Ruminations on Process Research: Four Metatheoretical perspectives on process

By Raghu Garud, Smeal College of Business, Pennsylvania State University, Philadelphia, PA, USA

It has been my good fortune to have collaborated with many on process studies. In these efforts, I have been influenced by a number of process scholars (several present here) who have offered many insights including the utility of identifying driving forces, the importance of paying attention to context and subtext, the value of taking time and temporality seriously and, above all, the value of asking and then addressing questions such as “How do things emerge?” I owe a debt of gratitude to them all.

Innovation and Complexities

My journey into process research began in 1984 when I first met Andy Van de Ven at the University of Minnesota. Given that I was clearly a “variance” thinker at that time, a shift to a process way of thinking was a difficult one for me to make. At that time, I was immersed in an ongoing longitudinal study of a project on cochlear implants at 3M along with Andy. It became clear to us that it would not do to take a variance approach to gain an understanding of the complexities that innovation practitioners were experiencing and we as researchers were witnessing. Complexity was manifest in the proliferation of ideas, people and technologies. It was also evident in the myriad of transactions that generated relational complexity. Moreover, there were false starts and dead-ends, partial triumphs and pyrrhic victories (Van de Ven, Polley, Garud, & Venkataraman, 1999), facets of innovation that allude to temporal complexity.

Theorizing about innovation required addressing these complexities in some way or the other. Our own efforts led to insights on the ambiguity that is generated endogenously as multiple people, artifacts and evaluation routines become entangled with one another (Garud & Rappa, 1994). We found that practitioners in the field had to commit themselves to a course of action despite and even because of such ambiguity and with the knowledge that their efforts could not fully determine emergent outcomes. Indeed, we found that the irreducible ambiguity that actors confronted did not lend itself to Bayesian updating, information cascades or isomorphic change (Garud & Van de Ven, 1992).

Drawing clear boundaries around phenomena of interest was clearly a challenge, not only for us, but more so for the innovation practitioners involved. We observed that the boundaries of interactions for those involved and for us as researches continued to shift and change as the field in the making continued to emerge. As a practical matter, we began attending cochlear implant conferences to meet the key actors involved and to understand the crucial technologies at play. An important outcome from these visits was a realization that the industry (or field as we may now call it) was in the making and that multiple key actors, technologies and metrics were to be found in such collective settings (Garud, 2008).

Through such engagements I began appreciating what it meant to endogenize the context within which innovation unfolds. Clearly, this required adopting a relational ontology, a step that my reading of Actor Network Theory (ANT) helped me take (see Law (1992) for a brief explanation of ANT). I remember gathering masses of data and then writing lengthy field reports which years later served as the basis for a paper on how field-configuring events shape emerging institutional structures (Garud, 2008). I concluded this paper on “conferences” by suggesting that fields are always in a state of flux because of the interactions between artifacts and actors (monads, in Latour’s (2005) terms or borderlands and monsters in Bowker and Star’s (1999) terms) who congregate because of commonalities and differences.

Since those early days with cochlear implants, I have studied innovation processes in several different settings including wind turbines, cameras, software and even high-energy particle detectors. Common to all of these studies is the utility of taking a lens that recognizes the complexities experienced by the actors in the field. Why should we as researchers be driven by the Occum’s Razor when practitioners in the field themselves have to navigate complex innovation journeys? I also found that each research site required attention to a different set of issues that could not be ignored. Beliefs about a technology, the artifacts involved and the evaluation routines at work, all played fundamental roles in shaping emergent processes. Based on these experiences, I have concluded that it is important to incorporate these specific attributes of a technology into the very fabric of the process descriptions that we generate. In doing so, there are tough questions about generalizability of the descriptions that are bound to arise that I will not attend to here.

Metatheoretical Perspectives on Process

I would like to draw your attention to some more recent studies of mine that have implications for the meaning of process and how we might conduct process studies. The first is a paper that I wrote with my colleagues based on a re-visit to 3M in 1998 before 3M had embraced six-sigma initiatives. In this paper we examine innovation processes from three different lenses on complexity – adaptive, responsive and becoming (Garud, Gehman, & Kumaraswamy, 2011). The first lens acknowledges manifest complexity and the latter two deal with relational and temporal complexities by progressively endogenizing context and subtext. The core message from this paper for this talk is that the meaning of process depends upon the metatheoretical lens that we bring to bear to experience and study phenomena, a message I more fully explicate in a second paper that details various perspectives (evolutionary, relational and inter-temporal) on process (adapted from Garud and Gehman (2012)). I will summarizes some of the key points from these two papers here as a way to conclude my observations on process research (please see the table below for a summary).

Table 1: Metatheoretical Perspectives on Process

Innovation as Perspectives on Process Scope Core Mechanisms Implications for Research
Complex adaptive Evolutionary Selection environments are given Selection Follow shifts from one sociotechnical regime to another 
Complex Responsive Relational Context is endogenized Translation Embrace symmetry with respect to social & material elements, meaning of events, and success & failure
Complex Becoming Intertemporal Time is endogenized Distentio Follow agency from an intertemporal perspective


Innovation as Complex Adaptive Processes

The first approach is to think of innovations as outcomes of complex adaptive processes. Many innovation scholars who have taken an evolutionary lens to explicate processes such as path dependence, punctuated equilibrium and exaptation have usefully applied such an approach. Its utility lies in sensitizing us to the contexts (selection environments, landscapes, structural holes, etc.) within which innovation occurs, and how these contexts themselves change over time. By and large, this approach considers these contexts to be exogenous.

What exactly is innovation from this perspective? It is not possible for me to do full justice here to the rich literature that has emerged around this perspective. The best I can do is to draw your attention to a widely used model developed by Utterback and Abernathy (1975) and Tushman and Anderson (1986). Innovation begins with eureka moments (more appropriately labeled as inventions) that punctuate existing streams of activities to set in motion an “era of ferment” where different trajectories vie for dominance even as an eco-system emerges. The selection of one or more of these trajectories results in the emergence of a “dominant design” after which the field enters into an “era of incremental change”.

We have detailed what it means to study process from such a perspective in our paper on metatheoretical approaches (Garud & Gehman, 2012). One implication is to take a broader “eco-systems” approach to studying shifts in agency and structure as a system moves from one state of equilibrium to another.

Innovation as Complex Responsive Processes

The second approach is to think about innovation as medium and outcome of ongoing complex responsive processes, a term that Ralph Stacey introduced. Those who have contributed to the social construction of technological systems (e.g. Bijker, Hughes, & Pinch, 1989) have demonstrated the powerful role that social groups play in shaping innovation through mechanisms such as interpretive flexibility. In addition, those who have contributed to Actor Network Theorizing (e.g. Michael Callon, Bruno Latour, John Law) have demonstrated the importance of considering not just the social but also the material. Text is not independent of context; both are implicated within and across a flat ontology. Agency and structure are both an emergent property of an ecology of “translations” between these heterogonous elements. People may be purposive, but they also realize that the distributed nature of emergence will be such that serendipity and disruption are part and parcel of any unfolding process. Artifacts enable, constrain and perform in their own ways, and consequently are constitutive of agency. At the same time, it is in the interaction between the material and the social that new options emerge, a theme that we have more fully developed in the notion of path creation that we have offered.

Rather than a shift from one state of equilibrium to another, innovation from a relational perspective implies a series of ongoing translations as heterogeneous elements become entangled with one another. Any apparent sense of closure is illusionary as there are always forces for change brewing under the surface setting the stage for the next punctuation. From this perspective, transience rather than dominance is an appropriate way of thinking about innovation.

One implication for process research is to embrace the notion of symmetry. Symmetry implies that we ought to consider not just the social but also the material in examining processes. Symmetry also requires event neutrality – the same event can hold different implications for different actors depending upon the actor networks that events emerge from. Symmetry also requires that we embrace a theoretical apparatus that can explain successes and failures symmetrically given that virtuous and vicious cycles are possible at any point in time.

Innovation as Complex Becoming Processes

The third approach considers innovation as complex becoming processes by endogenizing not only the context but also the subtext of agency. Constituting human agency are the multiple initiatives unfolding in real time based on anticipations of the future and memories of the past as instantiated in the present. Such a phenomenological perspective on time and temporality respects not just clock time (i.e. chronos), but also opportune moments (i.e. kairos) and the interrelationships between the two.

What is innovation from this perspective? For one, as we detail in our paper on complexity arrangements, the distinction between invention and innovation blurs (Garud et al., 2011). It is true that ideas need to be commercialized before they can be considered to be innovations. But, at the same time, any innovation journey will draw upon many ideas and half implemented innovations (bricolés) from the past. As one 3M employee informed us, “In most cases, just looking at the past probably completes 80 to 90% of the product design.” That is, a quest to move forwards implies going back as well.

An implication of endogenizing subtext is to take temporal agency seriously (what we have labeled as distentio following Paul Ricoeur). What slices of time do actors take? What is their temporal orientation? What is our own temporal orientation as researchers? In addition, the combination of the context with text to generate a flat relational ontology suggests the value of exploring how different sociotechnical arrangements invoke different temporal agencies.

Concluding Thoughts

At one level, these perspectives are caricatures along the lines of the lenses that Allison (1971) offered in his analysis of the Cuban Missile Crisis. My purpose in enumerating them here is to provide some analytical distinctions as to what it is that we mean by process before we can truly engage in process research. All too often, we try to conduct process research from one metatheoretical perspective while adhering to the tenets of another. Eventually, it is both a matter of personal choice and a matter of social acceptance as to what kind of process research we want to and might be able to conduct.

As we progressively semi-endogenize context and then subtext as part of our theorizing, we confront greater challenges in conducting process research. In my own case, I have progressively complexified myself (using Karl Weick’s words) by endogenizing the context (manifest complexity), text (relational complexity) and sub-text (temporal complexity). And these moves have made it possible for me to go back to my earlier studies to gain a deeper appreciation of the many generative elements of human agency, some of which I had missed out when I had begun my process studies of innovation. For instance, I was able to write about conferences as venues for field configuring events and theorize about relational processes involved in the categorical work at play with innovation. I was also able to theorize about how and why these collective settings are important occasions for the public display of temporal agency as actors try and make sense of the past, coordinate with one another in the present even as they project into the future.


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Bijker, W. E., Hughes, T. P., & Pinch, T. (Eds.). (1989). New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Bowker, G. C., & Star, S. L. (1999). Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Garud, R. (2008). Conferences as venues for the configuration of emerging organizational fields: The case of cochlear implants. Journal of Management Studies, 45(6), 1061-1088.

Garud, R., & Gehman, J. (2012). Metatheoretical perspectives on sustainability journeys: Evolutionary, relational and intertemporal. Research Policy, 41, 980-995.

Garud, R., Gehman, J., & Kumaraswamy, A. (2011). Complexity arrangements for sustained innovation: Lessons from 3M Corporation. Organization Studies, 32(6), 737-767.

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Garud, R., & Van de Ven, A. H. (1992). An empirical evaluation of the internal corporate venturing process. Strategic Management Journal, 13, 93-109.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. New York: Oxford University Press.

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Tushman, M. L., & Anderson, P. (1986). Technological discontinuities and organizational environments. Administrative Science Quarterly, 31, 439-465.

Utterback, J. M., & Abernathy, W. J. (1975). A dynamic model of process and product innovation. Omega, 3(6), 639-656.

Van de Ven, A. H., Polley, D. E., Garud, R., & Venkataraman, S. (1999). The Innovation Journey. New York: Oxford Univeristy Press.

© 2011 Raghu Garud. All rights reserved