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Research Spotlight

190913-01_078 ©MATT STARK Photography

Dear Professor Koch,

the paper „Organizational Path Dependence: Opening the Black Box”, written together with your colleagues Sydow and Schreyögg (both FU Berlin), has been honored with the Decade Award of the Academy of Management Review, one of the leading journals in the area of Management. The paper has collected a remarkable number of citations since it was published in 2009 (currently ca. 1500 on Google Scholar). Could you briefly summarize its central contents?

Our theory deals with the question how structures and processes in organizations, as well as between organizations, in economic systems, and in society at large, become ultra-stable, so that they can be changed barely or only through very strong efforts. We call this state “lock-in”, and our theory explains systematically how situations that offer many options for decisions and actions can develop, through specific mechanisms and their interactions, into situations in which systems only have very few courses of action left. Such processes are path-dependent in the sense that it is not their initial conditions, but the many events and decisions over time that progressively form a path describing and explaining this development. We assume that (oftentimes random) events and (side effects of) decisions lead to the initiation of such a process and to continuous self-enforcing until it finally reaches a lock-in stage.

A vivid example and a fitting metaphor for this would be a beaten path in a park. Such paths generally form where walkers and runners prefer to take a shortcut across the lawn instead of using paved paths. Even though all those people normally don’t know each other and have nothing to do with each other, they create, over months and years, through their decisions and actions, a common path. This path, once established, becomes attractive even for those who would until then never have thought of cutting across the lawn. I have been observing for several years, and with mounting pleasure, the increasingly absurd and futile efforts of the local parks commission to eliminate a beaten path in the park in front of my house. The parks commission at this point does more aesthetical damage than a small beaten path could ever have. My students know those images from my lectures.

In your opinion, what caused the great attention towards and the high number of citations of the paper?

This success has, and I am not saying this to feign humility, which is appropriate in any case, surprised us very much as well. Our theory of path dependence is essentially a very outmoded observation. Management and Organization research has over the past years largely subscribed to the assumption that everything is flexible, fluid, and permanently in flux. For those “mainstream-flux-theorists”, our theory is a rather bothersome irritant, best to be ignored. However, most people in this world make different experiences every day, and of course not only amusing ones in parks. Why can’t an airport be taken into operation, why are we failing to warrant more educational justice, why are so many once very successful businesses failing in face of digitization, why do we not succeed in sustainably vitalizing certain regions despite all efforts? These are all questions pointing towards phenomena of persistency, inertia, and encrustation, which in detail are often based on very complex interdependencies and for which our theory provides a systematic explanation. In this sense, our paper has fortunately found a very large echo and has been used – just to illustrate the spectrum of reception – by a Chinese-Australian team of authors to analyze the cadaster system in China, or from a Brazilian-British team of authors to analyze the development of slavery in Brazil.

Here at the Viadrina, we would of course wish for more such success stories. What can the university do, in your opinion, to better support researchers in this regard?

I find that in this respect, the Viadrina at large, but especially my faculty, already does many things the right way. I hope it stays like that. The most important thing is that we can live and experience the founding idea that a university embodies, i.e. to build communities of knowledge creators across all academic levels who practice a unity of research and teaching. Research is first and foremost a global, transboundary endeavor which runs contrary to all types of local profiling. The Viadrina should thus not distinguish itself via local issues and ephemeral contents, but via the globally networking researchers working here and via the conditions it can provide for their efforts. The researchers should in turn let themselves be measured by what they make of these opportunities, i.e. which scientifically and socially relevant contributions they provide, which innovations they develop in research and teaching, and how they contribute to distinguishing the Viadrina in their own genuine sense. This requires only a sound digital and analogous infrastructure tailored towards innovation, an efficient, transparent, and service-oriented administration, and a budget based on trust, providing the opportunity to adequately participate in the global academic discourse. A university is neither a business nor a government agency. I am happy to report about my research over the last five years, but I do not want to be asked what I will be researching over the next five years, as I cannot provide a truthful answer. However, both the idea of university governance, top-down or from the outside, and the successful raising of competitive third-party funds are based on this untruthfulness and its concurrent competent concealment. Both are instruments linked to good research randomly or collaterally at best. We are all aware of this and yet play along, otherwise, we would not have this illusion of governance that others can then take for reality. None of this is needed for good and internationally relevant research, but only a university living up to its name in the sense described above, trusting researchers to do something sound over the next five years, as well.

Doctoral and postdoctoral researchers nowadays must assert themselves in a highly competitive environment. Do you have some advice for early career researchers at the Viadrina when it comes to meaningful career planning?

I would first suggest dropping the word “career planning” and replacing it with an idea I would like to call “academic effectuation”. This means to generate as many opportunities as possible in which a junior researcher can speak about his or her own research, obtain feedback, and expose himself or herself to situations, preferably daily, in which questions relevant for his or her research can be the object of a discussion. They accomplish this best and fastest by a) being part of empirical research projects from day one (even better, already as an undergraduate student), b) working in several teams (across universities), c) collecting and analyzing data in joint efforts, d) developing and realizing ideas for papers with regard to specific journals, e) presenting and discussing this work at relevant conferences, f) participating in workshops for junior researchers at these conferences, g) connecting with thematically relevant international networks, h) submitting the first journal papers in team efforts, and i) tailoring teaching and thesis supervision strictly and as far as possible towards current research projects, interesting and, if possible, fascinating students for them, too. Everything else ensues on its own if they command enough frustration tolerance for paper rejections, and if they are ready to take the next career step beyond German borders. All this is impossible without the right environment and without experiencing research as a passion, despite or precisely because of all the work and all the pages condemned to the digital waste basket. They should, however, not confuse this passion with the romantic idea of a genius who works on a grand idea in isolation, finally notifying the world about it after five years and then meeting great success. My feeling is that some junior researchers, for whatever institutional or personal reasons, develop a tendency towards this genius-option. Sadly, this leads precisely to the opposite of what I described as “academic effectuation”. Thus, my advice, in the words of Leonard Cohen: „Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that´s how the light gets in.”

Thank you very much for answering our questions.

Jörg Sydow, Georg Schreyögg, Jochen Koch: Organizational Path Dependence: Opening the Black Box. In: Academy of Management Review Vol. 34, No. 4.  

To enable a better understanding of the underlying logic of path dependence, we set forth a theoretical framework explaining how organizations become path dependent. At its core are the dynamics of self-reinforcing mechanisms, which are likely to lead an organization into a lock-in. By drawing on studies of technological paths, we conceptualize the emergent process of path dependence along three distinct stages. We also use the model to explore breakouts from organizational path dependence and discuss implications for managing and researching organizational paths.