Research and teaching

Alicia Barroso, Marco Giarratana, Samira Reis, and Olav Sorenson

The performance of firms depends not just on the structure of the industries in which they compete but also on their relative positioning within those industries, in terms of operating within particular niches. We propose that demand for these niches depends endogenously on the historical ecology of the products offered: Niches become saturated – reduced in their ability to support products – as a large number of previous offerings allows the audience to satisfy its desire for products of a particular type. Analyzing the survival rates of television series aired in the United States from 1946 to 2003, we found that the survival rates of future entrants fell with the extensiveness of recent offerings in the niche, and that the negative association between crowding and survival also weakened with this saturation.

Strategic Management Journal, 37 (2016): 565-585

Giacomo Negro and Olav Sorenson

We investigate the competitive consequence of vertical integration on organizational performance using a comprehensive dataset of U.S. motion picture production companies, which includes information on their vertical scope and competitive overlaps. Vertical integration appears to change the dynamics of competition in two ways: (i) it buffers the vertically integrated firms from environmental dependence and (ii) it intensifies competition among non-integrated organizations. In contrast to the existing literature, our results suggest that vertical integration has implications well beyond both the level of the individual transaction and even the internal efficiency of the integrated firm.

Advances in Strategic Management, 23 (2006): 367-403

William P. Barnett and Olav Sorenson

We synthesize organization learning theory and organizational ecology to predict systematic patterns in the founding and growth of organizations over time. Our central argument is that competition triggers organizational learning, which in turn intensifies competition that again triggers an adaptive response. We model this self-exciting dynamic–sometimes referred to as the ‘Red Queen’ in general evolutionary theory–to explain organizational founding and growth rates among the thousands of retail banks that have operated in Illinois at any time from 1900-1993. We find strong evidence that Red Queen evolution led some organizations to grow quickly and to place strong competitive pressure on rivals. Red Queen evolution also helped establish barriers to entry. However, this same evolutionary process appears to make organizations more susceptible to ‘competency traps’, ultimately slowing their growth rates and inviting new market entry. Organizations confronted by a widely varying distribution of competitors grow more slowly and are more likely to face new entrants. Overall, the results suggest that processes of organizational creation and growth emerge from ecologies of learning organizations. More generally, we discuss the use of ecological theory and models to study the empirical consequences of organizational learning.

Industrial and Corporate Change, 11 (2002): 289-325

Pino G. Audia, Olav Sorenson, and Jerald Hage

Firms face a choice in the organization of production. By concentrating production at one site, they can enjoy economies of scale. Or, by dispersing production across multiple facilities, firms can benefit from product-specific efficiencies and enhanced organizational learning. When choosing to organize in multiple units, firms must also decide where to locate these units. Concentrating production geographically can enhance economies of scale and facilitate organizational learning. On the other hand, dispersing facilities might allow the firm to lower transportation costs, reduce risks, and forbear competition. To examine these tradeoffs, we compare exit rates of single-unit organizations to multiunit organizations and their constituent plants in the U.S. footwear industry between 1940 and 1989. Our results suggest that, multiunit organizations benefit primarily from enhanced organizational learning, competitive forbearance and the diversification of risk. Nevertheless, these benefits appear to come at the expense of organizational adaptability.

Advances in Strategic Management, 18 (2001): 75-105

Olav Sorenson

Is starting a new business more difficult in an emerging industry or in a mature industry? The density dependent model of organizational ecology maintains that the industry’s age is irrelevant; the number of firms currently occupying the market niche determines the industry’s competitive structure. Nevertheless, population-level learning predicts historical asymmetry in entry barriers. Over time, the average fitness of the surviving population members increases, making market entry more difficult. At the same time, surviving organizations become increasingly spread out across the resource space, providing niches that new firms can exploit. Thus, industry-level evolution systematically alters the environment that both existing organizations and new firms face. I offer a new specification for the founding rate model that synthesizes ecological and evolutionary perspectives. Tests of this model in the American automobile industry support its merit.

Social Science Research, 29 (2000): 307-326