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WINDOWS OF OPPORTUNITY:

TEMPORAL PATTERNS OF

TECHNOLOGICAL ADAPTATION

IN ORGANIZATIONS

Marcie J. Tyre
Wanda J. Orlikowski

July 1991
(Revised September 1992)

CISR WP No. 227

Sloan WP No. 3309



©1991, 1992 M.J. Tyre and W.J. Orlikowski
Forthcoming in Organization Science.



Center for Information Systems Research

Sloan School of Management
Massachusetts Institute of Technology



WINDOWS OF OPPORTUNITY:
Temporal Patterns of Technological Adaptation in Organizations



Abstract

This paper examines the introduction and adaptation of technologies that support
productive operations. The authors argue that the process of technological
adaptation is not gradual and continuous, as often argued in the innovation
literature, but is instead highly discontinuous. Evidence from three manufactunng
and service organizations indicates that there exists a relatively brief window of
opportunity to explore and modify new process technology following initial
implementation. Afterwards, modification of new process technologies by users is_



limited by the increasing routiniza tion that occurs with _experience. Thus, the
technology and its context of use tend to congeal, often embedding unresolved
problems into organizational practice. Subsequent changes appear U3 occur in an
episodic manner, niggered either by discrepant events or by new discoveries on the



part of users. These findings have important implications for theones of
technological change.



"Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs
now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head
behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows,
the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes
he feels that there really is another way, if only he
could stop bumping for a moment and think of it ..."

(Milne, 1926:3)



ADAPTATION OF TECHNOLOGIES IN USE

New technologies are almost never perfect upon initial introduction. Instead, users' effons
to apply technologies reveal problems and contingencies that were not apparent before introduction
(Rosenberg, 1982; Dutton and Thomas, 1985). These problems, in turn, require adaptation of the
technologies already in use.

A close understanding of the process of adaptation is critical for several reasons. First,
users' adaptations to technologies-in-use often help to shape funher development and research
activities (von Hippel. 1988; Dutton and Thomas, 1985). Second, the operating efficiency
ultimately achieved with a new technology depends heavily on users' modifications (Enos, 1958;
Hollander, 1965; Dutton and Thomas. 1984). Third, modifications affect not just the technology-
in-use, but also its physical and organizational context (Leonard-Banon, 1988). As Van de Ven
(1986:591) points out, once in use, new technologies "not only adapt to existing organizational and
industnal arTangemenis, but they also transform the structure and practices of these environments."
Thus, only by understanding how such adaptations occur can we begin to build more adequate
theories of technological change in organizanons.

The process of technological adaptation, however, is not yet well understood, and an
imponant area of uncertainty involves the timing of adaptations. The objective of the current paper
is to explore this issue by examining two questions. First, what is the pattern of technological
adaptation in organizations? Specifically, do users' modifications accumulate over time in a gradual
and continuous fashion, or do they occur in discontinuous spuns or episodes? Second, what
organizational forces help to explain the pattern of adaptation observed over time?

Our research finds that adaptation drops off dramatically after an initial burst of intensive
activity. Organizadonal forces such as production pressure and team erosion appear to contribute to
this rapid decline. We also find that this decline of adaptation is not irreversible, in that later,
unexpected events can trigger new spuns of adaptive activity. These later episodes, however, are
also of limited duration. This leads us to posit that the process of technological adaptation is highly
discontinuous. Specifically, the initial introduction of technology—as well as subsequent.



unexpected events - provide limited but valuable windows of opponuniry for expenmentation and
adaptation. We argue that this discontinuous pattern has imponant implications for the theory and
management of technological change.

EXISTING LITERATURE

The adaptation of technologies-in-use has been studied by several researchers. Their work
demonstrates convincingly that it is only through experience with a new technology that users
discover its ramifications. Rice and his colleagues argue that, in response to new discoveries,
users often "reinvent" the technology and their procedures surrounding it, thus becoming pan of
the innovation process (Rice and Rogers, 1980) and ultimately increasing their satisfaction with the
new technology (Johnson and Rice, 1987). Funher research by Leonard-Banon (1988) shows
that undertaking such modification is a complex, recursive process, involving "mutual adaptation"
of both the new technology and the existing organization, and requiring the active cooperation of
both users and technology developers.

For the sake of brevity, we will use the term "technological adaptation" to refer to
adjustments and changes following installation of a new technology in a given setting. In keeping
with prior research, adaptations may address physical aspects of the technology, as well as users'
procedures, assumptions, knowledge, or relationships. These changes may stem from users'
efforts alone, or from joint efforts between users and technology developers.

The Timing of Technological Adaptation

Research on the process of technological adaptation has focused mainly on the shon period
immediately following implementation. Thus, there has been little invesagadon of how adaptation
activities vary over time. Even when authors have explicitly mapped changes over time (e.g..
Barley, 1986), they have not focused on identifying general trends in the timing of technological
adaptation.



While little direct evidence exists on the timing of changes, the issue of adaptation is
addressed in both the innovation and behavioral literatures. Yet these two bodies of research
contain conflicting implications about the timing of technological adaptation. The innovation
literature descnbes a relatively continuous pattern of technological adaptation over time, while
research into the behavior of individuals, groups, and organizations suggests that the pattern of
modifications is likely to be discontinuous or uneven.

In the innovation field, research on expenence or learning effects in production (e.g.,
Conway and Schultz, 1959; Alchian, 1963) reveals regular productivity improvements over time in
many industries. This has prompted theorists to suggest that such "progress can be thought of as a
continuous process of adaptation" (Dutton and Thomas, 1984:244). However, these results are
based on aggregate data that pool multiple technologies introduced at different times and used at
different scales of operation. These studies, thus, do not reveal the timing of adaptation around a
specific technology.

Studies of industry evolution also treat the modification of technologies over time at an
aggregate level. For example, Dosi (1982), Abemathy and Utterback (1978), and Tushman and
Anderson (1986) posit long periods of continuous but gradual change in most technologies, fueled
in part by existing users who encounter problems and respond with minor improvements. By
contrast, only "radical" shifts in technology are seen as extraordinary and rare events (Abemathy
and Clark, 1985; Tushman and Anderson, 1986).

Another theme in the innovation literature is more prescriptive. This view suggests that,
because many problems emerge only after a technology has been in use for a period of time,
adaptive problem solving in user organizations should be gradual and persistent. Rogers (1983)
states that when organizations try to rush the introduction process, they fail to identify and correct
problems that later hamper productive use of the technology. Thus, "too-rapid implementation of
the innovation ... can lead to disastrous results" (Rogers, 1983:364). Similarly, Hughes
(1971:152) maintains that "trying to force the pace" of adaptation is counterproductive, while Hage
and Aiken (1970:106) suggest that "the longer the elite allow [the] period of tnal and error to



continue, the greater the chances of the new program achieving its intended objectives." Finally,
Imai (1986) and Johnson and Rice (1987) argue that continuous adaptive efforts are needed to
maximize the effectiveness of new technologies.

While the picture of gradual and continuous technological adaptation offered by this
research has gained considerable suppon, it is not compatible with widely-accepted results from
behavioral research. In panicular, behavioral theories indicate that as organizations, groups, and
individuals gain experience, they tend toward increasingly habitual modes of operation. Research
at each level of analysis suggests that attention and effort are only occasionally or temporanly
devoted to modification of routines. For example, a well-established concept in organizational
theory is that organizational actors use expenence to create routines that simplify their informanon-
processing needs {March and Simon, 1958). Because such routines determine which
environmental cues are noticed and the manner in which information about them is disseminated,
increasing experience may lead organizational actors to overlook or ignore many problems or
misfits between a technology and its setting (Kiesler and Sproull, 1982; Starbuck, 1989). Groups
in organizations also develop tendencies toward routine behaviors. Over time, they become
increasingly unlikely to recognize and respond to new kinds of problems (Kelley and Thibaut,
1954; Katz, 1982; Hackman, 1990). Even research teams have been shown to be reluctant to alter
a given technical approach once it has been selected, and the longer the approach has been used,
the greater their rigidity (Allen, 1966).

At the individual level, research suggests that people's arousal, attention, and motivation to
engage in effortful problem solving is not constant over time. Specifically, active problem solving
and information processing appear to drop sharply as soon as tasks become familiar or manageable
(Langer and Imber, 1979; Kruglanski and Freund, 1983). With increasing exposure, observers
tend to "chunk" activities into larger units that convey less information than fine-grained
observauons, although a sudden surprise can sometimes reverse the process (Newtson, 1973;
Louis and Sutton, 1991). Familiarity also breeds rounnized response patterns; once activities are



well entrenched, even superficial resemblance to a known stimulus is sufficient to tngger a familiar
response (Luchins, 1942).

One of the few scholars to have considered the implications of these behavioral tendencies
for technological adaptation is Weick (1990). Following Winner (1986), Weick (1990:21)
suggests that "the point at which technology is introduced [may be) the point at which it is most
susceptible to influence." Weick argues that "beginnings are of special imponance ... because they
constrain what is learned about the technology and how fast it is learned" (1990:21-22). However,
he also hints that later change is not impossible, because interruptions in the regular use of a
technology can increase arousal and thereby change the focus of users' attention.

Taken together, these behavioral insights suggest that the attention and effon required to
discover and respond to problems in the use of a given technology may be applied discontinuously
over time, and not in the continuous way suggested by the innovation literature. This paper
confronts these conflicting characterizanons of technological adaptation by examining the timing of
adaptation activities in three organizations. The following section of the paper describes the study
and research methodology employed. Next, the results of the research are discussed. The final
section presents implications for a temporal theory of technological adaptation that takes into
account both technological and behavioral aspects of the adaptation process.

RESEARCH DESIGN AND METHODS

Research Design

The data for this study come from three research projects, undenaken by or with the
authors, investigating the implementation and use of process technologies in production settings.
Each of the three projects focused on multiple technologies within a single organization, and
examined use and adaptations by groups or individual users. The studies were matched on four
dimensions to ensure comparability (Leonard- B anon, 1990:253): (i) The technologies studied had
passed the test of technical and organizational feasibility, hence failure of technological adaptation
would not be due to either technical infeasibility or user rejection, (ii) The technologies studied



altered the work in some obvious although not radical ways, hence failure of technological
adaptation would not be due to users being unaware of changes in their process technology, (iii)
The technologies were open-ended in the sense that users (with or without assistance) had the
means to make changes, hence failure of technological adaptation would not be attributable to an
inability of users to manipulate their technologies, (iv) The focus of the research was consistent
across the three studies, that is, all investigated new process technologies from the time of initial
installadon of the technology until full and regular use was achieved.

Given these similarities, an advantage of the research design was that it enabled us to
examine adaptation of new technologies at both group and individual levels. In two of the research
sites, the technologies studied were complex production systems whose implementation, use, and
adaptation required group effort. Individuals either could not make changes independently to the
technologies (due to technical complexity), or were prevented from doing so by work norms and
procedures. Since the technologies were shared, any changes made by an individual would affect
other users. In the third site, the technologies studied were stand-alone systems that were used and
adapted by individuals. Any change made by one person did not affect others' use of the
technologies. Funher, the technologies were designed to enable individuals to make changes
without special technical skills or facilities.

We deliberately sought vanety in the settings studied, the technologies introduced, and the
type of users involved so as to enrich the range of insights and to enhance generalizability
(Leonard-Barton, 1990; Van de Ven and Poole. 1990). The first study investigated the
introducnon and adaptation of new capital equipment in eight European and U.S. factories of
BBA,' a leading manufacturer of precision metal components. The second study examined the
introduction and modification of computer-aided software engineenng tools in three U.S. offices
of sec, a mulri-national software consulting firm engaged in the custom development of
computer-based information systems. The third study investigated users' modification of user-
customizable software tools at Tech. a research university in the U.S. The technologies studied



' Names of all organizations have been disguised.



range from metal-shaping equipment to graphics software, and are used to produce physical
products (in BBA), software (in SCO, and services (in Tech).

Further, the studies encompass organizations with very different priorities and practices. At
sec, where hours spent on software production translate directly into fees billed to clients, the
dominant objective is the maximization of production for current revenues. FYiorities are more
mixed at BBA, where factory personnel are directly responsible for identifying and implementing
process improvements as well as for producing products. At Tech, innovation and novelty are
central concerns, and many users regard these as more important than current output or
productivity. Indeed the technology examined at Tech, user-customizable software, specifically
allows adaptation by individuals during use. Many users at Tech have technical backgrounds, and
several of those interviewed were involved in the initial development of the technology they were
using.

The three settings studied also span geographic locales (U.S. and Europe). This diversity
reduces the nsk of our findings being merely an artifact of Amencan management practices, and
increases the validity of our findings (Downs and Mohr, 1976; Van de Ven and Rogers, 1988).

Research Methods

The three research studies utilized mulnple data coUecnon approaches. All three included in-
depth field research, ensunng that the concepts and patterns identified were grounded in the
experiences and terminology of users (Click et al., 1990:302). Two of the studies were
longitudinal, thus allowing for the situated and processual investigation of technological adaptation
as it unfolded over time, without researchers or panicipants knowing the outcomes of the process
being studied (Van de Ven and Rogers, 1988:640). The third study was retrospective and relied on
project records and documentarion to reconstruct users' initial expectations and their activides over
time. The methods used in the three studies are descnbed below and summanzed in Table 1 (see
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Online LibraryMarcie J. (Marcie Jadine) TyreWindows of opportunity : temporal patterns of technological adaptation in organizations → online text (page 1 of 4)