Positioning knowledge: schools of thought and new knowledge creation – Part 3

By Phin Upham

Part 3

Previous research in local and distant search suggests that new knowledge which is core to its school of thought is likely to be intellectually embedded within that school and have less impact outside of that school, and new knowledge located closer to the periphery of its school tends to more explicitly engage ideas meaningful both to its own field and to audiences beyond its field (McCain 1986, 1987). Even within a school, new knowledge that remains too close to the core ideas of a school and does not search for and use new ideas is less likely to have innovative impact (Meyer and Zucker 1989; Fleming 2001; Fleming and Sorenson 2001) and is thus less likely to influence others and be more highly cited by those within its school (Rosenkopf and Nerkar 2001). At the same time, knowledge too distant from the core might not reap as many of the benefits of membership. This would imply that the relationship between a position at the center and periphery of a school is curvilinear—that a position at the semi-periphery of a school, straddling more than one school or reaching beyond one’s school, would tend to draw the largest audience for new knowledge and receive the most overall citations. Such boundary-spanning research is more likely to draw fresh, interesting outside work into a school, which would potentially result in more impact (Fig. 2).

Hypothesis 2 A position toward the intellectual semi-periphery of a school of thought results in greater impact than a position at the center or periphery of a school of thought.

We now wish to take into consideration not only the characteristics of the new knowledge but the exploratory tendencies of creators of new knowledge as well. Over time a researcher has a tendency to either explore a diversity of knowledge domains or to focus on one. For example, in the field of economics, Oliver Williamson has published most of his works in one school of thought—transaction-cost economics (Williamson 1975, 1979)—and he is intellectually central to that school. At the same time, some great new knowledge producers systematically publish works in different fields and are enormously and broadly influential. James March, a peripatetic management scholar who studies organizations, for example, also publishes widely in many schools of thought including decision theory, organizational learning, and adaptation (March and Simon 1958; March and Shapira 1987; March 1991). Ron Burt has argued that ‘‘theory developers’’ focus on deepening and refining theory within one field, while ‘‘theory synthesizers’’ span organizational and knowledge boundaries to combine knowledge in fresh and innovative ways (Burt, unpublished). The advantages of remaining within a community are well-established in network theory—trust, reputation, and learning, among other social and intellectual benefits, were discussed previously. Further, learning the norms and knowledge structure of a school is an investment that may have to be paid again if one changes schools. Simultaneously, from the perspective of influence of ideas, one could argue that remaining in a school of thought may cause lesser impact after an initial introduction of that idea, whereas a specific idea can be made new many times if transported to different fields (Amir 1985; Adner and Levinthal 2000).

New knowledge developed without fresh inputs and without looking further than itself would be in danger of missing important insights, or as Rosenkopf and Nerkar (2001) put it, might ‘‘lead firms to develop ‘core rigidities’ or fall into ‘competence traps’’’ (p. 288). An innovator may try to avoid falling into such traps by exploring numerous schools of thought seriously, interacting with a broad array of knowledge in multiple fields. Francis Crick, known for his work on the structure of DNA, seems to believe such theory-hopping is essential for creative insight when he argues that ‘‘professional [scientists] know that they have to produce theory after theory before they are likely to hit the jackpot. The very process of abandoning one theory for another gives them a degree of critical detachment that is almost essential if they are to succeed.’’

We believe that the interests and history of an author, whether eclectic or focused, make a difference in his or her impact and readership. We find that two strong and competing hypotheses are supported by existing theory. On one hand, authors who publish widely and are involved in the intellectual pursuit of multiple areas lend themselves in their eclectic pursuits to the benefits of knowledge combination and thus gain the advantages of synthesizing between schools of thought (Fleming 2001). On the other hand, depth of expertise lends itself to more incremental new knowledge production, gaining the advantages of a closed cluster, so perhaps focusing on one area can be more beneficial to a new knowledge creator (Birnbaum 1981a, b; Fig. 3).

Hypothesis 3a New knowledge created by those who actively engage in multiple schools of thought over time has greater impact.

Hypothesis 3b New knowledge created by those who concentrate on a very few schools of thought over time has greater impact.

Central to our analysis is the idea that new knowledge development is often a result of the constant dynamic tension within the area of a school of thought between the search for synthesis—i.e., recombination, introducing new ideas—and specialization—i.e., developing the world view of the field, deepening the core methods or proposition of a paradigm— and moreover that scholars face strategic choices in positioning themselves within and

among schools of thought. The content of the new knowledge is thereby enriched by the dialectic between the diversity of its sources as well as the efforts of the researcher to ground the knowledge by defining its scope and developing its focus. In this constant negotiation of tensions, while multiplicity of schools contributes to the knowledge, the number of schools is crucial to maintain the specialization and focus of the research.