Fox professor earns NSF grant for pioneering research in ‘organizational genetics’

September 30, 2011 //

A Fox School of Business professor and his research partner recently received a nearly $215,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for research that could lead to a new interdisciplinary field called organizational genetics and may help businesses trace — or even direct — the development of organizational routines used in designing complex systems.

Titled “VOSS-Collaborative Research: Evolution in Virtualized Design Processes in Project-Based Design Organizations,” the project is led by Youngjin Yoo, director of the Fox School’s Center for Design+Innovation and professor of MIS and strategy, and Rob Kulathinal, an assistant professor of biology at Temple.

Yoo and Kulathinal were inspired by a connection they saw between two seemingly unrelated disciplines: evolutionary biology and information technology. The researchers noticed that technological innovations develop in patterns resembling the evolution of natural organisms. This left them with a question: Could evolutionary theory help businesses explain and predict changes in organizations?

“Scholars have tried to understand the varieties we observe in the social world in systematic ways — it is like a holy grail in social science,” Yoo said. “We are truly excited to be able to utilize the computational tools that have allowed biologists to evaluate evolutionary rates and ancestral origins to study increasingly complex and dynamic social phenomena.”

Like natural organisms, organizational routines have phenotypes, defined as surface-level characteristics. A specific process in an organization, for example, can be considered a phenotype.

Yoo and Kulathinal hope to identify technologies’ genotypes, the underlying traits that drive organizational routines’ evolution. Changes in genotypes create previously unseen phenotypes, meaning new organizational capabilities. Business leaders who understand how to spark genotypic — and therefore phenotypic — change can tailor their firm to maximize innovation and performance.

The researchers have been studying the evolution of design processes at leading companies such as Intel, Ford and Mortenson Construction and using their insights to craft tools for data and model analyses.

For example, car evolution started with Ford’s Model T. Over a century of automotive innovations, manufacturers have generated a slew of variants. Many car lineages have gone extinct while other lineages have survived due to the choosiness of a discriminating consumer market.

Yoo and Kulathinal’s research targets the automotive, microprocessor and building industries. But other cutting-edge U.S. industries, from eco-friendly smart-grids in the energy sector to “pervasive healthcare” in the medical sector, also suffer from technological bottlenecks. Yoo and Kulathinal’s research seeks to hasten these industries’ technological breakthroughs as well. The researchers are also exploring the evolution of social media sites using the same method.

“Evolutionary genetics has nearly a century of tools and resources at its disposal,” Kulathinal said. “The evolution of social materiality has many commonalities with species evolution: both are in constant flux and both are dependant on the underlying variation of their root elements. By identifying their root elements, we should be able to understand more fully how such materials as design innovations, Internet applications and other forms of technology have evolved.”