My research has so far spanned two main areas of investigation that over the years have gradually evolved into two distinct but increasingly complementary research streams. The first stream deals with a core strategy question, that is, how 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 (luck) is unclear. The precise role of luck and foresight in the evolution of technology is obviously difficult to estimate. Indeed, a firm’s history very often endows it with knowledge for reasons that are unrelated to that knowledge’s application in new areas of opportunity. I analyze this question of intentionality by looking at how that knowledge is leveraged in a different application domain (e.g., a new market or industry) from that in which it originally accumulated. By studying the potential value of preexisting knowledge for the creation of new technological domains and clarifying the role of foresight and historical accidents (luck), this stream of research focuses on the generation of novelty (e.g., a new idea, product, artifact, or technology).
The conditions that lead to the generation of novelty are distinct, however, from those that lead to its recognition and acceptance. Accordingly, my second research stream examines audience-mediated legitimation processes that are involved in the recognition and acceptance of novelty. My work builds on sociological approaches to legitimation—that is, the processes by which the new and unaccepted obtains social acceptance (legitimacy) through field consensus. Sociologists consider legitimation a collective process that implies the presence of social audiences and candidates (individuals or organizations) whose objects (e.g., a new idea, product, artifact, or technology) are evaluated and audiences’ consensus about what features these objects should have to be accepted in social contexts. Audiences define, elaborate, and, most importantly, bestow differential value on certain features of candidates’ objects, while devaluing others. As a result, audiences determine which new objects are recognized and how. Although there is growing consensus that the process of novelty recognition is critical for understanding the journey of novelty from the moment it arises to the time it takes hold in a given field, extant research has largely overlooked a crucial and common problem that tends to undermine the recognition of novelty: entering into the attention space of the evaluating audience(s). The attention space perspective on novelty recognition builds on key insights from research in entrepreneurship and sociology, and extends beyond research on attention that only looks at the distinctive characteristics of novelty (e.g., radical vs. incremental) or the amount of attention that audiences allocate to it. I argue that the attention space perspective offers an integrative framework to novelty recognition that combines agentic and non-agentic mechanisms that facilitate the entry of novelty into the attention of relevant audiences. By agentic mechanisms I refer to actions, decisions or strategies that are under an innovator’s direct control; whereas, I use non-agentic mechanisms to refer to the field’s audience features that make them more or less permeable to the reception of novelty. Non-agentic mechanisms also embrace exogenous jolts (e.g., social upheavals, technological disruptions, large-scale accidents, regulatory changes) that may subvert the order of an existing field and open entry points for the introduction of novelty.