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Innovative research and the institution – Processes of institutional change

by Prof. Dr. Thomas Heinze / theinze@uni-wuppertal.de


The ability to establish new, innovative research fields plays a key role in the medium to long term success of research institutes both in and outside the university. But institutional change is marked by a radical conflict between those who seek to break out of received disciplinary issues and thought patterns and those who adhere to them. Using simple examples, this article discusses the step-by-step strategies of layering, displacement, conversion, and dismantling that can enable the protagonists of renewal to overcome the resistance of the establishment. These four processes of change are currently being investigated in an empirical research project at UW’s Workgroup of Organizational Sociology.

This article addresses an issue that has been far too little discussed up to now, but which plays a central role in the medium to long term success of universities and research institutes. While current public debate on educational and research policies has been taken up with concepts of excellence, internationalization, and rankings of various sorts, the issue here is institutional renewal. What does this mean? Essentially it is a question of the ability to establish and develop new and innovative fields of research.

Research is characterized by a fundamental tension between innovative and conservative tendencies. On the one side are forces seeking to depart from received thought patterns and established wisdom, on the other those that prefer to work within the collectively accepted horizons of a longstanding discipline. The Stanford University organizational sociologist James G. March has coined the concepts ‘exploration’ and ‘exploitation’ for these two opposed trends – the explorers seeking new knowledge and a way to break through the barriers of current know-how, the exploiters focusing on the refinement of current knowledge and its incorporation into traditional thought patterns. Exploration opens new perspectives; exploitation extends already available knowledge and technologies.

The tension between these poles can be examined from two angles. We can ask about the institutional conditions that promote scientific and technological breakthroughs – or in other words, what are the fruitful environmental conditions for innovative problem solving? Or we can ask about the conditions that promote the institutional establishment and diffusion of new ideas – in other words, how do the innovators overcome the inertia of the establishment? Any analysis of institutional renewal must focus primarily on this second area.

In the relevant literature, the establishment and spread of new research fields is generally viewed under the headings of differentiation and specialization. In this model, new knowledge either grows within a traditional discipline or splits off into a new subdiscipline. But the model only relates to the end-point of what are often prolonged and conflict-ridden processes. The actual steps and mechanisms that determine and characterize this growth have scarcely been investigated.

Recent years, however, have brought new insights in the field of political economy as to how processes of institutional renewal in various social sectors can be effectively investigated, both theoretically and empirically. Working together, MIT political scientist Kathleen Thelen and sociologist Wolfgang Streeck from the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne have developed the thesis that the transformation of institutional structures is, as a rule, gradual, but that its results can be radical. They distinguish three types of transformational process: ‘layering’, ‘conversion’ and ‘displacement’.

Two questions stand at the heart of this issue. Firstly, in the struggle between innovators and establishment, can the former build up their own research structures despite the resistance of the latter? Secondly, do the research capacities of the establishment continue to be used – and if so to what extent? For to set up new directions and facilities and to continue the work of existing structures are two analytically distinct steps that can be taken either in tandem or separately. This point can be expressed in the form of a cross-tabulation, with the establishment of new research capacities on the y-axis and the continuation of existing capacities on the x-axis, as shown in Table 1.

Where new research capacities are built up alongside the old, and innovative as well as traditional research is conducted within the same institutional and departmental framework, we can speak of ‘layering’. Where old research directions and structures are given up in favor of new, we speak of ‘displacement’. Where no specific resources are available for new research, but this is nevertheless pursued within existing capacities and structures, we speak of ‘conversion’.

A further possibility not mentioned by Thelen and Streeck is ‘dismantling’. This is a negative renewal process, inasmuch as it entails the running down of existing research groups, facilities and areas without any replacement – a one-way process of de-institutionalization.

These four analytic categories can be illustrated with simple examples (see Table 2). Let us assume that a university seeks to appoint two proven specialists to work in an innovative research field (area B) and – in order to gain a footing in this field – creates two new professorships for them while retaining all existing research capacities. This is a clear case of layering.

Pursuing the example further: this measure is then noticed by a second university that also wants to get into area B but has limited funds and, rather than creating two new professorships, decides to wait until two established professors in area A come up for retirement. It then appoints two area B specialists to the vacant positions. Research area A has been replaced with area B – a case of displacement.

Tab. 2: Renewal processes in research – examples. Tab. 2: Renewal processes in research – examples.

Two professors in a third university become aware of the potential offered by area B for third party funding and collaboration with new colleagues and, in view of the stagnation they have been experiencing in area A, decide to migrate to the new field. This is an example of the conversion of existing facilities to new ends without the addition of any new structures or capacities.

Finally, the management of a fourth university comes to the conclusion that research area A has no future and should no longer be pursued. But various sources tell them that area B is a mere fashion, with no real future. So they decide not to fill the next two professorships that become vacant in area A. This area will be dismantled without replacement.

The example of the four universities can also be applied to a single university, where the four distinct processes might well take place consecutively. Thus in 1990, let us say, two professors are appointed to new positions created in area B; in 1997 two professors from area A retire and are replaced with specialists from B; in 2000 two other professors from area A retire without replacement; and in 2004 two remaining professors in area A decide to migrate to area B.

The point here is that the four distinct processes can be seen as elements within a single overarching transition of interests and facilities from A to B. The movement begins with layering, followed by displacement and dismantling, and (finally) conversion. Of all these steps, layering can be presumed to be the least controversial, as area B gains without area A losing any substantial capacity – a comfortable situation for all. Several years pass before the next step – the first that really impacts the established specialty. By the time step three in the development is completed, area A has lost four professorships and B has gained four. After ten years (1990–2000) the established research capacity is, therefore, already seriously weakened. Assuming that area A initially had six professors, the final step in 2004, when the remaining two join the others in area B, is no longer merely displacement – it amounts to the dissolution of the entire research capacity in area A.

What can be learnt from these observations? First of all, a lot depends on the time frame: cross-sectional analyses focused on a single year or two reveal the relation between established and innovative forces in a concrete situation. Where the establishment has a veto and sufficient resources are available, the most probable step will be layering. Longitudinal studies, working within a broader time frame, allow insights into a gradual process involving combinations of distinct but mutually connected elements. A further important aspect becomes clear from the second example modeled above, namely that a distinction must be made between processes and their results. Layering processes do not necessarily lead merely to the accrual of new research areas within the established disciplinary matrix. They can signal the beginning of a lengthy process of displacement in which research capacities shift gradually but inexorably from area A to area B.

Because Thelen and Streeck’s concepts have only recently been developed and applied to research institutions, there is as yet little empirical evidence of their outreach. One can, however, work on the assumption that layering will relatively quickly lead to a renewal of research orientations, and that it will stand at the beginning of many processes of renewal, simply because it is relatively conflict-free. But it is an expensive option. So wherever resources are short, new research initiatives must wait. Displacement above all takes time. Innovators, then, need patience as well as perseverance.


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