Organizational Imprinting

Research on animals has studied the imprinting effect of early experiences following birth, on the subsequent development of an organism (Lorenz, 1935, 1937). Scholars have extended this research into both humans and organisations, with Mathias et al. (2013) defining imprinting as a time-sensitive learning process that has a long-lasting impact subsequent development. Marquis & Tilcsik (2013) put forward a three-part definition of imprinting which includes, a) brief sensitive periods of transition during which the focal entity is highly susceptible to external influences, b) a process in which the focal entity changes to reflect aspects of the environment during these sensitive periods, and c) the persistence of these imprints despite subsequent environmental changes. Marquis & Tilcsik (2013) point to periods of increased uncertainty during sensitizing periods, during which they are more receptive to learning and environmental influences.


Past research has explored the effect of imprinting on employees and organisations; the effect of founding work culture and employment models constraining employees’ initiative and flexibility (Baron, Hannan, & Burton, 2001), the effect of founding on organizational features such as capabilities, and routines (Burton & Beckman, 2007), initial network patterns constraining subsequent capacity to form alliances (Milanov & Fernhaber, 2009), founders’ personal goals and values restricting leadership models (Hoang & Gimeno, 2010), early career experiences exerted a lasting effect on people’s careers (Higgins, 2005; McEvily et al., 2012). In entrepreneurship research, imprinting relates to the effects of founding decisions and conditions on subsequent organizational behavior and performance (Mathias et al., 2013). Past entrepreneurship research has focused either on the imprinting effect of founding conditions on the firm (Boeker, 1989; Eisenhardt and Schoonhoven, 1990; Milanov and Fernhaber, 2009), or the imprinting effect of the entrepreneurs' initial decisions on subsequent firm performance (Bird, 1992; Cooper et al., 1994; DeTienne, 2010). Johnson (2007) showed how entrepreneurs stamp their organization with the characteristics of the founding times. Founders and/or founding teams can imprint a firm through their unique background and vision (Ainamo, 2005), social networks (Beckman, 2006), cognition (Bryant, 2012), and identity (Fauchart & Gruber, 2011). Baron et al. (2001) showed how founders’ mental models and initial decisions subsequent organizational trajectories. Phillips (2005) showed how founders’ blueprints affect the firm’s subsequent internal gender hierarchy. Dimov et al. (2012) showed how venture capital firms’ very first decision leaves a strong imprint on their subsequent investment decisions. Hsu and Lim (2014) showed how initial ideation activities have a long-lasting effect on the subsequent process of opportunity discovery. Initial nonbrokers of knowledge were more reliant on external sources for exploratory search such as hiring technical staff with complimentary skills (Hsu and Lim, 2014).


Others within the start-up, other than the founder, can also imprint the firm is they hold initial key positions (Burton & Beckman, 2007) or perform-boundary spanning roles in teams (Friesl, Sackmann, & Kremser, 2011). Bryant (2014) argues that founding teams create a transactive autobiographical memory that subsequently influences the cocreation of personal and collective memories via an iterative feedback process. The team interprets and assigns meaning to experiences through the lens of this transactive memory system (Bryant, 2014). Bryant (2014) argues that when the cumulative memories and experience are highly complementary, feedback on experiences enhances and strengthens the entrepreneurial content of the transactive memory system. When memories and experiences are more diverse and even divergent, ongoing feedback tends to diminish the coherence of the transactive memory system, resulting in a ‘weaker sense of shared purpose and collective narrative’ (Bryant, 2014). Beckman and Burton (2008) explored the impact of the breadth of founder prior experience and early decisions about functional structures, on the types of executives subsequently recruited and organizational structures put in place. The structures created at founding influence and constrain the characteristics of subsequent executives who are able to fill these (Beckman and Burton, 2008). Founding executives with broad experiences are also more likely to attract similar broad experienced executives (Beckman and Burton, 2008). Beckman and Burton (2008) results those contradict the view that an engineering founding team can develop a formal structure and attract broadly experienced professionals to fill key gaps.

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