Never short of winning strategy

April 28, 2006

Gerry Johnson tells Olga Wojtas how being big in textbooks allows him to flee the cold.

Gerry Johnson is known throughout the world as co-author of the seminal textbook Exploring Corporate Strategy . The book has sold 700,000 copies in English and propelled Strathclyde University's professor of strategic management to the top of The Times Higher list of academic earners from publishing (January ).

But higher education was Johnson's third choice of career. Politics and industry were first in line. As a social and physical anthropology student at University College London in the 1960s, he became student president at the height of demands for greater student representation. The response of Lord Annan, UCL provost, was to allow him to sit on whatever committees he wanted. "The result was there was very little to go to the barricades about. We did - everyone did - march the streets and complain about this, that and the other, but it wasn't about UCL."

The student years are seen as a time for questioning, but Johnson is not convinced this was widespread at the time. "My impression is there were a lot of people who weren't really questioning, they were posturing. 'I will join the Communist Party and I will be a Trotskyist because it's the done thing to be.'" Disillusioned by politics, Johnson decided to exercise his management skills, and worked for a variety of organisations, including Unilever's Birds Eye Foods division, until he realised he was more interested in the ideas of management than in managing or working for people.

He finally found his vocation after joining Hull College of Higher Education in 1976 as part-consultant, part-lecturer, and then moving to Aston University to teach marketing.

"Academia's brilliant, isn't it?" he says. "You just do your own thing. I think a lot of people are in academia because they want to be an individual within a network, rather than working for a structure. I see myself primarily as working within a network of people all over the world, not bounded by this university. I don't work for them, they don't work for me, but we work on things together."

At Aston, Johnson embarked on a PhD, looking at why businesses are successful, but during the four-year study, the firm he had chosen went into a downturn, giving him the opportunity to investigate not only historical success but also current problems. His resulting book, Strategic Change and the Management Process , is still widely cited as an in-depth qualitative study.

Johnson's best-known book also had its genesis at this time, after he got chatting with co-author Kevan Scholes, who was teaching on Aston's MBA. There was no subject called "strategy" at that time, although there was "business policy", which was pioneered at Harvard University. By the end of the 1970s, though, this was coming in for criticism for not being theoretically grounded enough. There was no UK textbook on strategy, so Johnson and Scholes set to work.

"We thought initially it would be just writing up our teaching notes," he says. It wasn't. "What you find is just how much you don't know."

Instead of simply talking about the principles of strategy, they related these to practice with a series of one-page illustrations, a pioneering technique now widely copied. And they drew on research to underline that it was "not just the fancies of the authors".

The first edition appeared in 1984, and Johnson and Scholes, now joined by Oxford University's Richard Whittington, are working on the eighth edition.

It has been translated into French, Spanish, Czech and Chinese, with a Russian edition to come, and it has spawned teaching notes, a video and website.

Johnson concedes it has been lucrative, but says he could have earned more through consultancy. Its chief benefit has been enabling him to escape the Scottish winter with January holidays in the southern hemisphere.

"Anyone wanting to make money would be mad to try to do it by writing textbooks, in my view," he cautions.

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