Dalpiaz, Rindova, & Ravasi (2016). Combining Logics to Transform Organizational Agency: Blending Industry and Art at Alessi


Elena Dalpiaz – Imperial College London

Violina Rindova – USC Marshall School of Business

Davide Ravasi – Cass Business School


Andrea Contigiani – The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

Amy Ding Zhao –  INSEAD

Article link: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0001839216636103

Question 1. Your paper explores a fascinating success story of how strategic recombination of different logics leads to creation of new market opportunities. The literature in categories and identities suggests that boundary-spanning firms are likely to face market sanctions, either due to uncertainty in evaluation (Zuckerman, Kim, Ukanwa, & von Rittmann, 2003, AJS) or failure to serve the target taste space well (Hsu, 2006, ASQ). On the other hand, your paper proposes that the strategic synthesis of different logics allows for radical reconceptualization of products and goals, leading to more flexible experimentation and less pressure for categorical constraints. Could you elaborate more on this contrast? Would you argue that, instead of focusing on the audience evaluation, you are primarily concerned with what motivates and facilitates firm experimentation?

Audience evaluation is always important and cannot be disregarded. Our model suggests that negative audience evaluation triggered reflection on current experimentation and changed future experimentation. For example, when Alberto Alessi engaged in the production of small sculptures for the table in the early 1970s, he realized that neither the market, the art world, nor his father and managers reacted as he had hoped for, and he eventually let go of the project and thought of different ways for incorporating principles from the industrial and cultural production logics. However, our model also proposes that the strategic synthesis of different logics can be used to test and challenge, and ultimately modify, audience evaluation of new products. For example, Alessi experimentation in developing kitchenware as applied art changed audience’s existing beliefs about the value of a kitchen utensil, from just a tool that performs a function to a cultural object that evokes aesthetic enjoyment and intellectual reflection. In his “theory of the borderline,” Alberto Alessi elaborated how products embodying different combinations of industrial and artistic features can change the evaluative dimensions that audiences apply to a product. Through product experimentation Alessi both tested and expanded the boundaries of what the market accepted. Products that they called “super and popular” reflected positive surprises about what audiences were willing to accept; those called “fiascos” were negative surprises revealed that the market was not ready to accept a given direction of experimentation and led to adjustments in the direction of experimentation and innovation.

Question 2. You mention that the process of anticipatory identification facilitated the transition from one strategy to the next (p30), further enabling search and change in the organization. Yet, the transition needs to be embraced by the audience in order to be successful. Smith (2011, ASQ) proposes the identity-as-lens argument, showing that the audience excessively rewards the positive performance of firms with non-conformist identities. How much of Alessi’s success do you think is due to the identity it has accumulated over time? In particular, to what extent do you think the success of its third-stage synthesis strategy depends on the previous periods of experimentation, based on compartmentalization and enrichment? More broadly, what role does time, or path dependence, play in logics recombination?

We examined the question of how Alessi managed its identity in an earlier paper (Rindova, Dalpiaz & Ravasi, 2011), where we showed that it used multiple identity claims — either applying categories from other domains, or creating hybrid ones (e.g. “dream factory”) — to help audiences make sense of its novel, non-conformist actions in terms of familiar categories. Thus, neither Alessi’s identity, nor its strategy for combining the logics of industry and art were stable and consistent over time. Time played an important role in developing a successful strategy, as later attempts to combine logics built on what the outcome of the previous ones revealed about the feasibility of different combinations and the willingness of audiences to accept them, thereby enabling “anticipatory identification.” There is certainly evidence of a learning process, to extent that the success of the third phase depended on what the previous two had revealed about the compatibility of the logics of art and industry. However, three phases are related in a dialectical, rather than in a linear, cumulative fashion. They can be seen as a dialectical sequences starting with Alessi’s bold and non-conformist “thesis” that they can become an industrial producer of art, followed by an anti-thesis that they are an industrial producer of appealing products from the kitchen, and culminating in the synthesis that they are producers of “applied art.”

Question 3. Much of your narrative emphasizes the character of Alberto Alessi, the leader of the company under study. However, you didn’t discuss much the idiosyncrasy of this figure. Does Alberto Alessi’s leadership have a substantial impact in the choice and in the implications of recombinant strategies at Alessi? More generally, would you argue that leadership plays any role in a dynamic theory of institutional complexity?

This is an excellent observation. Alberto Alessi’s role as leader of the organizational transformation was surely fundamental in the choice of the strategic direction and subsequent adaptations. Our archival data represent him as a charismatic and maverick innovator and organizational leader. Our informants also referred continuously to what Alberto Alessi said, did, observed or theorized, often quoting his words. It would be fair to say that all of our sources ascribed to him extra-ordinary qualities and identified him as the organization’s leader over the entire period observation period, despite the fact that he was initially responsible only for new product development, and shared the CEO role along with his brother Michele for a number of years. His charismatic leadership was widely seen fundamental in steering the organization amidst institutional complexity and navigating the associating challenges successfully.

What the emphasis on his leadership charisma obscures is how wisely and skillfully he pursued this unconventional strategy. For example, he commissioned rigorous analysis of Alessi’s past production to develop deep understanding of the organization’s history, he chose an advisor who was an opinion leader in the field of cultural production field (the architect Alessandro Mendini) and developed a close collaborative relationship with him that spanned decades. He  learnt about the worlds of design and art from him, as well as the designers he worked with, and reflected periodically on the accumulated experience in a structured manner (i.e. by writing books) in order to understand the way forward. In sum, we can say that Alberto Alessi’s leadership was critical to bringing together may of the complex elements and processes that we theorize as underlying the transformation of the organizational agency.

Question 4. The in-depth case study approach seems to be a great fit for exploring the complex process through which strategic recombination of logics leads to creation of new market opportunities. Said that, have you thought about testing any predictions of your theory via large-sample empirical analysis? In particular, your theory puts lots of emphasis on reconceptualization and reinterpretation of products and goals resulted from the strategic recombination. How would you go about operationalizing these constructs in empirical work? What would be a convenient empirical setting to carry out the analysis?

When Elena was collecting her dissertation data at Alessi, we tried to get access to data on all of Alessi products manufactured since 1979, including pictures, descriptions of material, sale data, information on designers, number of versions created, number of acquisitions by museums, design awards, etc. We hoped to test specific propositions about the effects of different recombinant strategies on product innovation and its outcomes across multiple fields (e.g. the industry and field of cultural production. We were particularly excited about the possibility of examining systematically the effects of different cultural content embedded in products on their success as measured by both industry sales and cultural recognition. An example of this would be the double- spouted tea kettle (Mama O’) designed by Branzi, which expresses the figurative tradition of representing the Roman deity of war Janus. What made this an exciting possibility for us is that cultural content, in general, is very ambiguous and difficult to code systematically but, at Alessi, cultural content was discussed explicitly and documented as a part of the product development process. Although the available data was not sufficiently systematic to allow such analysis, it gave us a glimpse into the possibility of studying in a structured and detailed way the multiple choices, considerations, and decisions that are often black-boxed in what innovation scholars refer to as the “fuzzy front end” of new product development. We see tremendous opportunities for understanding how institutional and cultural resources inform product innovation in this step.

Question 5. We would like to hear more about your experience in writing this excellent paper. First, we noticed that this article is based on the first author’s dissertation. Could you please elaborate more on the overall idea of the dissertation, how it came into place, and what role this paper played within it? For all authors, we would love to know more about how this work fits into your broader research agenda. After completing this project, did your following work evolve in certain directions rather than others in response to your findings and your experience in this study? Finally, if you were to advise a PhD student who loved this paper and wanted to do a follow-up study, what would be your suggestions?

Elena: The idea that gave rise to my dissertation was understanding how organizations could use the meanings and symbolic value of products to achieve positive outcomes in product and strategy innovation. By working with my advisors, I had come to the realization that the strategy literature had never really explored the idea that symbolic aspects of products could be relevant in product innovation rather than just for marketing purposes. Violina had published a paper on the topic, which theorized how symbolic value can be embedded in product form (Rindova & Petkova, 2007), and Davide and Violina had been working together for some time on the idea of symbolic value. Initially I thought of developing new theory about how different aspects of product forms (related to the technology, the function, and the aesthetics) may elicit audiences’ different reactions and how such aspects can in turn affect market acceptance. The case of Alessi, with its rich archive and fascinating narrative about its artful and successful products seemed to provide a fantastic case to explore this topic.

Yet, the internal committee, who provided students with early feedback on our dissertations, was quite clear that the topic did not fit into any established conversation within the strategy and OT community – and was therefore quite risky to pursue. Once I overcame my initial frustration, I threw myself into finding a way to make those ideas relevant for strategy and organization theory. I attended a symposium at the Academy of Management on conflicting institutional logics, which excited me beyond words. It was either 2007 or 2008. I felt enlightened because everything that I was hearing about logics and the challenges in blending conflicting logics, seemed to describe very well how Alessi engaged in product innovation and changed its practices and structures over time.

Since then and for the subsequent years, I immersed myself into understanding what had been written about institutional logics, and into analyzing my data to understand how the Alessi case could advance this theory. I also began connecting with the main proponents of the theory of institutional logics, reaching out to them repeatedly to seek feedback on the working paper (I am particularly indebted to Royston Greenwood and Michael Lounsbury, who hosted me in Alberta), and I engaged systematically in OTREG meetings organized in the UK and Europe by a group of international scholars interested in institutional topics.

The paper published in ASQ originates here, and then developed over three further years of intense interactions with my advisors and, now, co-authors. I travelled to Austin twice, where Violina was then based: she and her husband were so kind that they hosted me in their house for many weeks at a time in order to enable us to work days and nights, during meals, car transfers, grocery shopping, and in between her meetings. We engaged in never-ending, exhausting, sometimes nerve-wrecking, but always fruitful and illuminating discussions about data analysis and theory development. For example, it was Violina, who suggested to use Emirbayer and Mische’s (1998) theory of agency to theorize our observations. With Davide, I had daily and intense interactions when we were both based in Milan sitting one corridor apart, and then when we were at the opposite sides of London. I will never forget the long discussions we had for how to best theorize different strategies for recombining logics, and on reflection as key mechanism in our model: even when both of us were stamping our feet on our respective views and the discussions turned heated, he always solved the tension by cracking a joke and offering a cup of tea and a snack from the vending machines. Overall, I cherish those years and interactions that led to this paper….

Such a lengthy and deeply-involving work, which has been at the center of many years of my life, is the foundation of my research agenda – understanding how various cultural resources (of which institutional logics are one example) can be used strategically within organizations and with what effects. Now, for example, I am investigating the role of organizational narratives during strategic change, and the role of moving templates of organizational forms (e.g. the template of U.S. incubators) as inspiration for new venture creation and development. For a follow-up of this specific study, I think you just offered a great idea: the role of leadership in navigating institutional complexity. I believe this is a very intriguing avenue of future work!

Violina: Working on this paper, along with the larger stream on cultural and symbolic value creation that Elena mentioned earlier, has been a labor of love. Davide and I were passionate about understanding how producers can change the meaning of goods, as diverse groups of scholars from different disciplines have been studying the meaning of goods, but few management scholars outside the realm of cultural industries had joined the conversation. We were thrilled that a talented doctoral student like Elena shared our excitement and began a three-way collaboration on the topic. The Alessi case became a focal point of the collaboration – and a centerpiece of Elena’s dissertation – because the company itself had made such a strategic commitment to changing the meaning of household goods in order to change a wide spectrum of experiences in the home. They referred to it as “everyday poetry” and I thought their strategy was poetic in its pursuit of transformative power.

This paper was the most ambitious project in our joint portfolio as it connected Alessi’s unconventional strategy to an “established conversation” in institutional theory – logic multiplicity and institutional complexity. One challenge we faced in joining this conversation was that Alessi took an extremely agentic stance with regard to the logics of industry and art. Its leaders – especially Alberto Alessi — did so with clear strategic intent and recognition of the challenges ahead, and invested significant resources in documenting and reflecting on the process they went through. On the positive side, this gave us access to an unusually detailed archive, which Elena organized masterfully. On the downside, our account was a somewhat uneasy fit with existing accounts of how organizations combine and manage multiple logics. This tension proved a fertile ground for the theory development in the paper, as we began to theorize the processes through Emirbayer & Mische’s theory of agency. Our editor – Dev Jennings – provided much appreciated encouragement to unpack fully the agency arguments and integrate them with the work on multiple logics; and our reviewers — who had deep expertise in institutional logics — offered many excellent suggestions in that regard. This made the theory development process quite complex. Working simultaneously across two theoretical frameworks generated a very large number of constructs – some of which related to the logics literature, others to the agency framework – that needed to be supported by clear evidence and connected in a coherent theory. Davide created the largest comparative evidence tables I have ever seen in a qualitative study, and among the three of us we generated dozens of representations of the theoretical model. While we were revising the paper, several important new papers came out addressing various pieces of our story, requiring continuous updating of our contributions. We had to rewrite multiple parts multiple times to integrate these developments as well. To me the best part of this experience was that the harder we had to work on the integration across theories and new papers, the deeper our insights got.

All three of us were passionate about the story and the emerging theory because it crystalized a number of ideas we have been working on for a while. For me the paper was a unique opportunity to dig much more deeply into the relationships between meaning, value, and opportunity creation, which I had started studying in my dissertation. It also brought me closer to understanding the dynamics of design-driven innovation that had captured my imagination in working on the museums and symbolic value creation papers with Davide. Going forward, I see exciting opportunities for transforming the study of innovation and opportunity creation by studying the processes, structures, and practices that constitute the imaginative-projective dimension of agency at both the individual and organizational levels of analysis.

Davide: This was one of the most complex papers I have ever worked on. Early data for this project were collected back in 2006, when Violina and I first gained access to the Alessi Museum and archive, laying the foundation for what would later become Elena’s dissertation. Violina and I were working on our paper on symbolic value creation at the time (still unpublished, but I have learned so much just by writing its numerous versions…) and we were exploring the idea of a study of corporate museums. Alessi seemed to be an inspirational company to visit and, as we learned more and more about their story, we realized the great opportunity we had.

The idea of using logics as a lens to study Alessi emerged while working on a paper, published five years earlier in Organization Science, where we were looking at how Alessi changed the cultural resources it used in its innovation process. The word “logic” was used by Alberto Alessi and his close collaborators in archival material to describe the principles from different domains that they wanted to embrace or distance themselves from! In working on that paper we realized (with the help of the reviewers) that we could not do justice to both the topic of cultural resources and logics as they manifested in Alessi’s case. The notion of institutional logic, however, seemed so important to our analysis that we decided to write a second paper centered on the idea of logic recombination.

Writing this paper was particularly difficult because we had so many moving parts (logics, concepts, practices, legitimacy issues, outcomes, phases, etc.), and we had to show simultaneously patterns of similarity across change episodes (to build the process model) and patterns of difference (showing how the various phases of the process unfolded differently across change episodes).

Through the various versions, we experimented with different ways to write the Findings section, turning it upside down three times before being satisfied with it. We gradually replaced enormous evidence tables, which we produced in the beginning to reassure reviewers about the grounding of our analysis in the data, with tables facilitating the transition from empirical to theoretical observations, and, eventually, a table exclusively dedicated to summarize our complex comparative analysis.     

Whit this paper I had to master the literature on logics – something I had only dabbled in previously – and Emirbayer and Mische’s theory of agency. Since then, I have used these theories in other papers and projects, but I still remain a culture and identity scholar at heart. For me the Alessi project was important to refine my own understanding of the relationships between culture and identity in times of change. In this respect, the ideas we outlined in our previous paper (Rindova, Dalpiaz & Ravasi, 2011) complement what I observed with Majken Schultz at Bang & Olufsen (Ravasi & Schultz, 2006) and with Anna Canato and Nelson Phillips in our study of 3M (Canato, Ravasi & Phillips, 2013) by showing how new identities can be used to introduce cultural changes (which, in the specific case of Alessi, where driven by the recombination of institutional logics).

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