I was reminded of the howls from some pundits after a McCain-Obama debate in which the subject of “strategy” came up. The refrain from the left was: “This guy doesn’t even know the difference between ‘strategy’ and ‘tactics.'”

The truth is, people have been arguing about the difference between strategy and tactics for centuries and there is no concrete consensus on the difference. Most people have an overall sense that strategy relates to “bigger” things and tactics more to “small” things. Many others think strategy is somehow better than tactics when it comes to planning.

And, more often, one will hear someone in the workplace telling someone else to think or act “strategically” — when what they really mean is “be smarter.”

Like the term “leadership,” it is a shorthand for a larger idea — but for most people this idea is ill-defined.

This debate came back to me when I saw an argument at e.politics about whether Twitter is a “strategy” or a “tactic.”

I learned strategic planning from one of the people who helped develop our modern understanding of it. While strategic planning has changed many times since it was first elaborated in the late 60’s, this definition from my mentor always sticks with me:

“Strategy is a decisive allocation of resources.”

In other words, a strategy is something that, if you pursue it, other avenues are foreclosed. Many different tactics, on the other hand, could be used in the pursuit of a particular strategy.

In most cases, I’ve found that the answer to this question depends on the size of the theater. What is a tactic when looked at from one level can be a strategy at another level.

As an example, a company might have a strategy to use social media as its primary marketing communications tool. It would use various tactics to achieve that: blog comments, Facebook pages, Twitter, and so forth.

However, depending on the size of the theater you are looking at, a tactic can become a strategy. Just thinking about the fictitious company’s “social media” strategy, imagine the marketing department that is charged with implementing this. The fact that the overall thrust is social media will now be a given, just a parameter. The strategic decisions at this level really will center on which tool to use and how strongly to bet on it.