Smith (2011). Identities as Lenses: How Organizational Identity Affects Audiences’ Evaluation of Organizational Performance

Edward B. Smith – Kellogg School of Management

Pete Aceves – University of Chicago
Ruo Jia – Stanford University

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Question 1. Your argumentation in this paper relies somewhat heavily on the use of analogies. Was this by conscious design, or did the analogies emerge organically out of the process of thinking about your context and your theory? In this case, the “lens” and “fishing boat” analogy work extremely well in order to drive your point home. However, we could foresee that in some cases strong analogies could detract more than add to the force of an argument. Do you have any rules for when and when not to use analogies?

Fascinating question. Brings a lot to mind. One is a fun memory of a talk I gave on this paper at LBS. The conversation turned to discussing fishing as a phenomenon instead of as an analogy. It was fun, to be sure, but I finally had to step in and said something to the effect of, “I grew up in a land-locked state in the middle of the US. The largest body of water within 150 miles might as well have been a swimming pool. I know dreadfully little about fishing boats beyond what I’ve read and lifted from Barth (the source material for my analogy). I know a lot more about hedge funds if we want to shift to talk about those instead.” It got a laugh, including from me, and was a good lesson on how far to push an analogy, or in this case, how far to let your audience go with it before reeling them (pun not intended) back in.

Generally I probably use metaphors too often. I’d like to think that this is because I have multiple audiences for my work and find that metaphors are a useful means of translating and transferring ideas from one area to another. (Ron Burt was a mentor of mine when I was in graduate school, and continues to be now, and often talked and wrote about brokers using metaphors to transfer information across structural holes). So why do I say I use them too often? This is a recently updated view. I used metaphors in two fresh papers—one comparing atypical organizations to exotic fruit and another comparing the hedge fund industry to the market for romantic matchmaking—and drew dramatically different reactions from reviewers and audiences. The reactions to the fruit metaphor, specifically, ranged from, “This study should really be about fruit” (meant literally, not sarcastically) to “The metaphor does a great job of communicating the theory without having to be overly theoretical” to “Metaphors are not stand-ins for theory and you need to drop this completely.” I wonder to what extent distance—social distance, or topic distance between my research and that of my readers—drives this. For those outside my narrowest audiences metaphors might be refreshing and useful. For those inside, they might appear as if I’m trying to be too “cute” or, worse, don’t understand the nature of the theory that I am proposing.

As in most things, moderation may be the best approach. I wish I had more sage advice but I’m very much at the beginning of the learning curve on this one.

Question 2. Papers go through substantial revision as they are written and after they are submitted. Ideas that were initially promising may be dead-ends while minor points can have great theoretical insight. If we are not mistaken, this paper was part of your dissertation and eventually won the best published paper award for the OMT division at AOM in 2012. Can you share some thoughts on how you came to the empirical and theoretical ideas for this paper as a graduate student? What were your initial plans and how did you revise or refine them as you progressed? What kind of resources did you turn to when you were stuck?

I owe the success of this paper to three things. The first was a person but I don’t remember who. I was a second year PhD student and was presenting a largely conceptual, mathematical paper to a business school audience. When discussing the behavior of the model I defaulted to talking about people as the underlying agents but was pushed by someone in the audience to consider analyzing organizations. When I inquired on what kind they mentioned hedge funds, at the time a completely foreign industry to me. This started off my interest in the industry, which I find to be a fascinating laboratory for studying human behavior and market dynamics.

Next was John Levi Martin, the utterly brilliant (in my opinion) U. Chicago sociologist. John moved to Chicago in my fourth year of graduate school about the time that I was writing up the first draft of this paper. Without so much as changing a single regression John helped me see my hypotheses and findings in a new and different light. It was also John that first suggested I read Frederik Barth (the source for that fishing metaphor!). Not sure if he expected me to run with that quite as much as I did, but it put my work in a different perspective and made me understand the implications in new ways.

Last was the job market experience. I presented this paper eleven times, I believe, over the course of three months to audiences that varied considerably. Some audiences were strongly OB. Others were entirely sociology. Others were behaviorally-oriented strategy. Others yet, economists. Finance and accounting folks showed now and again. That the paper has had some success is really a reflection of exposure to many different audiences and diverse interests. Like my experience with John, the experience of presenting to multiple audiences—and most importantly, hearing the many different ways they came to understand the paper and its implications—made me see my own work in different ways, offering much fodder for future research along the way.

Question 3. Strategy research often explains performance differences through a couple of preferred frames such as rational, emergent, evolutionary, or structural accounts. Your paper seems to fit more with a structural account, in that the structure of the market participants shapes how they perform, but has the wrinkle of feedback as an additional factor that frames these outcomes, which is more of an emergent account. Were there any particular frames you used when writing your paper or did they appear after you began looking at the data?

I’m not sure I thought about it quite this way, but it certainly makes sense the way you’ve asked it. I might have to use this framing in future work! My initial thought was that I wanted to understand the use of organizational identity, or organizational-categorical identity, dynamically, i.e., not just how audiences use identity to sort the market, but how identity influences the way audiences respond to other kinds of information as well, here, performance. I might have called this many different things—and since have—from sense-making (a la Weick, and others) to bent preferences (a la Burt) to performance feedback (a la lots of people, such as Audia, Davis, Greve, Baum, Porac, etc).

Question 4. What question did we miss? Please ask yourself a good question, and answer it.

Will I ever get another paper published in ASQ? Haha…I have two papers under reviewer there now. We’ll see if I’m lucky enough to have lightening strike twice…or thrice!

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