Zietsma & Lawrence (2010). Institutional Work in the Transformation of an Organizational Field: The Interplay of Boundary Work and Practice Work

Charlene Zietsma – York University
Thomas B. Lawrence – University of Oxford

Derin Kent – Queens University
Bjoern Mitzinneck – Cornell University

Article link: http://asq.sagepub.com/content/55/2/189

Question 1. Your study is based on an extremely rich context, the changing British Columbia coastal forest industry from the early 1980s to 2006, yet in your finished paper you are able to fuse this complexity into a punctuated-equilibrium model that explains the institutional lifecycle. You unpack how the interplay between practice and boundary work changes between cycle phases of institutional stability, conflict, innovation, and restabilization to untangle the paradox of embedded agency and explain the transformation of an organizational field.

Did you find getting to this overarching focus to be a relatively linear path, or did it emerge only after examining alternate framings? Were there compelling stories or observations in your dataset which you had to exclude from the final analysis? For example, we noticed that parts of the article evoke the language of the social movement literature (e.g. “solution frames” or “opportunity structure”). Had you considered such a framing as well?

The path was anything but linear. During the dissertation phase of the project, I (Charlene) tried out many theoretical templates, analyzing data and checking for fit. The dissertation itself used three levels of analysis in three different papers: an internal firm paper, using organizational learning theory (Zietsma, Winn, Branzei & Vertinsky, 2002), a bilateral firm and stakeholder paper, using stakeholder theory (Zietsma & Winn, 2008), and the field paper using primarily institutional theory (Zietsma & Lawrence, 2010). The ASQ paper began as two separate papers: an institutional entrepreneurship paper, and a multilevel, co-evolution paper, both of which were presented at conferences. We merged them into a single paper and submitted them to a multilevel special issue at AMJ. The title of that paper began with “Battles at the Boundaries”, and the reviewers liked the boundary aspect better than the multilevel aspect. After the second round we were bounced from the special issue because it no longer fit the multilevel topic as well. We then improved the paper focusing on the boundary aspect, treating boundaries as separate from institutions, but surrounding them. ASQ Reviewers challenged us saying that boundaries were also institutional arrangements, which led us to add practices on par with boundaries as the institutional arrangements under challenge.

Question 2. Your study took place in a contentious setting, which is in fact described in the paper as the “war of the woods”. Can you tell us about how you were able to get cooperation from both the government and forestry companies as well as the environmentalists? Do you have advice in general for conducting studies where researchers need participation of stakeholders with different, possibly adversarial perspectives?

Gaining cooperation was surprisingly easy. While the members of the industry were completely vilified in the press, many really felt that they were doing the best that they could, and many really were environmentalists at heart. They really seemed to hunger for a chance to tell their own stories. Environmentalists were less trusting, likely because I (Charlene) came from a Faculty of Business, but once we started talking, they were open and sincere. Government employees answered questions about the facts we could look up, but would not answer questions about opinions, or would not speculate as to motives in any way or reveal anything that was not part of the public record, because of course the who issue was politically sensitive. These were the least useful interviews, and we had to rely mostly on archival records and media reports to understand the government perspective. I had significant difficulty getting interviews with First Nations representatives – there are too few of them in leadership positions to respond to all of the requests they get. We relied on speeches they gave in public fora and on a protest trip that visited one of their communities, along with media and archival records. Our advice in general for getting the participation of adversarial stakeholders is, when you contact each interviewee, to emphasize that you want to hear “their” story – and then to listen with true empathy and unconditional positive regard. Of course it goes without saying that you must be cautious in adversarial situations to make sure your interview questions don’t make the situation worse.

Question 3. Your study draws on an extremely rich set of qualitative data sources – very diverse in kind – from interviews to media articles and presentation scripts. From your experience conducting this research, taking more than 10 years from the collection of first data to the publication of the article, do you have recommendations for managing such field level data gathering and analysis efforts? Have you discovered certain methodological tools that proved particularly helpful and you would recommend to others aspiring to do similarly rigorous work?

You had to mention the 10 years, eh? While tools like NVivo are good for identifying constructs and themes, they are much less amenable to following processes. One of the things that made dealing with the (5000+) media articles easier was to create very short summaries of each of them that were stored in a single document for each year. It made checking the chronology and producing the narrative very easy, and it made it possible to pinpoint evidence needed very quickly. My (Charlene’s) initial narrative for the two decade study was 100 pages long, and it reached across all data sources, but organized them by sub-issues and campaigns, allowing me to see cause-effect linkages better. We referred to this narrative frequently through various iterations of the paper.

Question 4. An interesting aspect of your study is the contrast you observe between actors’ public attempts to delegitimize their antagonists through media statements and a “secret” backstage in which they cooperate to find solutions, free from “institutional discipline.” Additional studies in recent years seem to buttress the importance of a hidden backstage for successfully integrating different interests in the transition of an organizational field (Mair & Hehenberger, 2014), or to protect innovations that bend organizational norms (Bernstein, 2012). Could you elaborate on how these findings square with greater public demand for transparent organizations? Based on your findings, what would your advice to organizations be on preserving spaces free from surveillance?

This is an issue we have thought about quite a bit. It was obvious in the BC forestry context that the public consultation processes that the government ran during the high conflict phase were doomed to fail – the behavior on both sides was very strategic, with the industry’s astro-turf group often stacking the deck with multiple organizations created for the purpose, and many environmental groups boycotting the process because they felt their concerns were not even on the table for debate. While we were interviewing industry members, they mentioned how much further they got in negotiations (with environmentalists and First Nations, and with union members) when they took them outside of official channels. They could speak frankly there, without fear that people would hold them to the “trial balloons” they just wanted to “float”. Based on our findings, we would encourage organizations to be transparent with agreements and outcomes, but not to be transparent during negotiations. We believe transparency to be detrimental to integrative bargaining, because it pushes people to stick to transactional bargaining, stuck in the same institutional arrangements that led to the problems in the first place.

Question 5. Your study challenges and extends prior thought about institutions and organizational fields. You encourage future studies of institutional change to widen their scope both in terms of the players involved and the time period covered (i.e. the entire institutional lifecycle). Given the growing interest in the interaction of multiple institutional spheres and the evolution of institutional logics, which of your challenges or extensions do you consider addressed in recent studies, which have perhaps been overlooked?

We think the research field has started to address the issue of different kinds of agency under different institutional conditions, particularly with the recent emphasis on institutional complexity (Greenwood, Raynard, Kodeih, Micelotta and Lounsbury, 2011). In addition, a few studies focus more on field intersections or overlaps at points in time, and how that influences agency and field change. Yet, we still lack a systematic vocabulary of field conditions, and we still have not resolved what we see as a basic inconsistency in the way we define fields. Specifically, we often define fields or think of fields using the DiMaggio & Powell (1983) definition, which was not, we think, designed with activists in mind, supplemented by Scott’s emphasis on shared meaning systems and frequent and fateful interactions (1995, and more). When we compare these fields with Hoffman’s (1999) issue-based fields, it is clear to us at least that we are not dealing with the same thing – meanings aren’t shared, and interactions may consist primarily of calling each other out in the press, or suing each other. Issue-based fields may even be better conceptualized as field intersections – in the BC Forestry context, for example, we had a field of environmentalists working toward changing a field of forestry, and using government, media, First Nations and customers to attempt to do so.

A related issue is the conceptualization and empirical analysis of heterogeneous collections of actors that interact in fields or at the intersections of fields, and whose patterns of interactions and relationships change significantly over time, such that notions of insiders/outsiders and dominant/peripheral become problematic. In our study, we relied heavily on these ideas, but it was also clear that missing in the literature was an adequate theoretical vocabulary for dealing with complex and dynamic networks of actors in relation to institutions, fields and institutional change. The evolution of institutional complexity as an idea has motivated attention to the evolution of institutions and logics, but has provided less guidance with respect to the evolution of actors, positions and relationships.

There is also a great deal more that could be done with respect to the societal/field interaction, or even field to field interactions, that emphasizes more the processes of mutual adjustment. We touched on it in this article, talking about the permeability of fields and how permeable fields may change in step with societal changes while tightly bounded fields may require punctuated changes emerging from boundary incursions. We don’t think this theme has been followed up significantly in the literature. Doing so would address our suggestion to consider a wider range of actors involved in institutional change, not by opening up the concept of field, but instead understanding the interfaces fields have with other fields and with societal level influences.

Finally, there remains much work to do with respect to understanding the relationships between boundaries and practices, and boundary work and practice work. There has continued to be increasing interest in both boundaries and practices, including their connections to institutions, but not much research on the dynamics among boundaries, practices, boundary work and practice work.

One comment

  1. […] Previous blog interview: https://asqblog.com/2015/12/02/zietsma-lawrence-2010-institutional-work-in-the-transformation-of-an-… […]

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