Technological Discontinuities and Organizational Environments Michael L. Tushman; Philip Anderson (image via http://www.exed.hbs.edu/)

Michael Tushman & Philip Anderson – Technological Discontinuities and Organizational Environments

“Technology can be defined as those tools, devices, and knowledge that mediate between inputs and outputs (process technology) and/or that create new products or services (product technology) (Rosenberg, 1972). Technological change has an unequivocal impact on economic growth (Solow, 1957; Klein, 1984)and on the development of industries (Lawrence and Dyer, 1983).The impact of technology and technological change on environmental conditions is, however, less clear.

For over thirty years, technology and workflows have been central topics in organizational theory (e.g.,Gerwin, 1981). Most studies of technology in organizational theory, however, have been either cross sectional in design (e.g.,Woodward, 1965), have taken place in technologically stable settings (e.g.,public and not-for-profit settings), or simply have treated technology as a constant (Astley, 1985). Since technology has been taken as a given, there has been a conspicuous lack of clarity concerning how and why technologies change and how technological change affects environmental and/or organizational evolution. An exception is the work of Brittain and Freeman (1980).

There is a substantial literature on technological evolution and change (e.g.,Mensch, 1979; Sahal, 1981; Dutton and Thomas, 1985).Some suggest that technological change is inherently a chance or spontaneous event driven by technological genius, as did Taton (1958)in his discussion of penicillin and radioactivity, and Schumpeter (1961).Others, like Gilfillan (1935),who described the multiple independent discoveries of sail for ships, suggest that technological change is a function of historical necessity; still others view technological progress as a function of economic demand and growth (Schmookler, 1966; Merton, 1968).An analysis of many different technologies over years of evolution strongly indicates that none of these perspectives alone captures the complexity of technological change. Technology seems to evolve in response to the inter- play of history, individuals, and market demand. Technological change is a function of both variety and chance as well as structure and patterns (Morison, 1966; Sahal, 1981).

Case studies across a range of industries indicate that technological progress constitutes an evolutionary system punctuated by discontinuous change. Major product breakthroughs (e.g.,jets or xerography) or process technological breakthroughs (e.g.,float glass) are relatively rare and tend to be driven by individual genius (e.g., C. Carlson and xerography; A. Pilkington and float glass).These relatively rare discontinuities trigger a period of technological ferment. As a new product class opens (or following substitution of one product or process for a previous one), the rate of product variation is substantial as alternative product forms compete for dominance. An example is the competition between electric, wood, and internal combustion engines in automobiles or the competition between incompatible videocassette or microcomputer technologies. This technological experimentation and competition persists within a product class until a dominant design emerges as a synthesis of a number of proven concepts (Utter- back and Abernathy, 1975; Abernathy, 1978).

A dominant design reflects the emergence of product-class standards and ends the period of technological ferment. Alternative designs are largely crowded out of the product class, and technological development focuses on elaborating a widely ac- cepted product or process; the dominant design becomes a guidepost for further product or process change (Sahal, 1981; Abernathy and Clark, 1985).Dominant designs and associated shifts in product or process change have been found across industries. The Model T, the DC-3, the Fordson tractor, the Smith Model 5 typewriter and the PDP-11 minicomputerwere dominant designs that dramatically shaped the evolution of their respective product classes.”

 

Michael Tushman
Philip Anderson

Technological Discontinuities and Organizational Environments

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