IMITATIVE BEHAVIOR: NETWORK
Giuseppe Soda, Akbar Zaheer and
Organizational networks are generally considered major antecedents of
mutual influence in adopting similar practices, typically via a structure of
dense ties, or closure. We propose that under conditions of competitive
interdependence, closure may be associated with links established to
access resources and knowledge and become a possible source of
differentiation rather than imitation. We test these and other antecedents
of imitative behavior and performance in the Italian TV industry with 12
years of data on 501 productions. We find that network closure is
associated with lower imitation, centrality, but not status, leads to
imitation, and that imitation lowers performance.
Similarities among firms or organizational actors, including individuals and
teams, and the antecedents of such imitative behaviors, have received a great
deal of attention in the organization and strategic management literature
(Haunschild, 1993; Rumelt, Schendel, & Teece, 1994), in innovation
Advances in Strategic Management, Volume 25, 531–560
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research (e.g. Rogers, 1965), and in sociology (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983).
Several studies on imitation and innovation examine the mechanisms by
which choices are influenced in the process of the generation and
implementation of new ideas in a number of contexts such as banks,
telephone equipment, airlines and hospitals (see Lieberman & Asaba, 2006,
for a review). More recently, scholars have emphasized the processes
through which individuals and organizations may be influenced by others in
the adoption of common practices, as well as the conditions under which
imitative behavior occurs and its consequences for organizations (e.g.
Haunschild, 1993; Haunschild & Miner, 1997). Specifically, scholars have
examined the processes and concomitants of imitative behavior and its
consequences in connection with firm strategies (Fligstein, 1991; Haveman,
1993; Haunschild & Miner, 1997), organizational structure (Fligstein, 1985;
Burns & Wholey, 1993) and other organizational processes (Sutton &
Research has also shown that one of the most powerful sources of
influence for imitative behavior and mimetic processes is an organization’s
network of ties (e.g. Haunschild & Miner, 1997). For example, Galaskiewics
and Wasserman (1989) argue that organizational actors are more likely
to mimic organizations to which they are linked through interpersonal
ties via boundary-spanning personnel. At a micro-level of analysis, research
on behavioral conformity shows that individuals are heavily influenced by
the actions and beliefs of others (Asch, 1956; Cialdini, Reno, & Kallgren,
1990; Moscovici, 1985; Sherif, 1936). More generally, how the economic
actions of organizational and individual actors are influenced by social
relations is one of the most classic questions in the social sciences
While at a general level there is wide acceptance of the idea that networks
of relations influence imitative behavior, research also suggests that a
specific kind of social structure – closure, defined as a structure of dense
interconnections between and among the actors in the network – is
associated with exerting strong pressures on actor behavior (Portes &
Sensenbrenner, 1993; Soda & Usai, 1999). As Coleman (1988) points out,
dense, overlapping ties curb opportunistic behavior among actors through
reputation effects and sanctions. In this vein, Baum and his colleagues
(Baum, Rowley, & Shipilov, 2003; Baum, Rowley, Shipilov, & Chuang,
2005) note that dense ties ‘‘tend to stabilize inter-organizational networks’’
and such stabilization process may amplify imitation among actors.
These arguments suggest that a network structure with high levels of
closure generates social and institutional mechanisms – such as shared
GIUSEPPE SODA ET AL.532
norms, trust, obligations and reciprocity – which constrain actors’ ability to
differentiate themselves and thereby induce conformity. From an institu-
tional perspective, DiMaggio and Powell (1983) adopt a similar argument,
observing that ‘‘yhighly structured organizational fields provide a context
in which individual efforts to deal rationally with uncertainty and constraint
often leadyto homogeneity inyculture and output’’ (p. 147). Following
this argument, imitation should be seen as the outcome of conformist
behaviors caused by the norms, rules and sanctions associated with high
network closure (Donaldson, 1997).
At the same time, research in a number of fields suggests that the quest for
resources is one of the most important considerations in the formation of
network links (Dyer & Singh, 1998; Gulati, 1998). Resources held by
potential partners, such as human and financial capital and technology, are
critical determinants of link formation and partner selection (Soda, Perrone,
& Usai, 2001). When organizations operate in a competitive interdepen-
dence setting, connections may be established for seeking synergistic
complementarities among the diverse resource content available from the
network. The different resources and knowledge that a focal organization
accesses and combines by forming ties with other organizations then become
a valuable source of the creation of a differentiated product. Put differently,
by connecting with multiple other actors, who are also competitors, focal
organizations are made aware of their respective product decisions, but
rather than imitate them, are influenced to consciously distinguish
themselves from them to heighten their chances of success. Thus, access to
multiple other alters’ resources and knowledge helps focal organizations
explore a wider set of opportunities and thereby generate differentiated
products. Relatedly, using an argument from population ecology, if we
consider the diffusion of product imitation as an increase in the number of
players in the same competitive niche, differentiation will help these players
reduce the density of the niche, enhancing their likelihood of success and
survival (Baum & Singh, 1994).
In the present chapter we develop this idea, which runs counter to
received wisdom, that competitive forces, combined with a pattern of dense
ties that provide network access to resources held by competing organiza-
tions, will make focal organizations differentiate themselves from, rather
than imitate, one another. Moreover, in light of the importance of
understanding the antecedents of imitative behavior, we also search for
other network structural explanations for the imitation phenomenon,
stemming from favored actor position due to centrality, as well as deriving
from a network positional measure of status (Podolny, 1993).
We also tackle two further issues in the organizational network literature;
the first is a general neglect of network dynamics and network evolution;
and the second is that since structure, content and outcomes co-evolve,
without an explicit consideration of the endogeneity inherent in such co-
evolution, results from prior studies are questionable (Mouw, 2006). In this
chapter, we use lags to account for network dynamics. Further, by using a
methodology that explicitly splits apart causes and outcomes by means of a
Two-Stage Least Square Analysis, we are able to make much more robust
assertions about the relationships between network structure and network
outcomes (Shaver, 2005). Put differently, we tease out the endogeneity
inherent in network structures and outcomes and thereby are able to predict
network outcomes, specifically performance, with greater confidence.
A further critical question in the research on imitation concerns
performance outcomes arising from imitative behaviors. While on the one
hand, research in institutional theory argues that mimetic or imitative
behaviors enhance the performance of firms by imparting them legitimacy
(DiMaggio & Powell, 1983), research in strategic management specifically
cautions against the perils of imitation in competitive situations, exhorting
firms to carve out differentiated and distinct positions for themselves
(Porter, 1996). While this latter question has been broadly addressed by
Deephouse (1999), placing it in the context of imitative behaviors arising
from network structures, which we do in this chapter, represents a
significant advance over the extant literature.
Thus, our contribution in this chapter is twofold; first, we use social
network analysis to model theoretically and assess empirically imitative
processes; more precisely, we address the issue of how network structures, in
which competitive teams or firms are embedded, influence imitative
behavior; and we propose a new approach to the investigation of imitative
behavior based on product imitation rather than the imitation of practices at
the macro or organization strategy level. As well, by presenting a theory
linking network closure to imitation that runs counter to conventional
wisdom, and testing competing theories about the imitative outcomes of
social structure, we advance understanding on the social structural
antecedents of economic action. In addition, we investigate two other
major structural explanations for imitative behavior; centrality and status.
Second, by including performance, we contribute to a better under-
standing of the relationship between imitative behavior and performance
outcomes. We tease apart the potential endogeneity among network
structures, imitative behaviors and performance through the adoption of
an appropriate estimation technique, a Two-Stage Least Squares model
GIUSEPPE SODA ET AL. 534
(Shaver, 2005). By mapping the causal chain of the relationships between
network structures, imitation and performance, we advance research and
understanding with regard to the mechanisms underlying the role and value
of network closure and imitative behavior.
We investigate these issues in the longitudinal context of the performance
of TV production teams in Italy. In contrast to work that presumes a link
exists between types of network structures and alter content, such as that
linking content diversity to structural holes (Burt, 1992), we are able to use
the content produced by TV production teams to empirically test the link
between content and structure.We obtained data on all the 501 TV projects
that were produced over a 12-year period (1988–1999) for Italian TV and
constructed networks of the 4,793 individuals involved in the projects. In the
following sections we first discuss our research context, and thereafter
elaborate on our theory, develop hypotheses, present our methodology and
results, and discuss the implications of our work for future research.
Our research context is the Italian TV production industry, which includes
TV movies and serials, sitcoms, soaps and made-for-TV specials. The
industry is composed by of a large group of specialists including musicians,
actors, producers, screenwriters and financiers. These specialists combine
their expertise and manage all the steps in the value chain, from idea
generation to screen-writing, to pre-production, shooting, editing and post-
production. Specialists work in temporary teams (TV production teams), for
several weeks or months, to create the TV product.
The TV production industry can be viewed as a network of inter-
connected nodes linked through shared memberships in the production
teams. By employing a specialist from another team, a focal team acquires
and shares the critical resources of this industry, which are knowledge and
experience. Thus, as in other types of networks, like the well-investigated
setting of interlocking directorates, the network deriving from co-member-
ship across teams allows them to access and exchange key resources.
The resources described above are critical due to the ‘‘cultural-prototype’’
nature of TV productions. Rather than merely ‘‘applying their skills,’’
individual specialists that form a team bring to bear on the project their
experiences, memories, ideas and in general their creative inputs, to co-
create an original expression of joint teamwork in a non-additive, non-
sequential but reciprocal process. Despite sharing specialists, no issue of
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