive firm (KIF) and also attempts to explain the emergence and effects of this culture. The findings are based on a detailed case study that was conducted over two years within a consultancy firm that created and applied scientific knowledge and expertise to the invention of solutions for clients. The firm employed highly educated scientists, considered 'leading' in their respective disciplines and project work was inherently fluid, complex, and uncertain. These kinds of 'knowledge workers', and this kind of work, are expected to demand high levels of autonomy. This creates complex managerial dilemmas around how to balance autonomy with control and uncertainty and flexibility with efficiency. The analysis shows how a strong culture based on an acceptance of ambiguity (e.g. in roles, power relations, organizational routines and practices) promoted the development of a loyal, committed, effective workforce and sustained a fluid and flexible form of project working over time. Critically, ambiguity allowed individuals to sustain multiple identities as both 'expert' and 'consultant'. This, coupled with a corporate identity premised on 'élitism', helped to maximize commitment to the work and minimize tensions between control and autonomy. Thus the culture that embraced ambiguity (a consensus that there would be no consensus) engendered a form of normative control whereby consultants operated freely and at the same time willingly participated in the regulation of their own autonomy. Copyright Blackwell Publishers Ltd 2003.

Suggested Citation

  • Maxine Robertson & Jacky Swan, 2003. "'Control - What Control?' Culture and Ambiguity Within a Knowledge Intensive Firm," Journal of Management Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 40(4), pages 831-858, June.
  • Handle: RePEc:bla:jomstd:v:40:y:2003:i:4:p:831-858

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    Cited by:

    1. A. Leclercq-Vandelanoitte & I. Henri, 2013. "Technologies de l'information, contrôle et panoptique pour une approche deleuzienne," Post-Print hal-00847720, HAL.
    2. A. Willem & H. Scarbrough & M. Buelens, 2007. "Impact Of Coherent Versus Multiple Identities On Knowledge Integration," Working Papers of Faculty of Economics and Business Administration, Ghent University, Belgium 07/464, Ghent University, Faculty of Economics and Business Administration.
    3. Carlos Martin-Rios, 2016. "Innovative management control systems in knowledge work: a middle manager perspective," Journal of Management Control: Zeitschrift für Planung und Unternehmenssteuerung, Springer, vol. 27(2), pages 181-204, May.
    4. Lucie Noury & Sébastien Gand & Jean-Claude Sardas, 2012. "Exploring the dark side of consultancies' organisation of excellence: Individual strategies to manage contradictory expectations," Post-Print hal-00780522, HAL.
    5. Seeck, Hannele & Parzefall, Marjo-Riitta, 2008. "Employee agency: challenges and opportunities for psychological contract theory," LSE Research Online Documents on Economics 49809, London School of Economics and Political Science, LSE Library.
    6. Marlous Agterberg & Bart van den Hooff & Marleen Huysman & Maura Soekijad, 2010. "Keeping the Wheels Turning: The Dynamics of Managing Networks of Practice," Journal of Management Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 47(1), pages 85-108, January.
    7. Martin, Joanne, 2004. "Organizational Culture," Research Papers 1847, Stanford University, Graduate School of Business.
    8. repec:spr:manint:v:54:y:2014:i:4:d:10.1007_s11575-014-0215-6 is not listed on IDEAS
    9. Nicolai J. Foss & Kenneth Husted & Snejina Michailova, 2010. "Governing Knowledge Sharing in Organizations: Levels of Analysis, Governance Mechanisms, and Research Directions," Journal of Management Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 47(3), pages 455-482, May.
    10. repec:wsi:ijimxx:v:21:y:2017:i:05:n:s1363919617400059 is not listed on IDEAS

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