Salvato & Rerup(2018). Routine regulation: Balancing conflicting goals in organizational routines

Authors:

Carlo Salvato – Bocconi University

Claus Rerup – Frankfurt School of Finance and Management

Interviewers:

David K. Reetz – Technical University of Munich

Stevo Pavićević – University of Zurich

Article link: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0001839217707738

Question 1a. This is an exciting paper showing how organizational members at the Italian design firm Alessi simultaneously achieved conflicting goals of original design and efficient production through regulatory actions by enacting the same routine. The concept of “routines as truces” is central to your findings. While routines have been recognized as dynamic, truces have not. This assumes a resolution of conflict prior to enacting routines but neglects that conflicts may be resolved by how routines are performed. Can you please share how you recognized the prevalent role of truces for framing your study of routine dynamics? Did it emerge during data collection, during data analysis, or did you focus on truces from the beginning?

The prevalent role of truces within Alessi’s product development processes, and their plasticity, emerged during data analysis and discussions with the reviewers and the editor. Although we were fully aware of the importance of the truce concept in the existing literature on routines, it was not initially our intention to place it at center stage in our exploration of routine dynamics. In the first version of the manuscript we described truces more as an end state – a relatively stable outcome of the regulatory actions performed by routine participants – rather than as an ongoing accomplishment. Then, one of the reviewers made this interesting observation: “We don’t know a lot about how truces actually come into place. I might be more inclined to see your analysis of regulation in this light: the way truces are accomplished…” This comment, and the editor’s request to “delve deeper into your mechanisms” prompted us to further explore our data for traces of how truces were dynamically accomplished.

Question 1b. How did your prior work on routines help you in making this discovery (e.g., Rerup & Feldman, 2011; Salvato & Rerup, 2011)?

Our prior work (Salvato, 2009; Salvato and Rerup, 2011; Rerup and Feldman, 2011) with its focus on tracing actors and actions over time sensitized us to “see” truce dynamics. Specifically, it created a foundation for “unpacking” Alessi routines into smaller parts, and connecting these parts with a myriad of actions performed by individual actors within (managers, engineers) and outside (designers, suppliers) the organization. Assembling these details was very time consuming but it helped bringing the dynamics of routine regulation to life by zooming in on a specific ecology of actors, actions, and their links.

Question 2a. You develop theoretical insights from an impressive case data set. You accomplished six years of on-site data collection, numerous archival accounts, direct observations, and interviews. This seems like a huge commitment with unforeseeable outcomes. Could you share with us the initial idea you had when starting data collection? What guiding structure (e.g., interview guidelines, theoretical focus, rationales) did you have? Why did you pick Alessi in the first place and how did you get access?

The first contact that Carlo had with Alessi can be traced back to the mid-1990s, when one of his students was hired by the company and later invited him for a company visit. This early contact started a first wave of intense data collection on the evolution of Alessi’s product development capabilities, which resulted in Carlo’s PhD dissertation (retrievable at: http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2%3A4096&dswid=-3710). This early research effort was guided by an interest in understanding strategic change and, in particular, the evolution and dynamics of Alessi’s organizational capabilities.

We started to work on this piece of research in 2010/11 when Claus was spending a sabbatical year at Bocconi. Investigating the micro-dynamics of organizational routines required a new wave of data collection and a different approach to analyzing both new and already available data. Importantly, our excellent access to the company allowed us to go back and ask additional questions throughout the review process, to support the changes we were making in response to the reviewers’ and editor’s comments.

Clearly, this type of research requires excellent access, which can only be developed over long periods of time, building trust and quality personal relationships. It’s a labor of love, which goes well beyond the instrumental motive of publishing research papers. Eventually, the researcher becomes friend with several managers, has lunch with them multiple times, regularly brings cookies for the mid-morning coffee break, volunteers to carry tens of product-development dossiers (a cornucopia of structured archival data!) from a dusty warehouse to the company museum shelves. Eventually, one day Alessi Marketing manager introduced the researcher to a newly hired colleague saying: “Carlo knows Alessi better than many of us”! The risk of becoming “native” obviously grows with time. For this reason, having a co-author who can bring an external and more objective eye to data analysis and interpretation is essential to developing rigorous insights.

Question 2b. What advice would you give to early-stage PhD students who are thinking about collecting qualitative / case / field data for their doctoral dissertation?

Do it, but be aware that longitudinal, process oriented studies focused on unpacking “black boxes” are very time consuming. March and Sutton (1997: 702) observed that: “The kind of persistence, attention to complexity, and the delayed gratification required for a thoroughly informed and theoretically sophisticated study of the historical development of an organization has to be seen as an unusual achievement.” In light of this commentary, it requires a certain amount of foolishness to obtain the type of detailed, longitudinal data that we gathered for this study. Did we expect it would take 7 or 8 year to publish this paper after Carlo had already invested about 10 years in data collection? No. While we cherish the publication, we have come to recognize that the joy of doing research is to be found in the process.

Question 3a. In the paper, you provide a detailed account of how you analyzed the data. You succinctly move from (1) tracing routines generally, to (2) the activities and artifacts of how organizational members enact routines, to (3) how they eventually achieve conflicting goals. Although this sounds like a rather linear process, analyzing qualitative data is rarely as sequential as this. How openly did you approach your data? Can you give us some insights into the process? What opportunities for analyzing your data did the process research lens you chose provide?

You’re right, the initial stages of our data analysis were actually quite messy. The colossal amount of available data did not help us much, from this standpoint. Throughout our study, we were driven by a burning question, which provided a broad lens to read our empirical evidence: “How could participants accomplish contrasting outcomes by enacting the same routine?” During a lengthy discussion that Claus had with Michael Cohen (to whom the paper is dedicated), Mike suggested us to look for possible insights from genetics. Some genes, he said, have the surprising ability to perform contrasting tasks with the same genetic material. The “routine regulation” concept is thus borrowed from “gene regulation.” This terrific insight provided us with a very clear structure to analyze our data. We adopted multiple qualitative data analysis techniques (with a focus on the Gioia method, event sequence analysis and process methods) to identify: the action patterns that constitute the product development routines (the genes); the specific actions that regulate routines to accomplish either of the two contrasting goals (the regulatory mechanisms); how these actions emerged over time (the evolution of the regulatory mechanisms). As you may notice, the genetic analogy later disappeared from the paper, as two of the three reviewers did not find it particularly clear and useful. However, all related insights are still there, including the labels of the three regulation mechanisms we identified at Alessi: repressing, activating, and splicing.

Question 3b. Relatedly, we thought that your theorizing naturally flows from your data and thus found the presentation of your findings rather easy to follow. For example, you use rich narratives to illustrate how truces are re-created by actors of both groups (designers and engineers) to achieve this dual goal. Given the dynamic enactment of routines you describe is quite complex: how did you approach the iterative process of connecting your emerging findings with the literature on routines? What, if any, was the rationale of balancing case description and theorizing (i.e. embracing the depth in the data vs. a clear theoretical mechanism)? How did you decide on the presentation of evidence?

Presenting our rich evidence was a daunting challenge. We experimented with different structures of our narratives and supporting tables and figures, until we could develop a manuscript that was easy to follow. We did not get it ‘right’ the first time around. A key decision related to the macro-structure of our narratives. We had two main alternatives. The first was to follow the historical path of Alessi’s product development routine development. This choice would have amplified the historical nature of our study, rather than the conceptual components emerging from the analysis. The second option was to divide the narrative into three sections describing the three routine regulation mechanisms that emerged from our analysis. We eventually decided for the latter solution, because it allowed us to craft new insights into how routines and truces develop over time.

A key to developing a clear and compelling structure was the effort to sit in our reader’s chair. Having a co-author who did not actively participate in data collection was enormously helpful. We wrote and exchanged countless drafts of the narratives and we discussed them in person or through two-hour Skype calls. It was quite intense. We spent several days developing and honing figures and tables illustrating our data, only to realize that they were often too complicated to be understood by someone who was unfamiliar with our data.

Theory helped us a lot in this journey. The literature on routine dynamics is very clear in defining actions performed by routine participants as key to understanding how people enact routines, and how different enactments allow them to accomplish contrasting goals when performing the same routine. Focus on routine participants’ actions thus steered how we gradually developed our narratives, eliminating anything that was not action-focused. This allowed us to radically simplify the illustration of our findings because deciding what not to write is as important as deciding what not to report.

Question 4a. A key purpose of this blog is to provide a view behind the scene and how a paper developed. Thus, we are really interested to hear more about the review process. What was the most challenging part of this process?

We had an amazing editor (Mike Pratt) and review team. It was a generative process where we felt challenged, but supported. Throughout the review process there were multiple challenges related to crafting a compelling framing and contribution, and providing strong data to theory connections. At one point we were struggling to convince the review team that Alessi was enacting one rather than two routines. Existing theory going back to the Carnegie School predicts that an organization enacts a single routine to accomplish a single goal rather than enacts a single routine to accomplish two goals. The beauty of this struggle was that it pushed us to engage with our data in a more profound way and carve out the mechanisms of routine regulation that made this unusual pattern possible.

Question 4b. Additionally, as with many in-depth single case studies, you likely had more insights than you could present in the paper. Was there any aspect you would have liked to include?

You’re absolutely right; we only reported a fraction of what we initially thought we should have reported if we wanted to provide compelling evidence of routine regulation. A few examples. First, as we already mentioned, we entirely eliminated any reference to genetics in building the concept of routine regulation. We initially resisted the removal of this part because we wanted to be transparent as to where the initial hunch came from, and to pay a tribute to our late colleague Mike Cohen. However, we eventually realized that the key insights were all still there after removing this part. Second, we would have liked to describe additional regulatory mechanisms that emerged during data analysis. We eventually focused on just three due to space constraints, the need to offer enough details on each mechanism, and the focus on the main goal of the paper, which was to provide evidence of routine regulation, not a full-range description of all observed regulatory mechanisms.

Question 5. In one of your contribution statements, you suggest that “coping with goal conflict [requires] agency” (p. 34). Should we interpret this as a lead toward a less mechanistic view of organizational behavior, as for example predicted by the Behavioral Theory of the Firm? We can also see such a call in a recent AMA paper on the related concept of “problemistic search” (Posen, Keil, Kim, & Meissner, 2017). Is that right? How do you see this field of study moving forward both conceptually and empirically?

Our paper builds on the foundational contributions of March and Simon (1958) and Nelson and Winter (1982), and the more recent contributions by Feldman and Pentland (2003). To that end, we continue the drive in the field towards embracing more granularity in the way we conceptualize organizational routines. In earlier work on routines the role of agents, actions and agency was relegated to the background whereas the way routines created cognitive efficiency was in the foreground of theorizing (Salvato and Rerup, 2011). More recently, agents and agency have been relegated to the foreground whereas cognition has moved to the background. There are theoretical and historical reasons for these shifts that we can’t cover here. However, we see three ways in which the field could be moving forward.

First, we agree that there is a general push in the field towards a less mechanistic or more mindful approach to organizational behavior. We support this movement and encourage more work on, for instance, the way less mindful routines form a foundation for more mindful work (Levintal and Rerup, 2006; Salvato, 2009; Turner and Rindova, 2012; Rerup and Levinthal, 2014).

Second, perhaps the time has come to make a more concerted effort to conceptually integrate and empirically explore bridges between complementary perspectives. For instance, how can we bring cognitive (and emotional) dynamics into current research on routine dynamics? In their study of Learning Lab Denmark, Rerup and Feldman (2011) made an effort in that direction by tracing the link between the co-constitutive dynamics between Learning Lab Denmark’s hiring routine and cognitive schemata.

Third, we believe it would be helpful to connect the growing body of research on organizational routines to grand challenges such as human trafficking, climate change and world peace as well as to emerging issues such as artificial intelligence and big data.

References

Feldman, M. S., & Pentland, B. T. 2003. Reconceptualizing organizational routines as a source of flexibility and change. Administrative Science Quarterly, 48(1): 94-118.

Levinthal, D., & Rerup, C. (2006). Crossing an apparent chasm: Bridging mindful and less-mindful perspectives on organizational learning. Organization Science, 17(4): 502-513.

March, J. G., & Sutton, R. I. 1997. Crossroads—organizational performance as a dependent variable. Organization Science, 8(6): 698-706.

March, J. G., & Simon, H. A. (1958). Organizations.

Nelson, R. R., & Sidney, G. 1982. An evolutionary theory of economic change.

Rerup, C., & Feldman, M. S. 2011. Routines as a source of change in organizational schemata: The role of trial-and-error learning. Academy of Management Journal, 54(3): 577-610.

Rerup, C., & Levinthal, D. A. 2014. Situating the concept of organizational mindfulness: The multiple dimensions of organizational learning. In: Mindful change in times of permanent reorganization (pp. 33-48). Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.

Salvato, C. 2009. Capabilities unveiled: The role of ordinary activities in the evolution of product development processes. Organization Science, 20(2): 384-409.

Salvato, C., & Rerup, C. 2011. Beyond collective entities: Multilevel research on organizational routines and capabilities. Journal of Management, 37(2): 468-490.

Turner, S. F., & Rindova, V. 2012. A balancing act: How organizations pursue consistency in routine functioning in the face of ongoing change. Organization Science, 23(1): 24-46.

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