apple’s ipad: one of these things …
Maybe it’s because they never watched Sesame Street, and we did. After all, with a simple song (One of these things is not like the other, one of these is not the same…), this seemingly wholesome bastion of public television edutainment taught a generation of kids to spot categories and reject misfits, and quickly! (Watch it on YouTube.)
Lately, the Apple iPad has made me think about these issues and, of course (!), about org theory. It leads to some questions for org theory readers, which are stated at the end of this post.
Jumping into the org theory part takes me to Ezra Zuckerman’s (1999) “categorical imperative.” Roughly speaking, this is the idea that non-conformists pay a price for their deviance, which includes, but is not limited to, being overlooked, dismissed or discounted, especially by third-party evaluators that try to make a living as critics, analysts or experts. Similar findings have been shown in, to name just a few studies I like, actors (Zuckerman; Hsu), wine (Negro, Hannan and Rao), and markets for professional services (Leung). So, for everyone 10 tries at creating a new market category, we can all probably find 9 or so failures. Furthermore, for each success, I bet I can find a situation where a few deviants started to find each other and somehow find themselves part of what they had tried to leave behind–a crowd that gives them legitimacy, even as it also makes them compete. (I say something along these lines in articles in Poetics, ASR, and in a working paper probably getting brutalized by reviewers somewhere right now.)
Still, this isn’t the whole story, is it?
In the technology world, engineers and entrepreneurs have this crazy idea that it’s somehow a good thing to come up with new things that don’t fit existing categories. They’re so drunk with enthusiasm for this that they seem to want to do it all the time. Probably to make it sound like it isn’t just ill-advised gambling, they call it “innovation”, like giving it a name makes it more real, or something. (See Rosa et al., 1999.) Of course, they still mostly fail at it. I’m not sure, but I think this obsessive rush to deviate could be related to the history and lore of computers. It is replete with stories of misfits–computers that didn’t fit established categories of their day–that somehow caught on and siphoned demand away from dominant markets. Everybody seems to want to make that list as inventors of the “next big thing.” There is even a wacky museum dedicated to all this. I can’t say if the whole innovation thing will catch on, but it certainly makes for interesting studies.
Kidding aside, you can also see this in several things Ezra has written about how actors escape the pressures of conformity. There is the idea that what economists call “abnormal returns” tend to go to innovators, a la Schumpeter (see Zuckerman 1999: 1402-1403). Also, in his paper with Damon Philips, there is the point that high and low status actors feel greater pressures for conformity than middle-status actors. Even so, I’m definitely with Ezra on the conformity pressures that categories produce, but I’m also puzzled by the question of how new categories arise. As my wife and kids would testify, this puts me on the lookout for misfits or category-blenders or misfits that seem like they might make get recognized as belonging to new categories, even if they initially strike many as ungainly hybrids. You can hear nastily critical comments to that effect about the iPad, netbook computers, or before that, the smartphone. Even before that, the same goes for the minicomputer, the PC, the workstation, and so on. (Gordon Bell has a nice little paper on this that boils a lot of this history down into a single diagram–see Figure 1. For engineers: there really is a Figure 1 in Bell’s paper.)
In the technology context, it is clear that being the prototype for today’s established category may not translate into being the prototype for the next big thing. Since being a perfect fit for the slide rule category just isn’t worth what it used to be, it’s useful to think about the currency of a category, the topic of a paper I”m revising for RSO with student Jade Lo and Mike Lounsbury.) Because a picture’s worth a thousand words, here’s an admittedly non-artistic collage that combines some well-accepted categories with misfits aiming for currency of their own.
So here are some questions for you:
- In addition to the categorical imperative, what else affects the dynamics of market categories?
- Any predictions about whether the iPad will take off or fizzle out?
- Or, should org theorists leave all this super-macro “organizations and markets” stuff to other fields?
To start the discussion, here are few ideas about #1 that are already out there:
- luck (path dependence),
- product features (rational choice in marketing),
- producers’ perceptions of threat and opportunity (I have a piece with Peer Fiss about this in AMJ),
- audience judgments and critics’ opinions (as in the growing ecological literature on categories),
- the social psychology of comparison processes and similarity judgments (in the spirit of Brayden’s recent post).
At least to me, what makes all this an interesting topic–and fair game for org theorists–is that it requires looking beyond the effects of institutionalized categories to the processes and institutions that contribute to institutionalizing them. Yuck, that’s a mouthful, I know. The point is that categories have histories in which organizations, entrepreneurs and innovators interact with critics, distributors, key customers and other arbiters of taste to try to influence their intended audience to see their misfit products as deserving categories of their own–and all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto, as the saying goes.