Essays on technological evolution

Gino Cattani, University of Pennsylvania


A core strategy question is how established firms can sustain their competitive advantage in the face of technological change. While strategy research typically traces differences in the ability to innovate to a priori heterogeneity in initial conditions, whether such differences result from strategic foresight or historical accidents is unclear. The dissertation seeks to contribute to this debate by examining whether the capabilities used to develop a new technology are created in anticipation of this technology or result from capabilities developed in the past for other uses. We first investigate the process leading to the emergence of a new technology by conducting a longitudinal case study of Corning's pioneering work in fiber optics. The study shows how the exposure to divergent selection forces is an important aspect of the search for new technologies. Since accurate foresight is rare, market feedback can help unveil new investment opportunities and even redirect a firm's R&D. The study also suggests that the experience accumulated in one domain often represents pre-adaptation in other domains: pre-existing skills and knowledge can over time become useful for other unanticipated applications. We then investigate the performance implications of technological pre-adaptation in a large sample study on the evolution of fiber optics technology over the period 1970–1995. The aim is to find out which firms contributed the most to the emergence of this technology and whether firms that leverage their prior experience display any selective advantage as compared to firms that either do not have a similar base of experience or fail to take advantage of it. Far from implying a deterministic view of innovation and firm performance, and thus discarding any meaningful role for strategy, pre-adaptation still allows for variation in the observed behavior of ‘pre-adapted’ firms. To study the dynamic interplay between pre-adaptation, foresight and market feedback, we develop a simulation model based on fractal geometry. The simulation allows studying in a more controlled setting the relative importance between oriented search (i.e., search guided by foresight, heuristics or intention) and market feedback guided search in the development of new technologies or practices.

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Recommended Citation

Cattani, Gino, "Essays on technological evolution" (2004). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3137988.