Archive ScienceWatch



Mary J. Benner talks with and answers a few questions about this month's Emerging Research Front in the field of Economics & Business.
Article Title: Exploitation, exploration, and process management: The productivity dilemma revisited
Authors: Benner, MJ;Tushman, ML
Journal: ACAD MANAGE REV, 28 (2): 238-256 APR 2003
Univ Penn, Wharton Sch, Philadelphia, PA 19104 USA.
Univ Penn, Wharton Sch, Philadelphia, PA 19104 USA.
Harvard Univ, Sch Business, Cambridge, MA 02138 USA.
(addresses may have been truncated)

  Why do you think your paper is highly cited?

Process management (the general term for approaches that help organizations focus on more tightly routinizing their operating processes) has had an apple pie quality among managers and scholars in management. How could careful attention to improving the operating processes in firms and the possible resulting cost savings be anything but good? Scholars in management tended to turn either an approving or a blind eye to process management. Yet, our main common body of research in the field of organization theory provides a clear lens on the possible effects of process management.

Organization theory is concerned with factors that help or impede organizational adaptation. It’s a straightforward implication of much organizational theory that adherence to routines and processes in organizations could impede adaptation to changing environments. One of the work’s main contributions is to get people to view process management techniques through the lens of organizational theory. I think the work is having an impact because people agree that, yes; organizational theory gives us an important way to think about these practices and, moreover, leads to compelling predictions about when these practices would be helpful and when not.

  Does it describe a new discovery, methodology, or synthesis of knowledge?

My work provides a new way of thinking about a well-known phenomenon.

  Would you summarize the significance of your paper in layman’s terms?

For years, management consultants and many academics have told companies that they should "document what they do and do what they document." That is, they should pay close attention to tightly routinizing their processes to reduce costs and improve quality. While it is plausible and likely true that process management helps improve quality and reduce costs, these approaches are most useful for companies in stable environments.

Process management practices dampen innovation and prevent changes in how an organization operates. If the environment is changing—for example, if the company’s existing technology is headed for obsolescence because of the introduction of new technologies—then inwardly focused attention to process and its associated effects on innovation and change can impede an organization’s ability to respond to changes in their working environment.

  How did you become involved in this research and were any particular problems encountered along the way?

I had experience with process management approaches as a manager, prior to returning to school for a Ph.D. in management. That made me intrigued with the phenomenon and led me to view these activities and their effects through the lens of scholarly research in organization theory. The main obstacle has been getting people to be willing to question assumptions about the universal and unambiguous benefits of process management. I encountered a lot of resistance when I first presented the work several years ago. Now I hear that less and the ideas in the paper seem to be generally accepted.

  Where do you see your research leading in the future?

In my research I continue to try to understand factors that make it hard for organizations to change in the face of major changes in their environments (e.g. new technologies). Recently my work has focused on the role of financial institutions—public equity markets and securities analysts—and how they affect adaptation by existing firms. The new work is united with the old in its focus on how institutions (financial markets, process management practices promoted by consultants) can constrain managers and possibly inhibit organizational change and adaptation.

  Do you foresee any social or political implications for your research?

As a management professor—and as a former manager—I think it’s vital to understand how existing organizations can adapt to change. I hope that my work can help us to understand factors that impede organizational response so that managers and other leaders of organizations can effectively manage these obstacles.

Mary Benner
Management Department
The Wharton School
Philadelphia, PA, USA

2008 : February 2008 : Mary Benner