Research and teaching

Olav Sorenson, Susan McEvily, Charlotte Rongrong Ren, and Raja Roy

Although strategy research typically regards firm scope as a positional characteristic associated with performance differences, we propose that broad contemporary scope also provides insight into the routines that govern firm behavior. To attain broad scope, firms must repeatedly explore outside the boundaries of their current niche. Firms with broad niches therefore operate under a set of routines that repeatedly propel them into new market segments, expanding their niche. These niche expansions, however, involve risky organizational changes, behavior that disadvantages generalists relative to specialists, despite the positional value of broad scope. Empirical analyses of machine tool manufacturers and computer workstation manufacturers support this conjecture: (i) generalists introduce new products at a higher than optimal rate, thereby increasing their exit rates; and (ii) generalists also more frequently launch new models with novel features or targeted at new consumer segments rather than improving only incrementally on existing products, further accelerating their odds of failure. After adjusting for these behavioral differences, broad niche widths reduce exit rates, suggesting that they provide positional advantages. The paper discusses how this phenomenon may help to explain the diversification and multi-nationality discounts.

Strategic Management Journal, 27 (2006): 915-936

Link to workstation data at FIVE Project

Science as a map in technological search

August 7th, 2009 | Posted by admin in 2004 - (0 Comments)

Lee Fleming and Olav Sorenson

A large body of work argues that scientific research increases the rate of technological advance, and with it economic growth. The precise mechanism through which science accelerates the rate of invention, however, remains an open question. Conceptualizing invention as a combinatorial search process, this paper argues that science alters inventors’ search processes, by leading them more directly to useful combinations, eliminating fruitless paths of research, and motivating them to continue even in the face of negative feedback. These mechanisms prove most useful when inventors attempt to combine highly coupled components; therefore, the value of scientific research to invention varies systematically across applications. Empirical analyses of patent data support this thesis.

Strategic Management Journal, 25 (2004): 909-928

Lee Fleming and Olav Sorenson

Some companies are better off making incremental improvements to their products. Others that must compete on their ability to innovate focus on breakthrough inventions. Either approach requires the exploration of a specific type of ‘technology landscape’ and the right strategy for searching across the terrain.

MIT Sloan Management Review, Winter 2003: 15-23

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

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