Every day people initiate intra-organisational searches for a wide variety of reasons and set out after a wide range of targets: analysts at the CIA try to unearth existing knowledge held on a suspected terrorist (e.g. Kean, Hamilton, Ben-Veniste, Kerrey, Fielding, Lehman, Gorelick, Roemer, Gorton, and Thompson, 2004); a manager attempts to locate a topic expert within a consulting firm (e.g. Singh, Hansen and Podolny, 2010); and a Xerox technician hunts for the colleague who might know an appropriate “fix” for a broken photocopier (e.g. Orr, 1996). This thesis reports detailed fieldwork into the social side of this intra-organisational search process. By doing so it aims to contribute to what social scientists know about the production of knowledge within organisations (Nelson and Winter, 1982; Dosi, Nelson and Winter, 2000; Nerkar and Paruchuri, 2005).
The ubiquity of intra-organisational search can make the process appear mundane, but its nature and dynamics are central to explaining how knowledge is produced in organisations (e.g. March and Simon, 1958; Greve, 2003). Based on this insight, ‘knowledge-based’ (e.g. Kogut and Zander, 1992; Kogut and Zander, 1996; Galunic and Rodan, 1998) and evolutionary theories of the firm (e.g. Nelson and Winter, 1982; Narduzzo, Rocco, and Warglien, 2000) draw on the dynamics of intra-organisational search to explain the production of knowledge in organisations using the construct of organisational capabilities (e.g. Nerkar and Paruchuri, 2005). The image of the firm presented in this work is one where the trajectory of search, and thus learning and capability evolution, is influenced by organisational and social structure (Levinthal, 2000; Dosi and Marengo, 2007).
To date, empirical research on intra-organisational search has focused on levels of analysis above the individual. For example, Hansen (1999, 2002), Hansen and Løvås (2004), Hansen, Mors and Løvås (2005) study search between project teams, Monteiro, Arvidsson and Birkinshaw (2008) study inter-divisional search and Rosenkopf and Nerkar (2001) study organisational search across intra-organisational boundaries. As a result, the role of the individual in intra-organisational search, while theoretically important (Dosi and Marengo, 2007), has traditionally been left as a “black-box” in empirical studies (Singh, Hansen and Podolny, 2010: 2). This allocation of empirical effort has left important assumptions about the micro-foundations of the search process unexplored.
This thesis begins a program of research designed to empirically explore the social side of intra-organisational search process as it occurs at the individual level within organisational capabilities. Multiple empirical methods are used within a single-case to pursue this goal. A longitudinal case study is used to study how the co-evolution of organisational and social structure helps to shape the intra-organisational search environment and the trajectory of individual search. This study identifies perceptions of social risk as a potentially important theoretical mechanism linking the search environment and the trajectory of individual search. The next study draws on ethnographic fieldwork to both systematically investigate this process and then build theory that links an actor’s location in social structure to their perceptions of the search environment. The third and final study uses social network methods to analyse primary data on social structure and perceptions of the search environment within four specific technical capabilities within the case firm.
The findings from these three studies question the assumption that actors perceive the intra-organisational search environment to be benign, which has long been common in theories of search (e.g. March and Simon, 1958: 51). Problematizing this assumption suggests that closer empirical and theoretical attention needs to be paid to how properties of the intra-organisational search environment influence the social production of knowledge within organisations. The primary reason for this impetus is that the nature of the search environment appears to be important to explaining when and why predictions of local search bias, an important mechanism in current theories of capability evolution and organisational learning (cf. Greve, 2003), may not hold in the context of intra-organisational search. But this contribution is also important because it helps ensure that existing theories of knowledge production are grounded in an empirically plausible account of what actors do and why they do it, which, as Dosi and Marengo (2007: 492) point out, is a central advantage of the knowledge-based and evolutionary theories of the firm.