Sub-theme 65: The Organizational Origins and Consequences of Competition

Nils Brunsson
Uppsala University, Sweden
Raimund Hasse
University of Lucerne, Switzerland
Stefan Jonsson
Uppsala University, Sweden

Call for Papers

There are few ideas in modern society that are more influential, broadly adopted, and taken for granted than that of competition. We think of a wide variety of situations as competitive – personal relations and firm interactions can be competitive, and cultures or nations can be thought to compete. Competition has also become the perhaps most universally applied tool to govern organizations and individuals in organizations – implying that competition is present on all analytical levels – individual, organizational and at the inter-organizational level of sectors and fields.
In contrast to, or perhaps because of, this wide usage competition is not a well-defined or understood concept in organization theory. It is routinely conceptualized as an environmental state that influences the life-chances of organizations, suggesting that competition is beyond the influence of individuals and organizations. Competition is often theorized as an exogenously determined force on organizations, implying “market forces” or “resource overlaps” which are all present, yet beyond the control of those who compete. While this perspective affords some understanding of competition, it limits our understanding of fundamental questions such as how competition emerges, how it is maintained, and how it affects organizations. Competition happens not only within markets and there is competition not only for money but also for status, visibility and other values. We think that the time is due for organization theory to escape from this “black box” version of competition taken from economics and to provide a much deeper understanding of how competition is constructed in and between organizations and with what consequences.
In this sub-theme we treat competition as a perceptual category that may or may not arise from a certain environmental state. By this we want to get away from the assumption that a situation, per definition, is or is not competitive and open up for investigation questions of when, how and why there is competition. We want to explore the origins of competition, competition as management tool, and the organizational effects of competition. We welcome contributions that focus on one or more of the following questions (but not limited to them):

  • How do ideas about competition arise and spread: within organizations, between organizations and in other settings
  • When is an organizational situation constructed as competition, and when is it not? What is the role of other stakeholders, apart from the competitors, in this?
  • What happens to an organization when it competes? What is the relationship between competing and collaborating? If an organization competes outside its boundaries, does that influence internal competition, and vice versa?
  • How does competition work? What are organizational mechanisms that translate individual motivation to organizational action?

A first call for this sub-theme is thus for work that engages with how ideas about competition arise and spread. Competition is often used as a tool for management, but perceptions of competition may also arise from external sources, not least from comparisons by external actors. For example, contemporary global society is filled with people and organizations that compare people, organization or states producing lists, rankings or awards designating all from the best universities or the most environmentally friendly capital or the leading IT-nation. Under which circumstances do such comparisons induce or fail to induce ideas of competition among and within organizations?
Part of this call is the question of what competition does to organizations. We know from some earlier work that organizations that engage in competition form cognitive maps of their environment, which then guide their action. The action-reaction pattern has been another topic for competition-interested scholars within the field of strategy. There is, however, very little done about what goes on within an organization, and how an organization changes, when it competes. Studies within the broad area of New Public Management, where competition frequently has been invoked, suggest that introducing competition into a sector where there earlier was no competition – such as schools, the military or health care – requires significant organization and re-organization, often including the strengthening of symbolic and material management capacities. Why should this not also be the case if competition is introduced within a multinational firm – between two subsidiaries?
Another competition-related theme that has been explored earlier concerns the responses of individuals and their relations to others. The classic treatment of Georg Simmel tells us about the attention orienting and behavioral modifying effects of competition. Later work has highlighted the motivation of individuals that compete. How, and when, individual motivation brought about by competition relates to organizational action is however currently terra incognita. This is a second focal area of this call for papers.
A third topic regards the understanding of the consequences of competition among organizations and individuals that is also ambiguous and not well explored. The common assumption is that competition leads some organizations to “shape up” to become efficient and innovative, while others disappear from the economy. Competition may, however, bring about other outcomes: it can lead to wasteful investments in excess capacity or shift managerial attention to suboptimal short-term goals as suggested in debates on “quarterly” capitalism. It also changes organizations in a fundamental manner; competition accentuates the boundaries of an organization and shifts loyalties of individuals in organizational from professions, whereas innovation, e.g., is believed to be based on strong ties between professionals and in technological communities. The adoption of a behavioral perspective on competition will make it possible to better unveil the true consequences of competition for organizations.
In sum, this sub-theme aims to provide a venue for rethinking our understanding of competition, to explore the responses to and consequences of competition as well as the arguments for and against competition. The theme is intended as a beginning of a conversation about a behavioral and organizational perspective of competition that could increase our understanding of contemporary organizations. Together with the participants we want to explore the idea of collection selected papers for publication in a special journal issue or a similar outlet.

Nils Brunsson is Professor of Management at Uppsala University, Sweden, and is affiliated to Stockholm Centre for Organizational Research (Score). His current research interests include the organization of markets, partial organization and meta-organizations. His earlier work has been on decision-making, administrative reforms and standardization.
Raimund Hasse is Professor for Sociology: Organization and Knowledge at the Department of Sociology, University of Lucerne, Switzerland. He is interested in sociological institutionalism and in issues of organization and competition. A particular research interest regards new organizational forms that have co-evolved with a strengthening of competition.
Stefan Jonsson is Professor in Management and Organization at Uppsala University, Sweden. His recent research investigates the organizational effects of competition on the Swedish education system. Jonsson has previously investigated competitive interactions among firms in a financial industry, as well as among British political parties.