With the unpredictable economy and insecure future in South Africa, organisations are finding it difficult to forecast how changes ahead will affect their stakeholders. Stakeholder relations are at the core of corporate communications (Coombs and Holladay, 2007; Wu, 2007). Scholars have even suggested that public relations equal communication management which equates to stakeholder relations. Prior studies and literature on stakeholders has for the most part focused on social networks between organisations and their stakeholders (Bornsen et al., 2008; Mitchell et al., 1997; Na¨si, 1995). With this being said, social networks between publics comprise merely one part of the greater networks that sustain society and organisations. Strategic communication for organisations means looking past obvious stakeholders into prospective unexplored territory (Fox, 2008). A lack of this understanding will mean, numerous imperative stakes and stakeholders may potentially stay hidden, thus leaving the organisations potentially exposed to harm.
Actor Networking Theory (ANT) aids map not only the stakeholders but also non-human articles that affect the success of organisations. ANT’s key contributions are evident in the greater understanding it offers of networks and their formation. ANT emphasises the significance of continuous negotiation and inscription, as well as acknowledges non-human entities as important parts of the corporate environment (Cooren and Fairhurst, 2008). Actor Networking Theory is particularly valuable for further investigation and development of the stakeholder theory due to it not aiming to forecast outcomes but instead allowing for variations by simply mapping the entire network and highlighting the process of translation, where actors persuade others to join their cause.
This paper tackles, the timely subject of different stakes in the corporate environment. Starting with what is known as well as the limitations of the current stakeholder theory, which is, not entirely understanding the non-human articles that can lead to new stakeholders: this is the concept derived from ANT. To illustrate, Mall of Africa under Attacq will be used as a case study to show how non-human articles such as infrastructure, technology, and market trends contribute to translating masses into opposing the organisation or leveraging wide support for it.
Firstly, the paper assesses, the definitions of a stakeholder then goes on to explain the necessity for a broader understanding of stakes. Secondly, appropriating from ANT, the paper commences the process of “translation,” which is where actors rally others into joining their network. The question explored is: who can current stakeholders and non-human articles potentially translate into joining their cause? This is explored in a Mall of Africa case study and is then followed by conclusions and discussion on practical implications for corporate communication in the retail industry and suggestions for future study.
2. Where is the gap in the stakeholder theory?
The stakeholder theory’s principles are clear: organisation networks limit and enable its functioning, this is with the assumption that a favourable working environment is advantageous and an unfavourable one destructive (Carroll, 1993; Freeman, 1984; Wood and Jones, 1995). However, stakeholders are articles and persons who also exist in the absence of the organisation (Rowley, 1997). Organisations merely incite some parts of pre-existing articles and scopes of influence and a social relation is moulded (Hallahan, 2000). Consequently, organisation success can be measured via the stakeholders’ and people’s views, and how well the organisation reacts and responds to them (Waddock and Graves, 1997). Regardless of the diverse frames of reference, most scholars concur that the word stakeholders means “any group or individual who can affect or is affected by the achievement of the organization’s objectives” (Freeman, 1984, p. 46).
Mutual dependence is the central idea in stakeholder theory, meaning persons or groups depend on the organisation to realise their aims as much as the organisation depends on them for its existence (Rhenman, 1964). An organisation is therefore a socio-technical system that empowers the realisation of different needs as “stakeholders make up the fragile ecosystem of any business” (Foley and Kendrick, 2006, p. 62). Therefore, dealing with stakeholders entails constantly “balancing and integrating various relationships and various objectives” (Freeman and McVea, 2001). This means the need to segment and prioritise stakeholders exists. In an attempt to decipher the multi-objective predicament of diverse stakeholder needs, Winn (2001) models a stakeholder decision-making process that segregates between stakeholders, objectives and issues.
The stakeholder theory has been criticised by some for failing to match the dynamism of public relations (Wu, 2007). The argument is that the stakeholder theory overstates the role of the organisation and oversimplifies the chaotic and multifaceted nature of the corporate environment (Steurer, 2006). Different actors affecting the organisational operations have not been stressed enough and numerous significant “stakes” stay unacknowledged by past studies. To date scholars continue debating whether or not non-human stakeholders can be equally as vital as human stakeholders (Starik, 1995). Vidgen and McMaster (1996, p. 255) on the other hand, boldly describe stakeholders as any “human or nonhuman organization unit that can affect as well as be affected by a human or nonhuman organization unit’s policy or policies.”
To bridge this gap, Actor Networking Theory and the process of translation are next introduced.
3. Actor Networking Theory and the translation process
Humans are not the sole beings with agency neither are they the sole entities to act as all actants play a part. Actor Networking (Callon, 1986) Theory proposes a shift in theory away from emphasis on supremacy and dominance of human subjects (Somerville, 1999, p. 8) meaning actants can be anything from landscaping to facilities to machines, anybody or anything with the ability to make a difference (Giddens, 1984). Very few studies to date have merged stakeholder theory and Actor Networking Theory. The process of translation has been studied but not in the retail context or rather industry. ANT has something to offer for the theory and practice of public relations, through description of the struggle between social as well as other actors (Somerville, 1999).
It vital to note that the lack of will or intention of non-human articles does not disqualify them from making a difference (Cooren and Fairhurst, 2008, p. 131). ANT does not intend to make these non-human articles stakeholders, nor does it aim to retrieve any agency from humans. The translation process has a lot in common with the notion of issues management, it is in fact similar to an “issue life cycle” analysis (Heath, 1997; Mahon and Waddock, 1992). Translation is a process of re-interpretation and re-presentation as it breeds ordering effects like organisations, institutions, or agents. A network of aligned interests is formed if the process of translation is successful.
Networks are contingent as translation is not always guaranteed to be successful. All networks are shaped by the inclusion of new components and variations in the relationship between actors over time, meaning there is no fixed final network. To mobilise full support, translations take different forms which include: re-presentation, re-interpretation or adoption of others’ interests to one’s own. This therefore means by translation one and the same interest or anticipation may be presented in different ways, thus mobilising broader support. Numerous linked or unrelated processes of translation can occur at the same time given that translations take place in the different organisational areas of responsibility and settings.
For instance, an organisation, i.e. retail centre (Mall of Africa) can concurrently be involved in industry lobbing, carry out negotiations with partners (long term exhibition contracts with BMW for instance), be covered in the news for its new services and products(digital assistance through technology in stores), participate in academic discussion (the future of retail, omni-channel and the omni-shopper), and be the target of online activism (anti-crime during the festive season for example. The translation process can play out in unanticipated ways, for example in some processes, the organisation could have a better shot to becoming central in the network obligatory passage points (OPP), to be discussed further in the paper, while in others it can simply be translated into an already existing network. The blogosphere is a good example of the amount and flux of existing networks visible. Blogosphre is where expertise and issues are continuously deliberated and renegotiated (Illia, 2003), and organisations are seldom the only ones at the core of those issues (for instance the Mall of Africa blog and other retail related blogs).
Translation usually follows three phases which are:
i. Problematisation, this being where the issue or problem to be deciphered is tackled and appropriate actors are decided upon. This therefore leads to the process of finding representatives and/or delegates to represent groups of actors. Primary actors’ (focal or strong actors) intention is becoming obligatory passage points (OPPs) for the network.
ii. Interessement, persuasion takes place at this phase: the primary actor negotiates and motivates with the others in an attempt to get them captivated and involved in the network.
iii. Enrolment, is the third phase after all this. It includes consent of the actors to the responsibilities defined for them and clarified during the earlier phases. At enrolment, communication is key for it moulds expectations and actions. For instance, those well informed and alert of approaching changes (like renovations of a mall leading to some stores being closed in phases) are less probable to be negotiated into a network of opposition. In the same breath, those conscious of arising issues like the rise in electronic check out points in stores like AmazonGo (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NrmMk1Myrxc) which could lead to the retrenchment of staff have the opportunity to take a proactive stand and aim to become OPPs in the initial stages of the forming network.
While in this paper these phases are separated, they are not always independent and from time to time different translations may overlap. It is vital to keep in mind that the translation process will not always occur in the intended way and that something could possibly happen to disrupt the network following a successful translation. Furthermore, more interests have to be negotiated, the network structure changes every time, and new translations take place. In conclusion, translation is the journey through which one article, for example Mall of Africa, guides other articles toward its wanted understanding and/or outcome. The aim is ultimately being able to speak on behalf of other actors in the network.