Department of Management

Legitimacy management in project-based organisations: Communicative legitimation of client relationships in Danish marketing agencies

Research output: Book/anthology/dissertation/reportPh.D. thesisResearch


  • Mikkel Brauer-Johnsen
While project-based ways of organising are increasing, and today account for more than 40% of the global economy, theoretical knowledge of the project-based organisation (PBO) remains at a nascent stage. Described as an emerging and new form of organisation, the PBO is faced with inherent issues of legitimacy. However, while legitimacy has been described as one of the preconditions for the PBO, it remains a little-recognised factor of the PBO, and a seldom-studied concept in this context. As an or-ganisation, the PBO depends on delivering tailored solutions to the individualised requirements of their clients, and therefore one key legitimacy issue relates to client relationship management.

Specifically, the PBO has a tendency to focus on creating short-term, project-based client rela-tionships, possibly as a result of a widespread functionalist assumption and associated project-centric research focus, which views client relationships as developed on the basis of and managed in and through projects. This is problematic, because it prevents the PBO from leveraging recurring business with the same clients, inhibits its opportunity for relational continuity, and constrains its long-term strategising. Moreover, this predisposition for functionalist research approaches has been argued to cre-ate a gap in research on PBO-client relationship management, because it fails to adopt genuine relational perspectives for exploring relational issues, and as a consequence does not adequately address relation-ship consistency and continuity beyond individual projects.

This dissertation follows recent recommendations to adopt a qualitative, interpretative, and rela-tional perspective for studying PBO-client relationships. Based on a hermeneutical and exploratory re-search approach, the dissertation utilises a theoretical lens of legitimacy to empirically investigate how PBOs strategically legitimise their client relationships. Legitimacy theory is uniquely suitable for inves-tigating PBO-client relationships, because it is essentially a relational and communicative concept con-cerned with establishing and managing fruitful organisation-stakeholder relationships to achieve rela-tional continuity.

Placed in the broader perspective of strategic communication, the dissertation defines legitimacy as a form of strategic communication, emphasising its focus on communicative instrumentality, pur-posefulness, and intentionality, and formulates an analytical framework consisting on legitimacy theory and communicative legitimation strategies. Accordingly, the dissertation aims at exploring how PBOs legitimise their client relationships through communicative legitimation strategies of authorisation, mor-alisation, rationalisation, and narrativisation.

Using the Danish marketing industry as its empirical context, the dissertation conducts a the-matic analysis of semi-structured interviews and archival documents collected in 18 marketing agencies. The analysis shows that Danish marketing agencies, which are defined as a form of PBO, seek to estab-lish long-term, collaborative, and consultancy-based client relationships, and demonstrates how legiti-macy and legitimation strategies are used in a variety of ways to support this strategic aim.

Based on its findings from the empirical analysis, the dissertation proposes two main contribu-tions. First, it suggests a strategically relational approach to PBO-client relationship management, pro-posing to focus strategically on the relationship, rather than focusing solely on the project as the vehicle for relationship management. This approach is expressed in an empirically-driven framework, which proposes three inter-related approaches for creating and managing client relationships: the relational ap-proach, the project-based approach, and the ongoing approach. Second, it proposes a reconceptualisa-tion of legitimacy as a dynamic and reciprocal concept which relies on a mutual negotiation process to legitimise the PBO-client relationship, rather than any one of the individual organisations. In continua-tion of this, the dissertation proposes understanding PBOs and their clients as co-subjects and co-objects in a mutual legitimation process, where both parties seek to legitimise themselves and the rela-tionships, as well as asses the other party’s legitimacy in the relationship. This reconceptualisation rests on the identification of two new legitimacy dimensions, i.e. the locus and directionality of legitimacy. Based on theorising the combinations of these two dimensions, a framework is offered which presents four new legitimation strategies: (1) impose and enforce, (2) adapt and conform, (3) negotiate and match, and (4) adjust and accommodate.

The dissertation concludes by responding to the overall research question of how client relation-ships are strategically legitimised by PBOs. It concludes that PBOs use a complex combination of communicative legitimation strategies, focused on the dynamic and reciprocal negotiation of relation-ship legitimacy with its clients, and based on an overarching strategic focus on developing and manag-ing the client relationship per se. On this basis, its conclusion points to the relevance for adopting rela-tional perspectives for exploring PBO-client relationships. At a meta-theoretical level, the dissertation responds to calls in both project and strategic communication literatures for more research with integra-tive and interdisciplinary contributions.
Original languageEnglish
Place of publicationAarhus
PublisherAarhus BSS, Aarhus University, Department of Management
Number of pages281
Publication statusPublished - 2019

Note re. dissertation

Supervisors: Helle Kryger Aggerholm and Per Svejvig

    Research areas

  • Legitimacy, project-based organisations, Corporate Communication, Project Management

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