Adaptation vs. Selection in Industry Change: Toward a Contingency View

A Professional Development Workshop
sponsored by the BPS Division of the Academy of Management
Saturday, August 7, 2004
12:00 - 2:45 PM
New Orleans Sheraton

Participate in the on-line Discussion Forum


J. Peter Murmann (Kellogg) and Jan W. Rivkin (Harvard)

Bill Barnett
& Elizabeth Pontikes (Stanford), Clayton Christensen (Harvard), Anita McGahan (Boston U.), Will Mitchell (Duke)

Synopsis: In this workshop, panelists and audience members will discuss the roles of selection and adaptation in shaping industry change. In particular, they will consider how future research can move us from a horserace between the selectionist and adaptationist perspectives toward a contingency view, in which we understand the underlying conditions that favor selection or adaptation.

Full Description:
Two dominant models of industry change have existed side by side during the last 25 years. At one end of the spectrum, pioneering work on organizational ecology holds that industry-level change arises as the result of selection: individual organizations are largely inert so industries evolve only through organizational births and deaths (Hannan and Freeman, 1977). Change within an organization is so hazardous that it is selected against (Hannan and Freeman, 1984). At the other extreme of the spectrum, many management scholars put great faith in adaptation: organizations can change and renew themselves, giving rise to industry change without entry and exit (Kanter, 1983; Tushman and O’Reilly, 1997).
Even those scholars who acknowledge the importance of both selection and adaptation tend to favor one over the other. Evolutionary economists, for instance, recognize that managers try to adapt to external circumstances, but interlocking routines, bounded rationality, and historical commitments make organizational adaptation difficult and selection crucial (Nelson and Winter, 1982). Beyond making prudent investments in organizational capabilities, managers can do little to improve the long-term viability of their organizations (Winter in Murmann et al., 2003). In contrast, researchers with the positioning perspective depict organizations as fairly flexible and open to redesign (Porter, 1980; 1985). The advice they give implicitly assumes wide latitude for adaptation, though positioning scholars acknowledge that organizational change can be slow and painful.
The question of whether industries change by means of adaptation or selection has been hotly debated for some time. Increasingly, we see work that incorporates both mechanisms for industry change, sometimes working together (Levinthal, 1997). This suggests a contingency approach to the old debate. Perhaps the important question is not which mechanism is dominant, but when is each prevalent. What are the environmental and organizational circumstances that favor one over the other?
The aim of this Professional Development Workshop is to bring together a panel and an audience that wish to explore this emerging approach to industry change. The panel convenes leading scholars with evolutionary, ecological, economic, and organizational perspectives. It includes individuals with both selectionist and adaptationist tendencies. The audience we aim to attract includes individuals who are currently conducting research on industry change through an evolutionary or ecological lens as well as individuals who are eager to begin such research.
Prior to the workshop, we will ask (but not require) audience members to pre-register. We will solicit from pre-registrants questions and topics that they would especially like the panelists to address. During the workshop, the panelists will engage in two rounds of discussion and debate among themselves and with the audience. The first round will pose a series of questions about industry change – ones that we expect to be controversial – to the panelists. In particular, we will ask advocates of the selectionist and adaptationist perspectives to lay out empirical evidence for their points of view. The goal of this round is to bring to the surface the hottest debates on the topic of selection vs. adaptation.
During the second round, panelists will focus their comments on practical guidance for other scholars, discussing the kinds of research that needs to be conducted in order to advance our understanding of adaptation and selection. How might one design competing empirical tests of the selectionist and adaptationist perspectives? What mix of theory-building and empirical work is appropriate? What are the most glaring gaps in our theory and evidence related to industry change? What tools and data sets might be especially revealing? How could one would design research projects to discern more precisely what causes organizational inertia or flexibility? What studies would clarify the conditions under which adaptation or selection is particularly powerful? What do we and do we not know about industry change, and among the unknowns, which are the most crucial to pursue?
The combination of the two rounds, we hope, will give the audience both rich food for thought and practical research advice.



We created a Discussion Forum on so that you can post questions and comments before and after the workshop.