Turning technical legitimacy into market action

Regulations, authoritative professional norms and dominant culture set complex expectations for all institutions. In the opening session of a workshop for academics and PhD candidates at the University of Edinburgh Business School, professor John Amis pointed out the way that companies also play a role producing norms, and selecting the social actors, that embed the agency needed for change.

The power to change business

This embedded power not only gives stable expectations but also provides an internalised framework where taken-for-granted expectations of how we respond to internal and external agents gives them the power drive change. Sometimes, but not always, these rules and powers are written down, and formalised in regulations. Individuals confront a slightly messy context and have to decide how to respond to norms. Sometimes expectation can emerge from different processes but they are formalised only after being challenged. As ideas become legitimated (argued the approach described as Scandinavian Institutionalism by Barbara Czarniawska and others) they spread. However, they don’t simply spread isomorphically, which organisation looking more similar to each other. They spread unevenly. Institutions have varying degrees of independence from the organisations they guide. Michael Smets and his co-authors (2014, AMJ), for example, looked at the merger of German and British law firms. Ideas flow in many directions.
Royston Greenwood et al (2002) point to the key place of theorisation as a stage in a generic process of institutional change. Things get formalised and specified, as TQM was in the 1980s, which allows the legitimacy of challenges to past practices to be more widely accepted and implemented more rapidly. Institutional maintenance is required for these ideas to continue to be authoritative and implemented, even at the level of formal dining practices in Oxbridge colleges. There are precipitating jolts which can slowing challenge orthodoxy. New players and ideological entrepreneurs de-institutionalize the old ideas and must develop the technical visibility of their visions before they can be theorised.

Winning legitimacy for ideas

What do we need to do to understand how far this change process exists in the real world, to map how it works, and to intervene into it? The label of ‘fads and fashions’ is worthy of study. Implementation is iterative and constrained by researches. Fast-paced changes matter much less than what really drives change: actions with deep impact that develop trust and fit values. Often things can get agreed but then fail to launch (sometimes dramatically, like the German spelling reform) or launch into failure (like the drive to improve Canada’s Olympic wins prior to the Seoul Olympics, which enabled Ben Johnson’s temporary victory, ended by the discovery of illegal doping). When the pressure from institutional power lessen or get delegitimated, organisations can not only diverge, to move towards their prior ideas, but isomorphism can reduce across a whole field.
To drive change, two different discourages are needed. Acceptance is not the same as implementation. Organisations are not free-floating islands of rationality, and they are deeply rooted in their historical contexts. General discussions stressing similarities are needed to win acceptance.

Turning legitimacy into action

Translating that into implementation requires not only the broader, ongoing communication of acceptance and legitimacy but also practical examples that highlight the differences between implementation fields. More detail can be given by looking at new practices that arise in day-to-day activities. Of course, perhaps the danger with this approach is that it foregrounds the narratives used by leaders, rather than looking at how their gain their power and the amplification for their stories. However, as Martin Kornberger’s comments at the same workshop spotlighted, what’s interesting for organisations is to look at what they can learn from the experience of others in order to affect the world around them. Motivations and backgrounds are assets that are hard to measure, but their work can be analysed and emulated. That work can be researched using different units of analysis, from looking at the boards of directors and advisors that firms assemble, to detailed studies of daily work. We can help organisations make sense of how the actions of individuals can reconfigure whole markets.
Of course, some things are easier to change than others. There’s organisational inertia. There can be short-term changes but they can be too weak to overcome embedded agency that maintains currently-dominant values. However, technology markets have much more open to change by small groups of people than, say, the German foreign ministry.