June 17, 2008
I am referring now to a discussion in OrgTheory , about, among other things, whether it is better to study extreme (or rare) cases, or to study the more frequent ‘middle ground’. The discussion there is interesting and there are some nice insights, but the fundamental premise underlying it is somewhat misguided.
The discussion about extremes vs. ‘average’ assumes that social phenomena follow some sort of normal distribution. In contrast, many of the organisational phenomena in presence, as they include an element of path dependency, tend to form power law distributions (e.g. few large corporations and a ‘long tail’ of small companies, size of cities). When dealing with such distributions, the notions of averages, medians and therefore also extremes vs. ‘frequently occurring’ do not tell us very much; in fact, they would be misleading.
That is not to say, of course, that nothing follows normal distributions. Many things do, but typically, when we witness normal distributions they typically occur within some kind of sub-strategic space. For example, the answers to the question ‘how many times a week/month/year/ do you go to the cinema?’ will tend to distribute normally. However, the option space implied in this question is limited and is contained within a single strategy: one can either go to the cinema or not. In contrast, a question that would refer to, say, the pros and cons of installing home cinema systems vs. going out to the cinema – a questions that opens an inter-strategy space – is likely to yield a non-normal, power law-like distribution.
So, what type of analyses can we produce about organisational phenomena? Should we focus on the rare or the common? Well, if the phenomena are ‘historical enough’ – they embed path dependency – then, at a very basic epistemological level, all the research stories we tell about such phenomena are ‘mechanism stories’. We tell the stories of the exceptional, the uncommon and we analyse the ways (how and why) in which the, for example, the successful few became, and remain, successful. That is, we tell the stories of heroes.