Vuori & Huy (2016). Distributed Attention and Shared Emotions in the Innovation Process: How Nokia Lost the Smartphone Battle

Timo O. Vuori – Aalto University
Quy N. Huy – INSEAD, Singapore

Elizabeth Luckman – Washington University in St. Louis
Lyndon Garrett – University of Michigan

Article link:

Question 1. This is a really interesting article that examines the role of fear in the downturn of an organization. Fear seems to be an understudied emotion in the context of organizations, despite its significance for many issues in human behavior. Can you please share how you identified the role of fear and its relationship to organizational attention processes as the impetus for your study? When did emotions emerge as the focus? Was it before selecting Nokia (and part of the context selection), or did it emerge in the data collection?

We had a rather open-ended approach when we started the process. We were working on another paper in summer 2012 when Quy suggested that we should study Nokia’s decline. The general hypothesis was that Nokia’s overall story might reveal something interesting. I then started going through media-data and contacted the first interviewees before Christmas. Those interviews were very open-ended but I also included questions that related to emotions. I learned a great deal about technology, organizational processes, who had decided what, and so on.

We started theorizing in March 2013, after I had done about 20 interviews, and was visiting Quy in Singapore for two months. Quy asked me to write a rich description of the data and Nokia’s story. (We worked very intensively and iteratively, meeting for several hours every week and e-mailing daily). We kept emotions in a quite a small role in this phase. I remember Quy saying something like, “provide a deep description and explanation, it does not have to relate to emotions directly.” I also remember how Gabriel Szulanski commented my first presentation on the subject in April 2014: he had come to learn about emotional dynamics and was disappointed in that the presentation did not describe them much. (We presented a model in which fear was one of several factors influencing how things happened at Nokia, but the main focus was on top managers’ over-optimistic perception of organizational capabilities).

There were several important comments in the first interviews that suggested the potential impact of fear. One of the middle managers had described how his superiors had worked as “filters” between him and the top managers because they did not dare to deliver bad news. A top manager told how things were reported to him in embellished way. And others had mentioned aggression in verbal situations and how it generated fear.

I then returned to Finland in May 2013 and started a second round of interviews. We asked respondents why top managers had developed an over-optimistic perception of Nokia’s capabilities or an unrealistic understanding of what could be delivered within a certain period. People started describing the interaction dynamics in more detail which revealed the high occurrence of fear.

It was only after we had recognized that fear had such a strong impact on the interaction between top and middle managers that we started making sense of the antecedents to fear. And here we started recognizing how organization-related structural factors contributed to this fear. We both recoded the old interview transcripts and asked related questions in new interviews. Also the reviewers helped us in explicating the connections better.

Question 2. Organizational literature focused on cognition has a rich history, but emotions are not widely included as part of cognition. You challenged existing assumptions in bridging these topics. What kind of resistance did you face in trying to bring emotions into literature dominated by cognition? Can you provide any suggestions for scholars that are trying to bridge literatures that are generally in conflict with each other?

We don’t think we faced any extreme resistance during the process. The reviewers were demanding in terms of providing evidence of fear as some of the data that we presented in the first submission could have been interpreted otherwise. When we received some of the comments, we felt some frustration and disappointment—as many authors–but in retrospect, these comments were legitimate and helped improve the paper. Overall, our reviewers and editor were fair and extremely helpful. The main challenge was showing that people did indeed experience fear and that this fear did indeed influence their way of communicating and behaving with others.

Our informants dominantly agreed with our interpretations and I was actually repeatedly surprised during the interviews how openly people spoke about their emotions and the importance of emotions in the process.

I think one important tip for doing research that seeks to bring emotions into organization literature is that the theorizing must be well linked to the existing theories. In our case, it was the attention based view. Quy used an example of solving a math problem that is related to this point: you must describe each step of your calculations in detail so that people can follow your logic; just providing an answer based on intuition won’t convince them. To show that emotions matter in organizations, one must describe the precise ways in which they influence and how those influences happen inside the processes that have been described in previous theories. You have to link the unfamiliar to the familiar.

Question 3. Qualitative research allows phenomena to emerge throughout the research process. Could you speak a bit about your qualitative process? You identified organizational structure as the independent variable of interest. There are other organizations in this industry that would have presumably had similar organizational structures, but have clearly had different organizational outcomes. How did you settle upon organizational structure as your independent variable of interest? Do you have any insights on how a company like Samsung, which presumably would have had a similar structure and faced the same kinds of threats, successfully avoided the negative consequences of fear experienced by Nokia? What other factors may have influenced emotional reaction and shared cognition in this context?

It’s true that the consequences were unusually dramatic in Nokia’s case. However, when we have described the findings to people in various organizations, they have recognized similar dynamics in their firm, even if less intense. And media has also provided reports of similar dynamics; the most recent one is from Ferrari (Quy’s student, Daniel Mack, spotted this one: Quy has been teaching this case extensively to senior executives worldwide. The common executives’ response was: this case was very common in our organizations in various forms: only the outcome was extreme—probably because of the unexpectedly high success of iPhone and Android and the various moderating factors we recognized in the model.

There were several reasons why the fear dynamic was so intense at Nokia. Like we note in the paper, the way some top managers behaved within the existing structures also contributed to middle managers’ fears and the middle managers’ dependence on organizational status was another factor that amplified the effects. In addition, the structures focused middle managers’ attention to internal matters more in Nokia than they perhaps do in other organizations. We also discussed the moderating role of top managers’ technological expertise.

(For the qualitative process, see answers to the first question.)

Question 4. This is a fascinating, in-depth study of Nokia. As mentioned in the previous question, there are other organizations in this industry that had very different outcomes. How do you see your model in terms of generalizability? To what extent do you think it expands beyond this company or this industry, or how might we see these same shared attention patterns and the role of fear behaving similarly in other organizations?

Overall, we believe in the analytical generalizability of our model: attention structures are likely to influence emotions also in other organizations and these emotions are likely to influence behaviors. However, there must be a large number of factors that influence both the strength and quality of these basic relationships. The specific dynamics are therefore likely to differ between companies, industries, and cultures.

Question 5. This research represents an impressive endeavor, requiring a great investment in time and energy for the researchers. You clearly gained a thorough and well-developed understanding of the role of fear for its ability to disable organizational structure. How has this research experience changed your perception of organizations and leadership? How has this research altered how you approach future research projects with other organizations? Also, building on this study, how might you foresee the expansion of this topic? What other dependent variables might fear and attention impact (i.e., group cohesion, motivation, commitment, loyalty, creativity)?

The learning was the important ways in which “hard” factors such as structure and KPIs interact with “softer” dynamics such as emotions in organizations. In a sense, we appreciate March and Simon’s (1958) theorizing on how bounded rationality links to organizational structures and processes even more, but our study helped to further expand this line of theorizing to incorporate emotions at the organization rather than the personal level.

Various topics that have built on the Carnegie School and attention-based view (Ocasio, 1997) could be enriched with emotions, as managers likely experience emotions during various points in the decision and action process, and are partly influenced by those emotions. The dependent variables probably range from the individual-level to organizational-level. Whenever the theorizing involves some human element (such as managers making judgment or interacting with other managers), one could ask if their emotions are being systematically influenced by organizational factors and if those emotions influence the nature or outcome of the process.

March, J., & Simon, H. (1958). Organizations. Oxford, England: Wiley.
Ocasio, W. (1997). Towards an Attention-Based View of the Firm. Strategic Management Journal, 18, 187–206.

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