Interview with Best Student Paper Award Winner

Chia-Yu Kou-Barrett (CKB), University College Dublin, interviewing Eva-Maria Kirchberger (EK), Imperial College Business School , Winner of the Best Student Paper Award for “Authentic adaptation as a way out? Response by de novo category pioneers to de alio entrants”


CKB: Tell me about the background of the paper

EK: It all started with the Marie Curie program. I was one of thirteen so-called Early Stage Researchers funded by an EU grant to conduct research in design-driven innovation seconded to an industry partner. As part of the program, I was based at a co-pioneer in service design – I call them “Studio X” in London. This design studio co-created the practice of service design, which means the application of design thinking to design new brand experiences and services online and in physical space. I was thrown in at the deep end from day 1 – as technically an employee and in-house researcher, I was quickly part of the team and had access to all data. However, the set up was not without challenges – the firm had expectations of me too, to help find a solution for a huge strategic problem they faced.

From a theoretical perspective, this problem was interesting: a firm which successfully co-pioneered a new practice saw their market growing, by attracting more and more industry leaders as clients and new competition from management consulting and UX [User Experience]. However, rather than feeling successful, these designers felt deeply threatened and pressured. Why? Because these new entrants introduced new features, or skills, which clients sometimes favored over Studio X’s abilities. Interestingly, I had the chance to work at the other co-pioneer – I call them “Studio Y” – as well for three months, and they felt exactly the same way. In fact, I believe their motives for joining the Marie Curie Program was underpinned by this competitive threat. I read into different literatures to find an answer to this, but I realized after a while that knowledge to-date did not cover this issue. 



CKB: The journey of the paper: how did it start and evolve?

EK: I need to think back 5 to 6 years (laughing) – somewhere, we have this idea, we were interested in identity at the first. But then you have a very complex puzzle – there is something about skills, leadership, market, and legitimacy. How can you bring these together? I was reading into population ecology – is this case simply about adaptation to a niche? But then I was startled by the fact that repeatedly members of Studio X mentioned that they have to “amplify the creative bits” and started to emphasize artistic media and methods to convey their ideas, such as videos, theatre play, etc. What surely helped in the beginning were the reviews I got at Imperial to early-stage ideas I had. Some identity scholars pointed to identity threat – however, quotes like “WE are service design. We redefine what we do and with it what it means” – led me to dig deeper into the category literature and the idea that there is a firm which constitutes the mental prototype of the category … and Studio X members certainly felt as such.  Further, feedback at conferences from top scholars and continuous support by my supervisor Mark Thomas Kennedy helped me frame the challenge. Using ideas from organization theory to inform strategy is rather unusual, and trying to contribute to two different communities at this nexus is not easy – all the more why I am delighted to have been honored with this award.

To give you the full picture, four years ago when I started collecting data, the category literature was emerging at that time, and studies concerned isomorphic pressures and contrasts. When I came to the analyzing and writing-up stage, I could see papers which tackled category defections and movers between categories; however, internal processes, decision making and events were not part of the conversation yet, and I had experienced plenty of that! For example, I remember one particularly striking day when a team returned to the studio from pitching to a potential FTSE [Financial Times Stock Exchange] client, and informed the wider studio about their experiences, with a big concern: “we used to pitch against other design firms, always the same, but now these consultants turn up, and have a whole team just for that, with who knows, 100+ slides … what shall we do against such an army?” Apart from their own concern, they felt great responsibility for the wider practice and market category itself: ”we once filled service design with meaning, we have to do it again. It is on us now.” Initial ideas comprised putting together a roundtable of the most important firms in the space. However, this idea was dismissed quickly, and the leadership decided to go the way alone.


CKB: Challenges during fieldwork: being an employee and a researcher at the same time, what was the challenge? How did you balance your role?

EK: Let me tell you an anecdote about this, which sticks with me. Two years into participatory research, with me contributing to two massive projects, I return to Imperial for supervision. At that time, paradoxically the leaders [of Studio X] just won their biggest project ever with Dubai Airport, and aimed to mimic management consulting procedures by turning this into a several year-long change program. One might think great times, but internally you could feel panic and anxiety everywhere: it felt risky, and members felt confused and uncertain about their practice and who they came to be. Back at Imperial, I was so absorbed by this climate that I faced Mark Kennedy with: “You got to help. We are in a very difficult situation, and we do not know what to do right now.” Mark smiled at me and turned to his colleague, Namrata Malhotra and said: “We have to get her out of there for a while … otherwise, we will lose her…”. This was a good decision. I dialed back a bit from going there almost every day; to explain, processes changed so quickly and projects developed so fast, that it was required of me to be present most of the time in order not to eat up time catching up. On the other hand, I built great trust, which I think is fundamental for an ethnographer, and allowed me to attend Friday pub nights where members would tell me how they felt and thought about the day and the projects. This was not easy, as I was initially perceived as an outsider – being from a business school, and researcher, in opposition to a designer and practitioner. My job was to blend in, and I have to say some of them are still good friends with me. I learned a lot, too and had to adapt really quickly. Who would have thought that benchmarking means comparing technical features in design? Or, simply looking for pictures for a report can be challenging, as these are meant to be inspirational and emotional, rather than proof? But I got there, in the end.


CKB: Challenge in managing data: suggestions for Ph.D. students and/or other qualitative researchers.

EK: I am aware I gathered lots of data over this almost three-year period, and analyzing these or recording fieldnotes was a daily challenge after long days in the studio. Many times I typed these into my mobile phone on the bus ride home; I would recommend to analyze whilst being in the field, as themes emerge and you can follow up with interviews so much better. I had the privilege to have bi-weekly catch ups with leadership and projects leads, and in return, I had to think of a way to give value to them, too. As I cannot interfere in their strategizing, I came up with “Eva observation sessions” – where I played back what I observed at events or in client meetings and provoked the leadership to reflect … great data for me, and as they said, very valuable for them.


CKB: What’s your future research agenda?

EK: My thesis is titled: “Lessons from the Creative Industries: Institutions, Recurrent Change and Advantage” and my three chapters – called “Fashion Power”, “Cool Factory,” and “Authentic Adaptation” – provide different views on what I call “creative strategy:” leading firms in creative industries and how they create competitive advantages. I contribute to institutional theory and strategy by pointing out that in creative industries institutions do not denote consistency or durability, but recurrent change: change is the norm. Take a famous artist, for example, Madonna: with every album she needs to introduce something new … if she introduced the same, she would not be perceived as creative. In “Fashion Power,” written together with Mark Kennedy and Frederic Godart, we look at a group of leading fashion houses and build a framework to capture how Chanel, Gucci and others manage to charge premium prices even though they are imitated by fast fashion and other firms within a week; secondly, in “Cool Factory,” I analyze the meta-routines which allow a leader like Studio X to produce new output on every project; finally, in “Authentic Adaptation,” the award-winning paper, I build theory on how a firm at the core defends against new competition with different skills by sharpening their features, adapting those which are perceived desirable, and amplifying their heritage to distance from competition as well.


CKB: What are the practical implication for the companies?

EK: With my research setup being so entrenched in practice, I have developed frameworks which aim at contributing to practitioners, too. Increasingly, digitization is changing the competitive game across industries, and firms are pushed to continuously innovate in order to create advantages – this is what D’Aveni et al. (2010) famously call “hypercompetition.” I believe leading firms in the creative industries have the potential to foreshadow and teach others lessons on how to build advantages over long periods of time (fashion!) in these dynamic environments. In short, institutional arrangements matter, status and reputation are key, and coordination with like-minded firms are crucial. This is not new. What did Heraclitus say already in 500 BCE? – Change is the only constant.