Podcast: Raffaelli (2019). Technology Reemergence: Creating New Value for Old Technologies in Swiss Mechanical Watchmaking, 1970–2008


– Harvard Business School


Amy Zhao-Ding – INSEAD

Mara Guerra – Imperial College Business School

Article link: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0001839218778505

Listen below to the September installment of the ASQ Blog Podcast Series:

Transcript of the podcast:

Note: Professor Ryan also presented this paper at the Evidence Presentation PDW (materials available at ASQ Improving Evidence Presentation: Resources and Tools) at the 2019 AOM Meeting in Boston. You will find his presentation here.

Amy: Hi ASQ blog listeners and readers. Welcome to this episode of ASQ Podcast. We’re at the Academy of Management meeting in Boston. We’re very excited to have with us Professor Ryan from Harvard Business School who has done a great deal of work in technology re-emergence. We’re interested in his recent ASQ paper on the Swiss mechanical watchmaking industry and how to create new values for old technologies. Thanks for being here, Ryan.

Ryan: Thank you.

Amy: Ryan, we both very enjoyed reading your paper and the way you pioneered the exciting new field. Today we want to focus on your process of crafting the paper and hopefully gain some behind-the-scenes insights into your work. If we’re not mistaken, the paper was based on your doctoral dissertation. The first question is, how did the idea of technology re-emergence first come about?

Ryan: Well, so I’m a qualitative researcher, and I went into this thinking about the notion of inducing new theory. And so it was a balance of reading a lot in the context of institutions and how fields both emerge, and then also work that Dick Scott and others had done on this notion of deinstitutionalization. It got me thinking: what would it look like for a field or, in the case of what ended up coming out of this paper, what would it look like for a technology to re-emerge? So that’s really where this started. And part of this was also then beginning to realize that if I wanted to explore this more fully, what would be contexts that might be able to illustrate that and help us understand either the processes and, more specifically, the mechanisms behind a notion and a new construct like re-emergence?

Amy: You’re driven by a theoretical puzzle. So how did you go about choosing industries and method? Is this influenced by your hobbies?

Ryan: So when I first started thinking about this, I started really looking for throwing a pretty wide net around where would I find examples of this? Now, I’d always had a love for watches, and so partially, it’s hard for me to know which came first, the theoretical gap or the idea that maybe watches could be interesting, but it wasn’t the only context that I was looking at. I was actually looking at several different contexts. I think I remember in a doctoral seminar and then at a conference on institutions, coming back from that and realizing this could be interesting. In fact, I remember my advisor at the time, Mary Ann Glynn saying, “You could study that. This notion of re-emergence.” So the notion of watches was fascinating to me because it was so clear something was going on here.

It was breaking the rules around the notion of, in the case of mechanical watches, you had a new dominant design emerge, which was you had quartz-powered battery watches. And yet these mechanical watches, which were supposed to be a dead technology—I often say, most people thought that they would follow the same path as the telegraph, the typewriter, and the cassette tape—and yet you walk around and you read in magazines all these ads about mechanical watches, and that was part of the puzzle. And I thought, “Okay, what’s going on here? Why does this exist? Maybe this is an example of how to really begin to explore the concept of re-emergence.”

Amy: Are you yourself a collector of mechanical watches?

Ryan: So I can’t say I’m a collector. You have to have a lot of money to collect these things. Part of, actually one of the things that I learned about the watch industry as part of this was just how extreme the different types of watches are in terms of how much people will pay for them as they become more handcrafted. Some watches can be commissioned, almost like pieces of art. So I was in some watch factories that would make only a dozen watches a year and sell each one for over a million dollars. That’s on one extreme. And so there was all these different types of people that are buying these things. And to answer your question, I have a couple of these things, but nowhere near like some of the people that I interviewed for this study. Yeah.

Amy: That’s great. So the second question is we are very interested about the various sorts of data you are using in this paper. We’re especially fascinated with the use of ads as a source of data. Could you share with us the process of looking at how to collect them and gaining access to them?

Ryan: Of course. So the ads are one piece of the story, and it’s probably helpful to understand how I got to the ads because the watch industry, I quickly came to realize, was highly secretive, very closed, was curious about outsiders wanting to study them and ask questions. So I started this work by doing a lot of archival analysis, reading a lot of books, but then also going right to industry associations, also museums, archives all over both the United States and in Switzerland. Those people were more likely to talk to me out of the gate than CEOs and executives of the watch brands themselves. So as I was in a lot of the archives, I started seeing and asking the historians and archivists, “What’s the source that most people in this industry use to track what’s popular or emerging trends?” And there was a couple of journals that they kept talking about.

And so I started looking at these journals, and in these archives there was pieces of them around. You’d get a decade’s worth of these journals, maybe they would have them. So I was reading a lot of these, and through this, what really struck me was I was looking at the same journal and the way that companies were talking about and advertising their watches and then thinking about how they were being advertised today, and I could see the difference. I mean it was such a stark difference about how the evolution of the industry and the technology could be told through a series of advertisements. And so I coupled this with starting to collect these, and I started doing it across multiple archives. So you had to piece these together, and eventually over about a two- or three-year process, I was able to get the whole collection of about 40 years of these journals, one complete set, and then went about scanning all the advertisements in all of those journals during that period.

And as I was doing this, I started doing a lot of field work. So as a qualitative researcher, for me, the interesting part was immersing myself almost like an anthropologist would, right, in terms of trying to understand this complex system because I was studying a community but also an industry. And so I started interviewing a lot of CEOs. Eventually I was showing up at industry events. In my world we call these field-configuring events, a lot like the Academy of Management is. It brings everybody together, right, from a lot of different places. So I would show up at these things and stand outside the booths of these watch companies and ask them, “Would you let me get 15 minutes with your CEO? Here’s the thing, what I’m doing.” And I pleaded with them and “take pity on this young scholar.”

Eventually, I started cracking through. I also did things where for some of the most secretive companies, I would literally go onto their websites and look at the emails of the communications or the PR manager that they would put, and then I would try to reverse-engineer with that what might be the email of the CEO, for example. And I would try those sorts of things, and often it would come back . . .

Mara: Nonexistent?

Ryan: Nonexistent, but more than not, I could eventually break through. And surprisingly, this was the sort of persistence that you had to do. It took me about two years before I really started getting traction with company executives. And then because it was such a small community and tight community, once I started speaking to them, I would ask a CEO, “Who else do you think would be able to share and tell me more about this story?” And that just snowballed, right? And so then I started cracking in, and because I was one of the first academics to want to understand this from a management perspective, people didn’t want to be left out, right? And so that was the shift. And so as a result, I was able to interview almost 150 senior executives for the project. As I look back now, I think what I came up with is about 85% of all the watch industry sales, I interviewed executives from, during over the 40-year timeframe.

Amy: So you mentioned that you started out investigating the industry through looking into the industry organizations and archival data. So I’m wondering if there’s any tell that you could see to evaluate the prospect of the industry, whether it’s worth studying, whether it’s going anywhere, with the research?

Ryan: There’s a couple of things that I learned from this project that I now have applied to subsequent projects as I look at how industries evolve from the lens of qualitative work. If you think to the number of, for example, ASQ articles that are industry or field level but also qualitative, there wasn’t a lot that I could look to as examples. There was a small handful. So part of the process for me was also thinking about what was the method I was going to use to capture all the different actors involved in trying to understand and portray the evolution of an industry and a community. So there’s a couple things that I’ve now come to realize that I think are important for picking a context like this, and I now make sure that my doctoral students work with these criteria.

The first one is, can you quickly see a puzzle that’s embedded in almost like a dependent variable that’s attached to the phenomena? So for me it was, why was there this drop in the sales of mechanical watches, which we all would have expected after the emergence of a new dominant design. But the puzzle was, you could see this very clearly on a graph that you saw the drop like we would expect, and then all of a sudden an uptick. And you saw year-over-year growth, and so I thought, “Okay, this is important,” because just through this one graph, I can illustrate the puzzle, the phenomenological puzzle, that I knew would not only be interesting to me because it was, if we could say this is the puzzle, what I want to try to do is understand both the process and the mechanisms that led to the shift in the trend. For a qualitative researcher, that’s important.

And then the second thing was very practical in the sense that I lived with these data and I was in the field for almost seven years collecting these data. So three and a half years as I was working on the dissertation and then another three years after the dissertation was done, building out even more field interviews because through the review process, reviewers were asking for other things, and I went back into the field several times. So the lesson there is pick a context that excites you and will sustain you, because I see a lot of doctoral students often picking contexts because they see the data as being readily available. While that can serve you well in the beginning of a project, for qualitative work I think especially because it can be so challenging, it can take so long to get it to the finish line, you want to be able to find energy from being in the context itself, or just if you find the people you’re interviewing interesting or the phenomenon … Something beyond the theory that will keep you going.

Mara: You told us about the importance of being immersed in the field, almost like an anthropologist, and you spin such a great story about the watchmaking industry and how mechanical watches re-emerged. Could you share with us how the story or the key takeaway changed over time as the paper evolved?

Ryan: Yes. So one thing that I think the review process does is it really helps you fine-tune what’s the story you want to tell that’s different from the story of your dissertation. Because there’s a dissertation story, but then there’s also a story that’s appropriate for a paper that’s 40 to 50 pages. And so, coming into this process, my dissertation was about how institutions and identities re-emerge and evolve over time. While the story of the technology was there, it was part of the question. And over the process of going through the reviews, what I really came to appreciate is that there was value in telling the story of why the Swiss mechanical watch itself saw a drop in demand and then came back.

And so the evolution of the story I think is largely about what was the unit of analysis. And what I came to really appreciate was that the set of reviewers I was working with were very excited about the notion of what was happening to the demand of the watch itself. And so could I tell that story through the organizations. And these other components of the institutional components and these notions of identity? What I realized is that those got folded into the story as almost different types of mechanisms.

And I think that’s really the value of working with a journal like ASQ because you have reviewers who are eager and willing to engage with you, especially with dissertation work. Having served on the editorial board for the last three or four years, I now see a lot of these dissertation papers coming through. I think the one thing that’s unique about ASQ is that most reviewers can generally sense if it’s a dissertation paper, and we want to help. I benefited from that. I certainly benefited from I think a set of reviewers and also an editor who said, “Let’s really push you and let’s see if you can do it.”

Mara: Was ASQ your first choice in terms of outlet? This is a bit of a cheeky question. And did you face any challenges or what is the learning that you gained from the review process?

Ryan: So for me all along, ASQ was the place that I thought that this work would hopefully land. That was my goal largely because I think that a journal like ASQ appreciates a big story. And so I knew I was telling a story that was going to include a lot of actors. There was a lot going on here, and I read papers and I said, “Okay. This is a journal that is excited about wanting to engage with these ideas.” And I also saw from colleagues the process that they had gone through through reviews where reviewers were willing to engage with these big ideas and help an author work through and get the discipline around it so that when it comes out, it could be a very clean and succinct story.

Mara: You already shared with us some tips about choosing an interesting context for your research, and we really appreciate your writing in the paper. We loved how you made that story. Can you share some tips about writing for students?

Ryan: Well, I think there’s a couple things about writing a story like this, which is that on one end, there’s the narrative of what’s happening. So the Swiss watch industry, as you dig into it, there’s all this interesting stuff happening. There’s this infighting and generations of people’s livelihood are at stake. So there was all this intrigue that came from it, and backstabbing and different leaders that were challenging each other. Part of the challenge of pulling this apart and figuring out how are you going to tell this story is, what I did is I started creating narratives of the actual story that were atheoretical. So I was writing out almost like case studies and case narratives to try to lay out what are the key important building blocks of the story.

And in fact, even when I was on the job market, one of the things that I did is I created a list of all of the stories that could help illustrate the different components of the theories that were being induced in the study. Because it was helpful for me as I was building out the mechanisms behind this and inducing the theory, to be able to attach it to a set of very specific studies that could exemplify it. And so in the paper, what you see is when mechanisms are introduced, you have unique quotes or examples that come from maybe several interviews, but they represent a broader story that could probably be a paper on themselves. And so doing the narrative that lays out “Here’s all of the components of it” was very helpful at the beginning because then I could step back and try to figure out, “Okay. Now let’s bring a theoretical lens to this and try to understand how is this evolving over time and what are the things that are making this happen? What are the mechanisms that are potentially driving the evolution of this story?”

Amy: So we just talked about your interest in the industry itself and talked about craftsmanship. So how does this paper fit into your broader research stream? How did publishing this paper affect your research trajectory and future plans?

Ryan: So this paper has really, for me, ignited a research program that looks more broadly at the notion of reinvention and how not only organizations but industries have to reinvent themselves when faced with large technological shocks. And so this is a story of how communities evolve in this context and what does it mean within the idea of the incumbent’s disadvantage. Your past success can often turn on you, become a liability for future success. And so I’ve recently been doing a lot of work. When I finished this work and joined the faculty at HBS six years ago, I started right in the field on a subsequent study that I’m now working on that looks at the resurgence of independent bookstores, for example.

So a lot of people don’t realize that over the last 10 years there’s been a 50% growth in the number of bookstores in the United States. And I was curious how does that happen? Why is that happening? Because it’s a different story than Swiss watches, which is often associated with craftsmanship and even luxury or status. Here is something much more pedestrian. It’s a bookstore. How does that happen? And that’s been fascinating for me because it’s opened up a bunch of research looking at what does it mean to compete in a world of, for example, retail and Amazon.com? They’ve seen this growth. And so I’ve been looking at that and also trying to understand this from the context of as leaders try to reinvent their organizations, what does that mean for the challenges that come from both preserving the past but also letting go of the past? And so it becomes a leadership story too. And so this has been really fertile ground for exciting work, I think. And hopefully my doctoral students who have now joined with me on this feel the same.

Amy: That’s fascinating. We really look forward to seeing more of that work. Do you have any advice for young aspiring scholars, especially doctoral students, who wish to publish in ASQ?

Ryan: I think that the one thing about publishing in ASQ is that it is a journal that requires a significant amount of persistence and preservation. It is one of those journals that will give you the opportunity to really explore some big ideas if you’re willing to put in a significant amount of work, especially in the review process. A couple of the R&Rs that I went through required almost starting over, but reviewers said, “We think that there’s something here. Let’s see if you can do it.” There are times, especially in the process, where you look at this and think, “Is this possible? Is what they’re asking for even … How do I even start there?”

And certainly, the process of this paper going through has helped me understand that we often think about reviewers as almost like out to get us. But what I’ve come to really appreciate over the last five or six years, not only with this process but other papers, is that most reviewers when they’re reading a paper for the first time, they’re reading with an eye towards hoping that it gets published. And when they’re asking you questions, what they’re really trying to do is help you fine-tune your story, help you understand, okay, what’s the gem that you want to polish? And if you can step back and realize that if they’re approaching it from that angle, I think it takes some of the stress out of the review process.

Because when you first look at this, you look at it and think, “I don’t know how they possibly want me to do this.” But taking a step back, having senior colleagues and other colleagues review letters with you, and then also looking at your letters—getting better at responses is a big part of a paper like this because you’re helping the reviewers understand why you’re making decisions. This paper changed forms several times, and each time it changed forms, I had to spend a lot of time in the response letters helping the reviewers understand why I was making decisions that I was, and hopefully with that, giving them more confidence.

Amy: This has been great. Thank you very much for joining us, Ryan.

Ryan: You’re very welcome. Thank you.

Mara: Thank you.

Amy’s Bio: Amy Zhao-Ding is a PhD candidate from the Entrepreneurship Area at INSEAD. Her research interests focus on how firms interpret different sources of information to understand uncertain markets. In particular, she studies mobile application developers and how they learn to identify opportunities in an expansive digital space.

Mara’s Bio: Mara is a PhD candidate in the Innovation and Entrepreneurship group at Imperial College Business School. She is interested in market strategies and technology-to-market linkages when market structure is no not yet well defined and demand-side information is not readily available. She explores these issues in the nascent phase of the solar photovoltaic industry.

Reflection on the Interview:

Amy: The first thing that stands out when interacting with Ryan is how perceptive and sensitive he is as a qualitative researcher. Before the interview even started, we had already learned a few tricks, like switching the mobile phones to airplane mode during recording to avoid being disrupted. We were particularly inspired by his passion and persistence through the past 7 years collecting data and working on the project. I think that energy really shined through the pages you see in print at ASQ.

Mara: Ryan’s dedication really stood out when interviewing him. I was impressed by the dedication he put into gaining access to the industry and into exploring it for such a long time. His advice about choosing an industry that you can see yourself studying for a long period of time can resonate a lot with students. I also appreciated his approach to crafting a story in a paper and how he approached the review process. I think the readers will enjoy reading about his experience with this paper.

“Swiss watch retailer – Baltic Watches” by Sergio Laskin is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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