To be visible or not? Organizational discourses about an emerging activity – The case of the French nanotechnologies
Benoît DEMIL* (Professor), Zhen ZONG* (PhD student) *IAE of Lille – LEM (Cnrs, UMR 8179) 104, avenue du Peuple Belge – 59043 Lille Cedex Corresponding author: [email protected]
To be visible or not? Organizational discourses about an emerging activity – The case of the French nanotechnologies
Abstract This study analyzes the discursive strategic choices of organizations in the emerging activity of French nanotechnologies. The analyses of data from multiple sources revealed that different categories of actors display different dominant strategies concerning the nascent field, either an attachment strategy or a distinctiveness strategy. However, firms’ representatives implement an original configuration of strategies by balancing their discourses between attachment and distinctiveness which we label an ambiguity strategy. The findings contribute to an interactive view of the institutionalization of a new field. Moreover, we propose to base the entrepreneurial discursive choices on the positive or negative attributions of the emerging activity.
Keywords: distinctiveness strategy, attachment strategy, ambiguity strategy, discourses, nanotechnologies. The dynamic of sectors has been largely documented by strategic and organizational literature. Sectors evolve from an “era of ferment” where diversity and experimentation prevail, towards a dominant design and homogeneity of products and technologies (Abernathy, 1978). Sociological approaches of markets have added that this convergence concerns also shared understanding of what the product should be, how the relationships between actors are established and the beliefs about consumers’ preferences (e.g., Benner and Tripsas, 2012; DiMaggio and Powell, 1991; Fliegstein, 2001; Porac et al., 1995). However, before these convergences occur, the entrepreneurs developing new businesses face multiple challenges. In particular, they suffer from a lack of familiarity and legitimacy among resource providers and a weak institutionalization of the activity itself (Aldrich and Fiol, 1994; Sine et al., 2005). Consequently, they have to build a recognition of their sector that is, “(…) creating objectivity and exteriority, a sense that the new
endeavors define a sector that exists independently of particular incumbents” (Suchman, 1995: 586) through cognitive processes. At a collective level, organizations may overcome these weaknesses by opting for one among two major strategic choices regarding the recognition of their activity. A first strategy consists in claiming a clear distinction between the new business and existing sectors. This option may be appealing as it enables firms to get a particular attention from external stakeholders, to enjoy a specific treatment, to defend their interests collectively, and to construct a population niche based on a combination of specific resources. In a nutshell, developing visibility and distinctiveness help obtain support. However, organizations can also envisage a second strategic choice which consists in gaining attachment to existing sectors for the same purpose. This attachment allows the organizations in a new activity to benefit from the established legitimacy of existing sectors and to facilitate a rapid access to resources. This choice of invisibility may also pretend to be relevant. This paper explores these two logics and addresses the question of how and why organizations developing an emerging activity make choices related to the recognition of their activity through the discourses they produce. Indeed, the choice between the two strategies is problematic, especially in a new field (Gioia et al., 2010). On the one hand, favoring attachment may have rapid benefits but may hinder the development of a sector as suggested by McKendrick and Carroll (2001) in the disk array population. On the other hand, distinctiveness may be more risky and may require legitimizing activities that consume time and energy. Thus, studying conditions under which the choices of organizations are made remain an important question for the research agenda of different theories such as population ecology, strategic management, or the sociological view of organizations. 3
In the first section of this article, we develop our conceptual framework by contrasting visibility and invisibility options. We then present our research field and explain data collection and analysis methods in the field of French nanotechnologies. This field is particularly adapted for our study as it is considered as a suitable engine for future economic development on the one hand, but has yet to gain complete institutionalization up to now, i.e. the field does not display a shared definition of the social reality (Scott, 1987). The third section is dedicated to the presentation of our empirical findings based on a discourse analysis reflecting the various positions of actors following public debates organized by the French government. Two findings are of particular interest. First, we identify a third type of strategy which can be labeled “ambiguity strategy”, which is rather different from the claims of visibility or invisibility described in our conceptual framework. Second, the role of other stakeholders in the recognition process of a new business is pointed out by our analysis. Dominant strategies can be attached to groups of actors participating in the definition of the new business. We discuss several theoretical and practical implications of this study in a fourth section. We hope that this paper contributes especially to a better understanding of the active role of organizations during the emergence period of a new activity.
THEORETICAL BACKGROUND: AFFILIATION STRATEGIES DISTINCTIVENESS STRATEGY Several authors in the organizational literature argue that organizations play an active role in gaining external recognition in a new business by building boundaries (e.g., Clegg et al., 2007; Montgomery and Oliver, 2007; Porac et al., 2002; Santos and Eisenhardt, 2009; Ziestma and Lawrence, 2010). This role relates to the establishment of symbolic distinctions which become
eventually social ones when they are validated by external audiences, especially by the State. These distinctions generate symbolic boundaries based on cognitive salient features and eventually social boundaries when they influence access to resources and are embedded in social rules of membership (Lamont and Molnár, 2002). Finally, this process of distinction may end up in the social division of activities and is encapsulated in taken-for-granted professions, markets or sectors incorporated in official and administrative nomenclatures (Bowker and Star, 1999). To reach this recognition, the singularization of a community in an emerging market requires first that a common identity develops within a group of organizations where a high level of diversity may prevail initially, i.e. a self-cognizance as an organizational community (Benner and Tripsas, 2012; Mc Kendrick and Carroll, 2001; Montgomery and Oliver, 2007; Pozner and Rao, 2006). At the community level, this identity refers to “the expectations, assumptions, and beliefs held by agents, both external and internal to organizations” (Hsu and Hannan, 2005: 476) and thus, is produced by different audiences and not only by the organizations themselves. In a low institutionalized environment –as usually in emerging markets -, these expectations can create multiple and confused, eventually opposing, demands. In these environments, all expectations and beliefs do not converge necessarily and consequently, sanctions occurring for identity violations may be weak (Ruef and Patterson, 2009). This collective identity building phase generates a mutual recognition between members and should be especially likely “when organizational identity is underdeveloped or ambiguous” (Gioia et al., 2010). In a distinctiveness view, this identity is based less on a unique essence than performed by “relations of difference as they are discursively enacted” (Clegg et al., 2007: 509). For instance, Clegg et al. (2007) have shown how Australian coaches defined themselves by contrast with consultants, Carroll and Swaminathan (2000) have studied how microbrewers 5
develop their activity in direct opposition to mass-market and mass-production brewers, and Pozner and Rao (2006) showed how the low-power radios have developed their identity in opposition to commercial radios. This stream of research insists on the definition of the selves by contrast. Once organizations begin to develop a shared sense of “an objectified we” -i.e. build a category for their new form of organizations- they can envisage building legal representation (Boltanski, 1982) and can exercise their jurisdiction on their activity (Abbott, 1988). This step embodies generally in the set-up of a professional association and collective representation bodies. This official embodiment enables eventually to defend collective interests and to negotiate with other groups by establishing an explicit coordination between members (Astley and Fombrun, 1983). If organizations fail to find this sense of uniqueness and collective identity, they may fail to establish themselves as a specific community. Mc Kendrick and Carroll (2001) provide a good illustration of this process and argue that collective institutions cannot provide on their own the basis for a new organizational form to emerge. They demonstrate for instance that in the disk array sector, companies had such a collective representation system but, due to the diversity in the origins of disk array players -i.e. a lack of collective identity-, they fail to institutionalize their form. If collective strategies are a necessary condition to objectify a group, it cannot be considered as a sufficient condition. That’s why the establishment of the boundaries for a new market requires that distinctive identity comes first. Previous research has demonstrated that organizations in an emerging activity play an active role in the advent of new markets and display multiple tactics to establish distinctions. For instance, Santos and Eisenhardt (2009) argue that entrepreneurs display three tactics (claiming, demarcating and controlling) towards established or new actors by managing their organizational 6
boundaries. The goals of these entrepreneurs are similar to those of professional groups, i.e. to demarcate the activity as autonomous and to obtain control over the nascent activity. Beyond these general tactics, numerous activities aim to create distinctions between an emerging community and other existing entities: ideological claims (Gieryn, 1983), professional practices (Burri, 2008), jurisdictional arrangements (Abbott, 1988), discursive practices (Clegg et al., 2007), creation of contrasts (Gioia et al., 2010), alliances and soft power to influence the behavior of others (Santos and Eisenhardt, 2009), membership boundaries (Montgomery and Oliver, 2007) or choice of a label (Granqvist et al., 2013). Empirically, these practices and symbolic activities are generally used jointly by groups or organizations and tend to reinforce themselves (Zietsma and Lawrence, 2010). For instance, Gieryn (1983) demonstrates that scientists develop historically numerous activities to create a demarcation between science and non-science to protect their own activity, ensure autonomy and avoid interferences. By favoring the practice of experimentation, using specific jargon, developing a unique ideology based on skepticism, experimentation and objectivity, they contrast positively their own activity with those of other intellectual activities such as theology. These numerous activities tend to create boundaries and to produce distinction, but participate also in the general institutional work of a group (Zietsma and Lawrence, 2010). Consequently, these activities eventually target different goals (Gieryn, 1983). When the goal is expansion of authority -as in an emerging market-, boundary-work consists essentially in heightening the contrast between rival groups. Such activity encompasses, for instance, the building of a sharp identity based on rationality for scientific activity. When the goal of the group is to gain monopolization of professional authority, boundary-work consists in excluding rivals by describing outsiders as deviant or “pseudo”. Finally, when the group aims at the protection of 7
their autonomy, boundary-work “exempts members from responsibility for consequences of their work by putting the blame on scapegoat outsiders” (Gieryn, 1983: 792). Due to our focus on the emergence of a new activity in this paper, we privilege the first goal among the various possible ones, i.e. the search for distinctiveness. Based on our previous arguments, we suggest the following proposition: P1: Members of an emerging activity will display a distinctiveness strategy to contrast the nascent activity with other ones. ATTACHMENT STRATEGY In an opposite view to the distinctiveness strategy, some other authors emphasize an attachment strategy in order to obtain recognition for nascent activities. This strategy does not entail that organizations are inactive. On the contrary, they develop an institutional work as in the distinctiveness strategy but for different goals. Indeed, organizations may use strategically links to existing institutionalized structures or practices to demonstrate their acceptability (Oliver, 1991; Pfeffer and Salancik, 1978). In this sense, this strategy is close to the conformity choice described by Oliver (1991), whereas distinctiveness relates more to the manipulation of environment. In an institutional view of organizations, entrepreneurs in a new activity have a clear interest in establishing relationships with other existing activities and practices due to an initial lack of legitimacy and familiarity of this new activity (or comprehensibility (Suchman, 1995)). Indeed, these elements lack painfully at the beginning of its development explaining a high rate of failure within new populations of organizations (e.g., Aldrich and Fiol, 1994; Zimmerman and Zeitz,
2002) and organizations do not benefit from a long presence in society to be assimilated with the social action they represent. Thus, they may gain time and resources by transferring legitimacy and familiarity from other sources to their activity. The distinction between cognitive and socio-political legitimacy (Aldrich and Fiol, 1994; Rao, 1994) helps understand two important sides of the challenge faced by the members of a new activity and the ways to respond to them. First, the cognitive legitimacy refers to the taken-forgranted beliefs of an activity that makes it supported within a system of norms and values prevailing in its environment. Briefly, it refers to the fact that the activity makes sense for the audiences (customers especially) and is understandable. For instance, Edison’s tactics for establishing the nascent electricity industry consisted in framing it as similar to the established gas lighting industry (Granovetter and McGuire, 1998; Hargadon and Douglas, 2001). This framing has not only facilitated the explanation of the technological innovation, but also made the new industry much more acceptable for powerful stakeholders, such as public authorities and large gas lighting firms. Second, the organizations in a new activity must gain socio-political legitimacy defined as “the endorsement by legal authorities, governmental bodies, and other powerful organizations” (Rao, 1994: 30). Indeed, administrative and regulatory bodies have a huge impact on the development of new activities. Failing to obtain this endorsement may lead to the failure of the emergence of a new market. But even when administrative and political actors promote a new activity, other powerful actors such as professional associations or NGOs may hinder any attempt to modify the existing institutional context. For instance, Vermeulen et al. (2007) demonstrate how the creation of a market for ecological ‘high-grade’ use of granular in the Dutch concrete industry failed despite the support of administrative bodies and government. Indeed, professional associations promoted the status quo in the industry and benefited from an 9
excessive administrative complexity which precluded any collective action at the field level. Several classical attachment tactics have been pointed in the literature to acquire legitimacy and familiarity from existing sources. The combination with legitimate practices (Greenwood et al. 2002) or existing organizational forms (Rao et al. 2000), the use of past institutional heritage (Dobrev, 2001), the relationships established with other prominent stakeholders and cooptation (Pfeffer and Salancik, 1978), the association with existing identities developed in other industries (Navis and Glynn, 2010), the mobilization of concepts and ideas prevailing in the society and discursive strategy to conform to pre-existing beliefs (Elsbach, 1994; Suchman, 1995) are some of the most common. These tactics share the general idea that entrepreneurs in a new activity can combine and benefit from existing social framework to ensure the acceptance of novelty. Therefore, they can be incited to “attach” their activity to other existing sectors through discourses or practices to increase their legitimacy. As for distinctiveness strategy, the attachment may be reached by several joint and simultaneous tactics. Based on these preceding arguments, we suggest the following proposition. P2: Members of an emerging activity will display attachment strategy to associate nascent activity with exiting sectors. Two complementary remarks have to be made to conclude this theoretical section. The first is that we adopt a relatively proactive view of institutional work in this article for both strategic choices. Indeed, we assume that organizations have an active role in the construction of prevalent meaning (Khaire and Wadhwani, 2010) and in the management of their legitimacy which can be considered as “an operational resource” (Suchman, 1995: 576). However, this position does not preclude a middle course in our view, i.e. a position where external constituents also construct, 10
interpret and attribute legitimacy to organizations in a new activity. Indeed, we adopt a view of identity and boundaries construction of an organizational community resulting from the interplay between different constituents and audiences. Empirically, this also entails the analysis of other constituents to compare and contrast the discourses produced by organizations participating in the new activity. The second remark relates to the propositions we developed. Both of them share a common postulate that organizations should have a clear-cut identity to be positively evaluated by their audiences. Indeed, having a more troubled and less affirmative identity may be viewed also positively for two reasons. First, multiple audiences of a community may have different expectations and then, a blurred identity offers the possibility to capture the interest of wide and different audiences with disparate expectations (Hsu and Hannan, 2005; Pontikes, 2012). Thus, a low degree of institutional consolidation –such as in emerging markets- may reduce the penalties associated with identity violations that are prevalent in full institutional consolidation where a complete agreement among the different audiences prevails (Hsu and Hannan, 2005: 476). Second, ambiguous or hybrid identity produced by membership in multiple markets may be allowed when the category used for classifications and evaluations are themselves in flux, emerging and not well defined (Ruef and Patterson, 2009). In these situations, “classificatory codes have not yet attained an imperative status” (Ruef and Patterson, 2009: 488) and violations of industry boundaries appear less prominent if not completely accepted. As these situations concern potentially emerging markets, we keep them in mind for the coding of our data.
RESEARCH CONTEXT Despite some divergences among definitions, nanotechnologies (NT) are generally defined as the
ability to manipulate the nanometer scale (one-billionth of a meter) and are considered as a new field revolutionizing various industries such as biotechnology, microelectronic, chemistry, or medicine (Walsh, 2004; Juanola-Feliu, 2009; Linstone, 2011). Since it offers promising economic opportunities, public authorities have generously subsidized research all over the world, stimulating the formation of clusters, and encouraging firms to invest in NT. Private actors are also actively using the label nanotech as 10,499 companies have published or patented in this field between 1998 and 2008 (Mangematin et al., 2011). NT in the French context are a relevant case for this research for three reasons. Firstly and so far, the NT have not completed the institutionalization process since they are not classified as an economic sector per se in main nomenclatures such as NAF (French activity’s nomenclature). This characteristic helps to avoid retrospective biases (Mc Kendrick and Carroll, 2001) but precludes knowing the end of the institutionalization process. Overall, the situation is suitable for studying an ongoing institutionalization process and to observe what happens in these ill-defined situations. Secondly, the NT activity provides a good opportunity to study an activity having potentially a large economic impact. Indeed, NT are considered as an engine of economic growth in the world. Today, the global market for NT is estimated between 150 and 3.1 trillion dollars in the coming years according to various estimates (Palmberg et al., 2009). Finally, despite the huge potential economic interests that NT represent, their development is particularly imprinted by controversies. One significant example in France relates to the 17 public debates about NT conducted by the Particular Commission for Public Debate (CPDP) from October 2009 to February 2010. These debates were organized on request of eight French ministries and constituted a very first experience of a citizen science debating on technological choices. During the debates, NT have been vigorously contested by opponents for toxicological, eco-toxicological 12
and ethical issues. These unanticipated controversies provide a good opportunity to study the positions of various actors concerning this emerging sector because discourses about meanings and identities became more explicit and visible, and textual evidences were then available.
DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS DATA COLLECTION We used discourse analysis based on primary and secondary data to capture how different actors depict the new activity and consequently construct the field (Philipps et al., 2004). This enabled us to study the meanings and interpretations that various actors ascribed to the NT and especially how they distinguish the activity or not from other sectors. We carried out 22 semi-structured interviews with diverse actors in the field from 2009 to 2012, including representatives of big companies, start-ups, public authorities, public labs, and NGOs (see Appendix 1). Since NT are not yet recognized as an economic autonomous sector, we face some difficulties regarding statistic information and the tracking of informants. We identified them thanks to four sources. First, we targeted the 51 organizations which have contributed to the CPDP’s debates concerning the topic “Nanotechnologies’ development and regulation” organized in France. Second, we based our selection on the commission members’ list of work groups dedicated to nanotech in the French normalization organization (Afnor). Our third source was the database of nanomaterials which contains the main French actors in the field. Finally, we also searched the key word “nano” in the database of “French biotechnologies” that was created since 1999 by the ministry of education and research. 141 organizations with the term “nano” have been found in this last database. Then, we have identified the organizations that are regularly present by cross-checking these four different sources and we have searched to ensure a large variety in our sample. Each
interviewee was asked to describe his or her organization, to give a definition of NT, to identify several key players in the NT community, and to discuss their position regarding the NT. These interviews provide contextual information, discourses to analyze and enable us to interpret our results. Our second source of data consists in the actor’s memos provided during the CPDP’s debates. Indeed, during these debates, each organization willing to participate in the public debate was incited to express its position. This open process led to the participation of numerous national and regional organizations which have provided short memos to express their vision of the NT. These 4-page written texts constitute our main source of evidence for this study due to some of their characteristics. First, they were provided by a large diversity of organizations. Indeed, 51 organizations (e.g., NGOs, trade unions, administrative authorities) or meta-organizations (e.g., professional associations), regional or national, participate in the debate by posting official memos to present and synthesize their positions. We grouped these actors in six large categories according their missions: the firms’ representatives, the trade-unions, the citizen NGOs, the public administration, the scientific organizations, and the pro-environmental organizations (see Table 1). The statements provided by these organizations complement the individual vision collected with our interviews. This diversity also allowed us to avoid the restraining of the definition of the new activity only to companies, but to embrace various other kinds of actors belonging to the emerging institutional environment. This enables us to contrast several visions of the new field. The second interest of this source is that these memos were provided on a voluntarily basis and were publicly available. Consequently, they reflect the positions of interested and active actors in the field who are supposed to be acquainted with the topic. Finally, these memos were provided in a 4-page standardized form that enabled us to have similar
volumes of data to compare. This particular characteristic helped us evaluate the weight of the different topics in these memos and the discourse provided by the organizations taking part in the public debate. Indeed, if an actor dedicates a high percentage of his discourse to a topic, we may reasonably hypothesize that this topic represents an important dimension of his view and compare it with the view developed by others. Table 1 about here However, three potential limits have to be mentioned concerning the data collected in these memos. Firstly, some actors, especially some NGOs, refuse to participate in the debate because they argue it was a masquerade and that important decisions were taken by public authorities since several years without any consultation. This “exit” position was held by the fierce opposing NGOs but did not preclude the participation of some others. Indeed, giving the content of some memos, we are confident that opposing views to NT are represented in our data. Secondly, by focusing on organizations participating in the public debate, this empirical material potentially favors distinctiveness because, actors consider this activity as a “real thing” that exists. Thus, our analysis can potentially display a bias towards one of the two strategies we present in our theoretical section. However, data analysis shows that the memos contain sharp differences between different discourses. Finally, with our empirical material, we capture only discourses and opinions and are not able to analyze effective behaviors of organizational. This material corresponds to our view that institutionalization is above all a question of shared meanings enacted by actors (Khaire and Wadhwani, 2010), as suggested by Philipps et al. (2004) when they argue that ‘Using a discursive perspective, we conceive of institutions as constructed primarily through the production of texts, rather than directly through actions’ (p. 638).
In order to build a narrative account of the history of the field, we also collected various other secondary data to triangulate our data with different sources. These data include newspaper articles from the daily press “Le Monde” (487 over the period 1991-2012), which is a reference generalist newspaper in France. We have also consulted European laws and French legislative texts concerning NT and 17 reports of public debates which contain transcriptions of all the public debates occurring during two years in different French cities. This material was used to corroborate our final interpretations. DATA ANALYSIS For the data collected by interviews and memos, we carried out a thematic analysis by a coding process (Miles and Huberman, 2003; Allard-Poesi, 2003). We proceeded first to an a priori coding with an analytic guide containing few predefined themes from our conceptual framework, and then analyzed material with Nvivo8 (see Table 2). We first coded our data around our two core concepts: distinctiveness and attachment. Thereafter, we also made some new labels emerging around the main topics evoked in the discourses: risks and opportunities represented by this new technological field, uncertainty in the field (both institutional and technological), and existence of the field itself, i.e. elements insisting on the ineluctable reality and existence of this new field. Empirical data have also introduced evolutions in our initial coding categories by suggesting a theme we labeled “no risk” which was not exactly the opposite of “risk” because it contains discursive material provided to convince stakeholders of the inoffensiveness of NT. This label concerns only the firms’ representatives. To code and analyze the discourses, we follow two main lines of reasoning. First, we found rapidly that typical words or groups of words were associated with some labels (see Table 2).
Thus, a specific attention was dedicated to the vocabulary used to put the different semantic units behind each label. Secondly, as the memos were standardized (4 pages) the size of the text dedicated to each labels provides a good clue of the general tone delivered by the memos. A memo can insist, above all, on opportunities / risks and/or on distinctiveness / attachment according to the place dedicated to each label in the discourse. Finally, each sentence or group of sentences were eventually attached to different labels when they contain several semantic elements corresponding to different topics. After full coding of all the documents, we tried to compare the discourses within the same category of actors and between the categories of actors to understand if a dominant vision of the activity emerges for a specific category of actors as it appears after a first global reading of the documents.
Table 2 about here Our analysis can be summed up in different tables. They display the dominant semantic themes found in the discourses of the different actors based on the length of these discourses dedicated to a specific label (Tables 3 and 4). Based on the evocation of a theme and the length it occupies in the discourse, we consider some label as dominant. A relatively clear association was observed between the risk / opportunity themes and the groups of actors. For such groups as trade unions, citizen NGOs and pro-environmental organizations, NT involve clearly more risks than opportunities. For the group of public administration, we found a relatively similar repartition between the two labels, no one dominating their discourses and their respective presence was relatively minor compared to other actors. These actors are simultaneously insisting on the risks and the opportunities of these technologies, claiming for instance for further research to
apprehend the risks involved by NT, but underlining their potential positive consequences both economically and scientifically. Finally, the discourse of firms’ representatives and scientific organizations is clearly marked by a vision where NT represent huge opportunities and manageable risks compared to the existing situation. This does not preclude the presence of some units referring to existence of risks but opportunities were more largely developed than potential risks. For firms’ representatives, the evocation of risks is also mitigated by the category “no risk”, units of discourse that we found nowhere else and that refer to risks, but to convince other stakeholders that NT are under control. So, risks are evoked at length but in a reinsuring manner. A similar analysis can be led concerning the presence of distinctiveness / attachment themes in the discourses. Some actors such as trade unions, scientific organizations, pro-environmental organizations, citizen NGOs and public administration, tend to distinguish and clearly contrast the emerging field with other ones. For them, the field displays strong specificities, even if it is for underlining the new risks it represents or on the contrary, the new opportunities it opens. For firms’ representatives, the configuration of discourse displays similarly and equally distinctiveness and attachment with no dominant theme. As we will see in our discussion, this fragmented discourse may be interpreted meaningfully.
Table 3 about here
Table 4 about here
Finally, we crossed these two tables (table 5) to make apparent the repartition of groups according the associations between the two opposite semantic couples. This reveals some unique
dominant discourse for most of the actors, i.e. a presence in only one box of the matrix, whereas some other actors have less clear-cut dominant discourses which refer to two different boxes such as for firms’ representatives and public administration.
Table 5 about here
DISCUSSION OF THE RESULTS Our research aimed at identifying the strategies implemented by entrepreneurs to legitimate their emerging activity as it has been pointed previously as a crucial task both for activities and for new organizational forms (e.g., Clegg et al., 2007; Perkmann and Spicer, 2007; Rao et al., 2000; Stinchcombe, 1965). We focused especially on two broad strategies, attachment and distinctiveness, that we apprehended through the discourses built during the French public debates about NT. Instead of focusing exclusively on firms, we had the opportunity to analyze the views of other stakeholders to contrast and differentiate the rhetoric of companies. Our study reveals that the different categories of actors display different discursive contents concerning the new emerging field. An association can be drawn between a group of actors and the different themes we coded, evoking a dominant and relatively homogenous view of the new activity within each group of actors, even if in some cases, we found that this view can be more fragmented. Our analysis enabled us also to testify that the two strategies we discussed in our theoretical section are present in the discourses. The groups tended to attach the new activity to old ones or, on the contrary, to distinguish it. However, firms’ representatives display an original configuration of strategies. Their discourses are not dominated by attachment nor by distinctiveness but by a balanced view, evoking both of them. We label this an ambiguity strategy and point out the interests of this strategy for companies in our discussion. 19
ACTORS’ DISCURSIVE STRATEGIES IN AN EMERGING ACTIVITY After reviewing the literature, we built a first proposition suggesting that organizations display distinctiveness in a new activity to claim their membership. Our empirical data corroborate the preeminence of this choice and illustrate the deployment of such a strategy by highlighting the distinctive and prominent characteristics of a new business compared to existing sectors. All of the six groups of actors display more or less this strategy in their discourses. However, the motivations behind the same choice can be divided into two opposite categories. For firms’ representatives, scientific organizations, and to a lesser extent public administration, NT are considered as a promising sector which opens tremendous economic and social opportunities. According to public authorities and firms, NT differ from other activities, on the one hand, by representing a solution to social issues such as scarcity of resources, environmental problems, and on the other hand, they are considered as an inevitable technological development. Authorities and firms also highlight the considerable economic importance of NT as one of its distinguishing characteristics. This point explains that public authorities grant important budgets for research and development projects containing the word “nano”. In this view, the label “nano” is very evocative and constitutes an important resource (Granqvist et al., 2013). Most of the firms or public labs tend therefore to use it largely in order to get public funding. As some informants explained, since the “nano” label is fashionable, many firms realized that it is much easier to get public investment by claiming their activities in this area even for the activities which are not really and closely related to NT. Conversely, other social actors as trade unions, citizen NGOs, and pro-environmental organizations often insist on the distinctive characteristics of NT in a negative tone, by indicating the specific potential risks that NT bear. Therefore, NGOs call, for instance, for the establishment 20
of specific regulations relating to NT as a new area, or request a moratorium before the arrival of a specific regulation. From these positions, distinctiveness can be conceived as stigma as it is associated with negative attributions. The different uses of distinctiveness identified in our data support Proposition 1 but mitigate it by underlining two opposite uses for distinguishing the new activity. In accordance with our discursive focus in this article, the meaning behind the labels is important. Distinctiveness is a strategy that may be used for different ultimate goals, according the actors’ interests. In proposition 2, we developed the idea that entrepreneurs in a new business display an attachment strategy to get recognition. More specifically, this strategy often aims to make the new business cognitively more understandable and to gain legitimacy rapidly by linking the new activity with existing and generally accepted ones. Overall, our data show insignificant use of this strategy by the various stakeholders in the new activity, except firms’ representatives. Indeed, we noticed that firms’ representatives systematically underline similarities between NT and existing sectors - such as medicine, biotechnology, or microelectronics - or institutionalized practices – such as existing regulations or health and safety practices- to provide a cognitive framework for general public and ensure a greater legitimacy. For example, the Union of Chemical Industries (UIC) explains in its memo that, even if the NT are not supervised by any specific rule, they are still covered by existing regulations concerning chemical products such as the Reach directive. Similarly, the Federation of firms in beauty and wellness (FEBEA) notes that, since 2009, the cosmetic industry is regulated by European legislation, including products containing NT. For other categories of actors, even if the dominant discourse displays distinctiveness as a prevailing strategy, some marginal use of attachment can also be found, though it corresponds to
two different uses. For example, evoking the relationships between NT and other institutionalized sectors allows emphasizing the existing regulations for NT and avoiding specific regulations. The attachment strategy is reflected also in the NAF built by INSEE (the French national statistical institute) that, up until now, classifies the research and development for NT under the "biotechnology" category in the nomenclature of activity. But some NGOs and trade unions also contest the legitimacy of the NT by assimilating them with existing sectors that have negative evaluations such as nuclear industry or asbestos. In this sense, attachment may have also two uses if we consider NT as a stigmatized category (Vergne, 2012) in the French context, receiving negative social evaluations. On the one hand, it may help to reassure public opinion and relevant stakeholders. This is the principal use displayed by firms’ representatives. While on the other hand, attachment may help to underline the risks of the activity by making analogies with the past negative experiences in other sectors. Finally, our data support the use of attachment strategy for firms’ representatives, assimilating the new activity with existing practices or sectors as suggested by Proposition 2. But this strategy is less used by other actors participating in the field, underlining the specificity of the discourse of companies. AMBIGUITY STRATEGY As only firms’ representatives display a discourse divided up clearly and simultaneously in attachment and distinctiveness choices, our research findings illustrate a third discursive strategy based on our empirical analysis that we labeled “ambiguity strategy” and which echoes findings in other studies (Elsbach and Sutton, 1992; Gioia et al., 2010; Granqvist et al., 2013). Even if some other actors share the same interests such as scientific organizations concerning the funding
of research, this strategy was displayed only by firms’ representatives. We define this strategy as actors’ intentional choice to keep a certain ambiguity in their communication concerning their membership in a category. It is characterized, in practice, by using distinction and attachment by a same actor according to the audiences he faces and are both represented in the discourses we analyzed because the memos encapsulate general positions and targeted multiple audiences. Thus, instead of considering -as is often the case- the context of emerging activities as ambiguous we may argue that firms participate largely in the construction of this ambiguous context by avoiding stating loud and clear their identity. And we contend that the discourses produced by firms play an important role in this ambiguity. This choice for ambiguity can be explained by the attitudes of the diverse French audiences regarding the NT and the interactions occurring between members of the activity and external actors during the identity construction process (Gioia et al., 2010; Montgomery and Oliver, 2007). Indeed, French authorities as well as numerous governments hold a global positive perception of NT and largely support their development as leverage for economic and technological progress on the one hand. While, on the other hand, trade unions and NGOs hold generally a negative opinion regarding the NT and call for a stringent control of the new activity, putting pressure eventually on firms and public authorities. Thus, companies from various sectors developing NT face “anti-nano” social movements and have an interest in constructing the field as far as possible as an ordinary business to avoid, for instance, new and specific regulations. But to obtain funding and benefit from the administrative support they have also to appear as specific as possible and to correspond to the “hip nano movement”. Due to these two opposing perceptions, companies adopt a flexible strategy by adjusting their discourses according to the audiences they face or by elaborating discourses containing both elements. Although this strategy 23
doesn’t allow organizations to assert a clear and distinctive identity until now, and is likely to preclude the emergence of a sector as an administrative category, they leave considerable flexibility regarding their identity and generate a “stigma dilution” (Vergne, 2012). Beyond these discourses, this position is reflected also in the actual behaviors of firms. For example, companies developing NT remain very discreet when they have to participate in statistical surveys followed by a public release. Indeed, the first statistical study of NT has been achieved only very recently in late 2011- by the Ministry of Economy. Despite this study, until now, no companies’ exhaustive inventory of NT exists in France. However, this survey gives an idea of the importance of French companies’ involvement, since about 300 firms are engaged in this activity. Individually, some interviewees refused to be considered as actively involved in the NT business even if their company obviously was. Some other entrepreneurs communicated using terms such as “nano scale control” and not “nanotechnology” to avoid an excessive attention from the general public.
CONCLUSION To conclude, following several authors (e.g., Aldrich and Fiol, 1994; Elsbach and Sutton, 1992; Granqvist et al., 2013), our study underlines the active role of managers to forge the perceptions of their new activity through the discourses they produce. As we embrace various stakeholders participating in this emerging field, we can argue that self-affirmation of an identity and the claim for membership is an interactive game between other stakeholders and companies. If stakeholders have not the power to attach a global meaning to the new activity, they also participate actively in the process. Similarly, companies have some leeway to make choices concerning membership but these choices depend closely on the attributions of other participants and the meaning they produce. 24
Identifying the ambiguity strategy can be considered as a tactic for creating this leeway. It also allows specifying the conditions in the use of each type of strategy we identify after considering the stakeholders’ evaluations. This management of stakeholders was introduced long ago in organizational theory by Freeman (1984) and underlined by recent studies in the case of membership (e.g. Granqvist et al., 2013, Pontikes, 2012; Ruef and Patterson, 2009). This view proposes to avoid considering external audiences homogeneously but to segment them based on their respective perceptions of a given activity (Elsbach and Sutton, 1992). For organizations developing a new activity, distinctiveness strategy is potentially suitable if external audiences develop positive attributions towards the activity. Attachment strategy can be recommended when firms are confronted with hostile audiences, to become less visible. If audiences are fragmented as in our case- and high potential rewards exist for being identified with the new activity, ambiguity strategy could be adopted. This last strategy is especially suitable when the new category of the activity is in flux and organizations are consequently less threatened by external judgments concerning violation of membership (Ruef and Patterson, 2009). Finally some limits can be evoked and future avenues of research can be proposed. First, we analyze the new activity at a meso level not an individual one. In particular, our study embraces only meta-organizations for apprehending the discourses of entrepreneurs. Due to the existence of de novo start-ups and large incumbents in the field, the discursive strategies could be different according the status of these organizations. Thus, a study at an individual level could profoundly enrich the insight about entrepreneurs’ strategic choices. Second, NT is far from being a homogeneous field. Indeed, it appears as a very fragmented nascent industry whose members are categorized, until now by several other industries such as medicine, chemistry, biotechnology, electronics, or environmental technologies. Consequently, some sub-categories or sub-parts of the 25
field could potentially display different attributions by audiences. For instance, medicine or environmental applications of the NT could be more positively evaluated than other applications in food or chemistry industries, and could consequently require differentiated strategies from participants in each sub-part. This last limitation calls for additional research to compare several sub-categories of an emerging activity.
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Appendix 1 about here