What Trumps Strategy?  A Comparative Case Study of Strategy Texts of City Colleges in Ontario from 1995 to 2005


Michael Stephen Cooke

Department of Theory and Policy Studies

Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto

Doctor of Philosophy 2007




he period 1995 to 2005 was one of significant turbulence for Ontario colleges marked by increasing globalization, immigration, disruptions in the labour market, new technologies and dramatic reductions in government operating grants. The thesis studies how colleges responded to those strategic challenges and finds that (1) the strategies of colleges were more alike than different, (2) the strategic content of the texts was relatively weak and (3) attention to the organizational field was limited. 


The research applies nine key concepts from organizational theory – resource dependency, markets, value chain, differentiation, organizational field, alliances, organizational learning, technology and leadership – to the analysis of eight strategy texts and triangulates the findings with 23 in-depth interviews and a survey of 338 college staff. The research draws on institutional theory, which argues that individual institutions and organizational fields evolve as a result of the interaction of social-political forces that govern their sector and set the standards for legitimacy in the field. The research methodology included extensive use of the qualitative research tool NVivo.


The research is comparative case study conducted in two phases. The first phase examined the official strategy texts. The second phase included in-depth interviews and surveys in four of the participating colleges. The study finds that Ontario colleges are subject to the monopsonistic power (a single buyer) of the government to the point that monopsony trumps strategy. It also identifies three corollary effects: (1) monopsony trumps differentiation; (2) the quest for legitimacy trumps strategy; and (3) the local imperative trumps strategy. 


The thesis concludes with four propositions, which suggest colleges: (1) will become more strategic over time; (2) should improve the way they do strategic planning; (3) should put more emphasis on the concept of emergent strategy; and (4) should invest more in strategic planning at the level of the organizational field.

Higher Education Perspectives. ISSN: 1710-1530