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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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    4. Willem, A. & Scarbrough, H. & Buelens, M., 2007. "Impact of coherent versus multiple identities on knowledge integration," Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School Working Paper Series 2007-28, Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School.
    5. Martin, Joanne, 2004. "Organizational Culture," Research Papers 1847, Stanford University, Graduate School of Business.
    6. 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.
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