Organizational Evolution

Many scholars have used generalized Darwinian principles in the study of socio-economic change. McKelvey (1982) focuses on the evolution of different combinations of comps through the mechanisms of variation, selection and retention, where comps are defined as irreducible elements of organizational competence, including operations and management competences. Using the variation, selection and retention mechanisms as a starting point, some have drawn on related concepts from the routines, learning and behavioral literature to explain social, political and behavioral aspects of change within organizations (Aldrich 1999; Burgelman 1991; Murmann 2003; Nelson and Winter 1982). Within this group, some have also adopted the replicator-interactor concept, with the routine being identified as a candidate for the replicator, as noted above, and the organization put forward as the interactor (Aldrich 1999; Hodgson and Knudsen 2010).

A number of North American scholars have adopted the concepts of variation-selection-retention in the conceptualization of organizational change, learning and adaptation (see Bruderer and Singh, 1996; Feldman and Pentland, 2003; Lant and Mezias, 1992; Levitt and March, 1988). While these researchers point to Donald Campbell (1965, 1974) as the key inspiration, they remain cautious in adopting the label of Generalized Darwinism. For an example of these works, see edited volumes by Baum and McKelvey (1999), Baum and Singh (1994), and the Companion to Organizations (2002). An evolutionary logic flows through these contributions, demonstrating its potential as a theoretical approach in the study of organizations. However as noted by Greve (2002) in this latter volume, the concepts of variation-selection-retention are often bolted onto other theoretical approaches, being relegated to a subsidiary role.

Recommended Reading

Aldrich, H. (1999). Organizations Evolving, London: Sage Publishing

Seminal work which presents a rich conceptualization of the Generalized Darwinian approach (words not used in this book) to study change within organizations. Howard Aldrich explores the birth and growth of organizations through the evolution of routines and competences.
Burgelman, R. (1991). Intraorganizational Ecology of Strategy making and organizational adaptation: Theory and Field Research. Organization Science, Vol. 2, pp. 239-262.

One of the few empirical works which puts variation-selection-retention centre stage in the analysis of empirical data. Burgelman presents a multi-level view of change at Intel through an evolutionary lens.
McKelvey, B. (1982). Organizational Systematics: Taxonomy, Evolution, Classification. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.

McKelvey presents a population perspective on change within organizations. However, through the concept of the comp, this work delves within the workings of the organization, addressing key criticisms of previous population level studies.

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