Marcie J. (Marcie Jadine) Tyre.

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Task Characteristics and Organizational

Problem Solving in Technological

Process Change

Marcie J. Tyre

August 1990

WP # 13-90



.^«!|.' [email protected]

Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Sloan School of f\/Ianagement

The International Center for Research
on the Management of Technology

Task Characteristics and Organizational

Problem Solving in Technological

Process Change

Marcie J. Tyre
August 1990 WP # 13-90

Sloan WP# 3109-90-BPS

© 1990 Mi ssachusetts Institute of Technology

Sloan School of Management

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

3^ Memorial Drive, E56-303

Cambridge, MA 02139



This paper develops a framework that distinguishes two key characteristics of
technological change in the manufacturing process. While technical
complexity refers to the number and uniqueness of new components, systemic
shift refers to changes in production principles and relationships.
Descriptive evidence from a sample of new process introductions suggests that
organizations employ different modes of problem solving to respond to
different characteristics of change. Successful projects illustrate the need
to fit the problem solving approach used to the characteristics of the task
facing the adopting organization.

Research during the last decade has shaken established assumptions about
the nature and process of technological change in manufacturing. The
introduction of new production processes and equipment was once conceived as
a relatively straightforward task of implementing well-defined technical
solutions into a static organizational environment (Rice and Rogers, 1980;
Lyies and Mitroff, 1980). More recent research suggests that this simplified
view ignores the ongoing process of "reinvention" and adaptation by users
(Rice and Rogers, 1980). In fact, ongoing problem solving is central to
organizations' efforts to prepare for and utilize new process technology
(Kazanjian and Drazin, 1986; Gerwin, 1988; Leonard-Barton, 1988).
Technological, organizational, and managerial changes are often needed before
new process technologies can be fully utilized (Jelinek and Goldhar, 1984;
Gerwin, 1988; Hayes and Jaikumar, 1988).

Yet while recent research on the subject has brought new insights, it has
also added to the confusion surrounding the study of innovation. Central
challenges of the "new" manufacturing technologies are described in a variety
of ways, and it is unclear whether the variation is due to different levels
of analysis, different terminologies, or substantive differences in the
technologies involved. Studies have variously focused on the complexity,
recency, or maturity of the new technology (Gerwin, 1988), the need for new
skills (Adler, 1986; Meyer and Goes, 1988), the significance of programmable
control (Hayes and Jaikumar, 1988; Kelley and Brooks , 1990), machine or
system flexibility (Graham and Rosenthal, 1986; Jaikumar, 1986), the
integration of previously discrete manufacturing steps (Hayes and Jaikumar,

1988), and the strategic implications of the new technologies (Jelinek and
Goldhar, 1984; 1986).

Further, conclusions about how organizations can respond to the challenges
of new manufacturing technologies have been contradictory. For instance,
while some studies have emphasized the need for specific, high-level
technical skills (e.g. Meyer and Goes, 1988), others underline the need to
build generalist capabilities (Hayes and Jaikumar, 1988). Many studies have
stressed the need to build cross-functional teams for introducing new process
technology (Graham and Rosenthal, 1986; Jaikumar, 1986). Yet other studies
have pointed out that interfunctionai conflict is aggravated by the
Introduction of new manufacturing technologies (Gerwin, 1981; 1988). Indeed,
the usefulness of functional integration as a response to technological
process change remains ambiguous (Tyre and Hauptman, 1990). Similarly,
several authors have suggested that close cooperation between equipment
vendors and users in an ongoing joint process is important to success in
introducing new technologies (Ettlie, 1986; Kimberly, 1986; Leonard-Barton,
1988). Yet research also suggests that the benefits of joint problem solving
efforts can be elusive. Collaboration may require previous experience
between parties (Ettlie and Rubenstein, 1980), yet new technologies often
entail new vendors and vendor relationships (Normann, 1971; Gerwin, 1988).
Divergent or ambiguous expectations can further undermine collaboration
(Gerwin, 1988; Leonard-Barton, 1988b; Rosenthal, 1984). Finally, despite the
acknowledged importance of preparing the new technology and the organization
prior to actual implementation (Rogers, 1983; Leonard-Barton, 1988), research
suggests that the technology's newness, complexity, or interconnectedness can

make problems in use difficult to anticipate (Jelinek and Goldhar, 1986;
Gerwin, 1988).

In sum, despite considerable research, no single theory has emerged that
explains the difficulty of learning to use new process technologies;
similarly, no coherent set of managerial implications has been set down for
dealing with problems. This paper attempts to organize various
characteristics of new manufacturing technologies into a coherent framework.
The paper then uses findings from an empirical study of new process
Introductions to describe organizational strategies and behaviors for dealing
with different types of process change. The objective of the research was to
better understand the problem solving requirements associated with
introducing new process technology. In particular, the research explores
whether distinct characteristics of technological change require different
modes of problem solving within the manufacturing organization.


Most studies of technological innovation in organizations have used
unidimensional constructs to describe a given technological change and Its
significance for the adopting organizations. Concepts such as radicalness
(Dewar & Dutton, 1986; Ettlie, 1980; Nord & Tucker, 1987), complexity
(Rubenstein, 1985) and import (Quinn, 1980) have been used. These constructs
are useful as general descriptors, however they fail to Illuminate the
organizational significance of new technologies because they confound the
degree of change with the nature of the change involved. This can lead to
seriously flawed results, because different types of change are likely to

impose distinct kinds of tasks on the adopting organization and to involve
very different innovation processes (Downs & Mohr, 1976; Tornatzky & Klein,
1982; Fennell, 1984).

By contrast, Abernathy and Clark (1985) and Tushman and Anderson (1986)
propose a two-dimensional framework of technolgical change that
distinguishes the technical novelty of an innovation from its compatibility
with existing organizational investments in technical know-how, operating
procedures, and methods for solving problems. While technical novelty
affects the amount and complexity of problem solving required of the user
organization, it does not itself affect the usefulness of existing knowledge
structures and organizational assumptions as a basis for problem solving. On
the other hand, the compatibility of an innovation with existing cognitive
and organizational systems may be unrelated to the degree of technical
complexity or novelty involved (Abernathy and Clark, 1985). This
distinction, and its relevance for understanding the introduction of new
manufacturing technologies, is developed below.

Task Characteristics of New Process Introductions

First, the introduction of novel, highly sophisticated technology
involves considerable technical complexity for the user organization.
Complexity stems from a number of attributes relating to the information
load, diversity, and rate of change facing the problem solver (Campbell,
1988). Relevant attributes include the newness or maturity of the technology
(Gerwin, 1988; Leonard- Barton, 1988b), the extent to which the technology has
been proven in practice (Leonard -Barton, 1988b; Rogers, 1983), the size of
the advance over existing "state of the art" (Kimberly, 1986), and the number

of new "subtechnologies" or components involved (Ettlie, 1986; Rice and
Rogers, 1980).

When the technical complexity of an introduction is high, problem solving
is difficult even though existing operating principles and experimental
procedures may continue to be applicable. Problem identification and
solution development become more demanding as the number of factors and
effects to be considered increases. It is more difficult to predict the
outcome of any given action, due to the newness and variety of problems
involved (Downs and Mohr, 1976; Gerwin, 1988; Jelinek and Goldhar, 1986).
Important strategies for problem solving in such circumstances include
scientific investigation, machine-based computation, and disaggregation of
large problems ( Jaikumar and Bohn, 1986; Campbell, 1988). In the
manufacturing environment, these strategies often require significant
improvements in technical skills and procedural discipline (Adier, 1986),
However, skill-building rests on and utilizes existing knowledge
bases developed in the organization.

A second basic task characteristic is the degree of "reorientation"
required by the new technology (Nermann, 1971; Zaitman, Duncan and Holbeck,
1973) . Unlike technically complex innovations, which entail significant
advance in existing subsystems or components of the technology, innovations
that involve significant reorientations eliminate existing subsystems,
introduce new ones based on unfamiliar technical principles, or create a new
set of relationships among technical and organizational subsystems.
Reorientations cannot be accommodated within existing technical, political or
organizational frameworks (Normann, 1971) because they destroy existing
systems and undermine competencies (Abernathy and Clark, 1985; Tushman and

Anderson, 1986). Organizations faced with reorientations must "unlearn" old
approaches in order to develop new types of specialist knowledge,
vocabularies, and task arrangements (Hedberg, 1981; Nermann, 1971). This, in
turn, calls for change in underlying organizational systems: internal goals
and values, domain and dependency relationships, and even attention rules and
cognitive structures must be reconfigured (March and Simon, 1958; Nermann,
1971; Zaitman et al., 1973). New knowledge frameworks and technical
subsystems must then be "mapped" onto the organization and integrated with
existing systems and structures (Normann, 1971; Kazanjian and Drazin, 1986).
For all these reasons, reorientations can be thought of as changes of a
systems nature, or what will be referred to as "systemic shifts".

The challenges presented by systemic shifts are very different from those
involved in technically complex introduction projects. Because systemic
shifts require new ways of looking at problems and the creation of novel
problem solving procedures (Rice and Rogers, 1980), they introduce
considerable ambiguity into the organization (Jaikumar and Bohn, 1986). The
meaning of events or of data is open to multiple, often conflicting
interpretations (Daft and Macintosh, 1981; Daft and Lengel, 1986). Problems
and their causes are ill-defined; organizations must first define or
formulate issues before they can take action (Lyies and Mitroff, 1980).
Formulation processes, in turn, rely on judgement, negotiation, and even
disagreement among groups more than rule-based testing and expert decision-
making (Thompson and Tuden, 1959; Perrow, 1967; LyIes and Mitroff, 1980).

In the discussion below, these two characteristics of technological change
are used as organizing concepts for an investigation of organizational
problem solving in response to new process technology. The next section

describes three mechanisms that facilitate problem solving in organizations.
The following section descibes the research and methodology applied.
Finally, the fourth section of the paper presents and discusses results of
the research. In particular, it investigates the implications of the two
task characteristics identified here for the processes of generating,
transferring, and institutionalizing knowledge about new manufacturing

Organizational RespK>nses to Technological Change

The literature on change in organizations suggests three "response
mechanisms" which enable organizations to adapt through problem
identification and problem solving, either in advance of technological change
or during task execution. These are: 1) preparatory, or early, search
undertaken before the new technology is put into use; 2) joint search during
the introduction process with technical experts outside the factory, and 3)
functional overlap during introduction between engineering and manufacturing
groups at the plant level. These mechanisms are not mutually exclusive; an
organization may make use of any or all mechanisms in a single introduction

1. Preparatory Search is significant because it occurs in advance of the
actual change. It involves investigation and modification of both the new
technology and relevant aspects of the receiving organization before the
technology is installed in the factory (Rice and Rogers, 1980; Rogers, 1983;
Van de Ven, 1986) Adaptation may include changes to existing manufacturing
procedures (Bright, 1958) and support systems (Gerwin, 1988). Coordination
with the developers of the new equipment is an important aspect of

preparatory search, allowing mutual adaptation of source and user during the
early phase of the project (Gerwin, 1988; Leonard-Barton, 1988).

The second and third response categories both involve real-time
mechanisms for adapting to problems and opportunities which develop as the
organization gains experience with the new technology:

2. Joint Search refers to interorganizational collaboration during the
introduction process. Important external actors include equipment developers
or vendors (Kimberly, 1986; Gerwin, 1988) as well other members of a plant's
"technical organization set" such as component or tooling suppliers,
competitors, or customers (Evan, 1966). Research suggests that joint work
with members of the external organization set can account for "a major part
of the company's problem solving capability with respect to the new
technology" (Lynn, 1982: 8).

3. Functional Overlap refers to interfunctional collaboration within the
user organization during the introduction process. It involves linking
relevant functions to create "overlapping subsystems" or multifunctional
teams for dealing with change (Galbraith, 1973; Landau, 1969). Several
authors suggest that, especially where new technologies bring fundamental
changes to existing manufacturing systems, problem solving requires shared
efforts among production personnel as well as technical and other groups
(Gerwin, 1988; Jaikumar, 1986; Perrow, 1967).

Site and Sample Selection

Following Downs and Mohr (1976) this research examines multiple
innovations, taking as the unit of analysis the innovation within a specific


organizational setting (i.e., the introduction project). The study was
carried out in a large, global company and involved three major divisions
located in Italy, West Germany, and the United States. Two to three plants
were studied in each division, representing a cross-section of operating
facilities. Historical and contextual differences among individual plants
were taken into account by defining "the organization" as a single factory at
a given point in time (Barley, 1986). Issues of construct validity stemming
from cultural differences were dealt with through preparatory field work to
develop measures and vocabulary appropriate to the different contexts
studied. (For a more detailed discussion of cross-cultural measurement
issues and performance differences see Tyre [forthcoming]). The design
facilitated access to detailed information about projects and the problems
encountered (Rogers, 1983: 361; Graham and Rosenthal, 1986).

The sample of projects studied includes all of the new process
Introductions identified where the technology was "new" in some way to a
particular factory and which: 1) were recently completed or nearing
completion at the time of the study; and 2) represented a total capital
investment of greater than $50,000 (in constant 1986 U.S. dollars); and 3)
involved participants who were available for interview. Forty-eight projects
comprise the sample; there was no indication of selection bias among plants
or regions. The sample includes a spectrum of technological process change,
from improved versions of existing equipment to introductions of novel
technologies and production systems. Production technologies include metal
turning and precision machining equipment, assembly and inspection systems,
thermal treatment and metal forming equipment, and handling systems.

Methodology and Data Gathering

The introduction of new process technology into existing plants is a
complex, unfolding process. Both longitudinal and cross-sectional
perspectives are needed to understand the problems of technological change
and organizations' responses to them (Barley, 1986; Van de Ven and Rogers,
1988). To meet these competing demands, multiple methods were used.
Descriptive information about projects and problem solving processes was
developed through repeated open-ended and semi-structured interviews with
project managers, other project participants, managers, and technical staffs.
In each case the project manager was identified during early field work as
the person who had the "most direct, day-to-day responsibility for bringing
the new technology up to speed in the factory". Other project participants.
Identified by plant management and principal informants, included operating
and technical personnel involved in the introduction but not responsible for
it. An average of three project participants were interviewed in each case.
Each interview lasted from one to four hours; respondents were interviewed
between two and four times over the course of a year or more. In addition,
an average of two plant-level managers (typically the plant manager and a
technical manager) and a division manufacturing manager were also interviewed
in each case. Technical staff involved in initial development of 12 of the
48 projects studied were interviewed at the start of the research. In
addition, specific data on project characteristics and outcomes were
collected through a written questionnaire. Documentary evidence about plant
operations and innovation projects was obtained from company archives.

Thirty eight of the 48 projects were recently completed at the time of the
study, while 10 were completed during the course of the research. While


concern about retrospective biasing of responses could not be eliminated
entirely, it was reduced by using multiple respondents in different
organizational roles, by multi-method triangulation, by phrasing questions in
terms of concrete events, and by referring to contemporary project
documentation (especially for information on project objectives and
outcomes) .

Variables and Measures

Quantitative measures and qualitative descriptions were developed for each
of the following. Quantitative measures are described in detail in Tyre and
Hauptman (1990). They include:

(1) Project Attributes : The nature of the introduction task, in terms of the
level of reported technical complexity and systemic shift. Dollar cost was
also measured to control for the physical size of the introduction task.

(2) Response : The degree to which the three response mechanisms (preparatory
search, joint search, and functional overlap) were used in the innovation

(3) Outcome : The success of the introduction project, in terms of the time
required to complete the project and the operating benefits achieved.

In addition, the researcher used the critical event method to elicit
description of the nature of the problem solving process and the roles of the
individuals involved in each case. In particular, a list a possible problem
categories (such as tooling development, software modification) was used to
elicit detailed description of the nature of the change, the critical
problems encountered, and the way they were solved (or not solved).


Similarly, respondents were asked to mention a particular problem (or set of
problems) in which each one was involved, and to describe their role in the
solution process.

Illustration of Constructs

Respondents' descriptions of the changes they faced were consistent with
the theoretically derived constructs of technical complexity and systemic
shift. Interviews revealed a perceived difference between the novelty of
specific technical features, and a shift in the system principles or
operating "philosophy" involved. The latter could include discontinuous
changes in the conversion technology used, such as moving from traditional
metal shaping techniques to thermal forming technologies, but it could also
include new ways of organizing production flows to achieve new manufacturing
priorities. Thus, respondents distinguished introduction projects reflecting
a new focus on lead-time or flexibility from equally ambitious projects aimed
at improving performance in terms of traditional criteria of cost and
quality. Similarly, moving from a segmented batch production process to an
integrated flow was perceived differently from changes in more localized
features of the technology, even when both changes were significant.

For example, one case involved the company's first use of a flexible robot

cell in production. The technology itself was not new, and the robotic

elements employed were lelatively simple. However the cell represented a

fundamental change within the factory, both in terms of the basic technology

(robotics instead of hard tooling) and the movement toward a flexible flow of

production. As the project manager described:

Our expertise has always been in optimizing the tooling. Now, we have to
learn about systems control, programming, and managing a flexible line.


There are new relationships between computer programmers, tooling, and
production .

Another case which was classified as a major systemic shift involved

moving from traditional metal removal processes to thermal forming of

precision metal parts. According to the project manager:

We were starting from scratch with a totally different processing approach
from what has been used in this application. Our deep experience in
turning operations just was not relevant here - this system presented a
totally new set of problems.

Comments made by respondents to describe extreme examples of both
technical complexity and systemic shift are displayed in Figure 1.



Two Characteristics of Technological Process Change












































Relationships among project attributes, organizational responses, and
project outcomes were analyzed using both quantitative and qualitative data.
Quantitative results provided some evidence for the idea that different
kinds of change call for different organizational responses (see Tyre and
Hauptman [1990]). Both preparatory search and joint search proved to be
effective as general responses to technological process change, regardless of
whether the project was characterized by technical complexity or systemic

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Online LibraryMarcie J. (Marcie Jadine) TyreTask characteristics and organizational problem solving in technological process change → online text (page 1 of 3)