UCL School of Management is delighted to welcome Jennifer Howard-Grenville, Cambridge Judge Business School, to host a research seminar on ‘Organizational adaptation in interdependent systems: Integrating Insights from Ecology Theory’
Existing theory on organizational adaptation stresses the importance of fit between an organization’s structures, strategies, and practices and its external environment. Developments in this literature explore more dynamic adaptation processes suited to today’s rapidly changing, ambiguous environments, but we lack understanding of how organizational adaptation unfolds in complex settings characterized by interdependencies that manifest at diverse temporal and spatial scales. We explored the 19-year evolution of a standard-setting organization aimed at promoting sustainable viticulture among members of a U.S. regional wine industry. We found that the organization made multiple adaptations over that time period that appeared to fit the triggering conditions, but nonetheless failed to mitigate their effects. Our analysis shows how the organization’s members evolved over time in: i) their perceptions of the spatio-temporal scales within which they operated, ii) their orientations to disturbances within these scales, and iii) their formulation of responses to such disturbances. At the end of the time period studied, adaptations increasingly accounted for complex, cross-scale interdependencies, anticipated disturbances and their tendencies to ripple across scales, and were enabled by actively probing the system to gather and collate information. Grounded in these findings, we draw on the concept of ‘panarchy’ from ecology theory to enrich organizational adaptation theory, seeing it as a process in which an organization’s members deepen their understanding of the cross-scale dynamics of the settings in which they operate in order to generate more effective responses. We discuss implications for this reconceptualization of organizational adaptation and demonstrate the productive role of disruption in enabling it, and the organizational practices that assist it.