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Current Interest in the Theory of Organizational Path
Dependence: A Short Update on the Occasion of the
2019 AMR Decade Award
School of Business & Economics
Current Interest in the Theory of Organizational Path Dependence.
A Short Update on the Occasion of the 2019 AMR Decade Award
2020/12 der Diskussionsbeiträge des Fachbereichs Wirtschaftswissenschaft. Berlin: Freie Universität
Jörg Sydow, Freie Universität Berlin
Georg Schreyögg, Freie Universität Berlin & University of Graz
Jochen Koch, European University Viadrina, Frankfurt (Oder)
This discussion paper reports and reflects on the reception of our article “Organizational path
dependence: Opening the black box”, which was published in 2009 in the Academy of Management
Review and granted the AMR Decade Award in 2019. While we were invited by the editor of the journal
to discuss the criticism evoked by that paper, to re-examine our original propositions in the light of
advanced insights and to outline new avenues for future research on organizational path dependence,
in this discussion paper we report in some detail and comment on the citation landscape of our original
The interest in the theory of organizational path dependence is still unabated and our contribution
published in the Academy of Management Review (AMR) (Sydow, Schreyögg, & Koch, 2009) has
received a considerable amount of attention and, in 2019, was granted the AMR Decade Award. As it
stands, the article has attracted more than 1,600 citations. This continued interest in research on
organizational path dependence over more than a decade contrasts, however, with the amount of
keen attention currently devoted to organizational fluid and flat structures (Schreyögg & Sydow, 2010;
Lee & Edmondson, 2017). A closer look, however, alleviates the contrast: any attempt toward strategic
and organizational change to create such fluidity and flatness is likely to be confronted with issues of
persistent patterning, more often than not in the form of severe organizational path dependencies.
An organizational path has been defined as “a rigidified, potentially inefficient action pattern built up
by the unintended consequences of former decisions and positive feedback processes” (Sydow et al.,
2009: 696). Such positive feedback or self-reinforcing processes which, economically spoken, are often
driven by increasing returns (Arthur, 1989; 1994), comprise in particular coordination, complemen-
tarity, learning and adaptive expectation effects (see also Dobusch & Schüßler, 2013). These effects of
self-reinforcing processes are certainly at the heart of any theoretically elaborated understanding of
path dependence. The assumption of self-reinforcing processes has far-reaching implications: The
development of a path is governed by escalating dynamics which are difficult to control, spreading
along their own logic which is hard to unearth. The development of a path is, therefore, hardly
foreseeable, in particular in the beginning.
The widespread attention given to path dependence thought, not only in management and
organization studies, but also in other disciplines such as economic geography and information system
research, gave us the opportunity to document and analyze the landscape of research citations the
original article has received. It seemed appealing to explore the linkages to other disciplines, the
differences in regional interest, the transdisciplinary appropriation of the theory, etc. This discussion
paper is entirely devoted to this exploration and consequently considers papers exclusively that
explicitly refer to our theory of organizational path dependence.
Towards this end, we first document and analyze the citations with respect to their countries of origin
and the disciplines of their authors. Then we highlight the topics addressed, the industries and fields
investigated, and the levels of analysis considered, before shortly reporting on the methods employed
and complementary theories addressed. We conclude this discussion paper by summarizing the
analysis of the citation landscape of our paper, published 2009 in the AMR, and by pointing to the
critical objections and theoretical extensions to be addressed in order to further develop the theory of
organizational path dependence (see in detail Sydow, Schreyögg, & Koch, 2020).
2 Diverse National and Disciplinary Origins of Recipients
The authors of the papers referencing ours come, as one would expect in face of the global reach of
the AMR, from all around the world. However, three countries dominate when it comes to the
institutional origin of the author(s): United States, United Kingdom, and Germany, the home country
of the authors of the awarded paper. Together, about half of the citations stem from these three
countries. In contrast, developing world countries are largely underrepresented – or even not
represented at all. This distribution is quite common and reflects the inequalities in the scientific
Given that the publication of the original article appeared in one of the leading management journals,
it is no surprise that citations from the field of business and management dominate. But other
disciplines are also well represented: business history, economics, economic geography,
environmental studies, regional and urban planning, and information system research. The citations
quite effectively mirror the many disciplines interested in matters not only of technological, but also
of institutional and organizational change and its counterparts: structural inertia, institutional
persistence, and path dependence. This interdisciplinary reach not only illustrates the interest of many
disciplines in the topic of organizational persistence and, possibly, how to overcome it. Rather, this
wide reach also reflects the interdisciplinary – or better: infradisciplinary – character of path
dependence theory which has its roots in evolutionary thought, complexity and chaos theory, social
constructivism, economic theory and history, systems theory, and the social studies of technology.
3 Topics Addressed – Industries Investigated – Levels Considered
A closer look at the ten years of citation history shows that by far the most papers citing our paper
reference it in a general sense, pointing mainly to the difficulties of organizational or institutional
change. As a systematic co-citation, analysis shows the notion of path dependence mentioned in
diverse contexts. Figure 1 points to three major clusters: (1) innovation, (2) change management, and
(3) strategy. Among the closest related topics is innovation, including evolution and lock-in (green
lines); this cluster refers to the conditions of entrepreneurship and the barriers likely to be met by
entrepreneurs. Second, path dependence proves to be closely connected to organizational issues, in
particular to topics about change management (blue lines). Finally, linkages to strategic organizational
concepts are apparent, such as capabilities, routines and performance, but also dynamic capabilities
and competitive advantage (red lines). These linkages reflect the tension between successful practices
nurtured by self-reinforcing processes and the threat of experiencing a rationality shift later. Success
Figure 1: Topics addressed in the citation landscape1
A closer look at the landscape of citations shows that most papers deal with organizational change in
corporations, i.e. larger for-profit organizations, among others in fields such as automotive (e.g.
Maielli, 2015), apparel (Schüßler, 2009), machine building (Laudien & Daxböck, 2016), biotechnology
(e.g. Renko, Yli-Renko, & Denoo, 2020), media (e.g. Koch, 2011), music (e.g. Kunow, Gersch, & Koch,
2013), electromobility (e.g. Sydow & Koll, 2017), oil and gas (e.g. Njøs, Orre, & Fløysand, 2017), paper
and pulp (Lamberg & Peltoniemi, 2019), aerospace (e.g. Heracleous, Yniguez, & Gonzalez, 2019),
military equipment (e.g. Jing & Benner, 2016), ports (e.g. Cahoon, Pateman, & Chen, 2013), retailing
(e.g. Valorinta, Schildt, & Lamberg, 2011) and other service industries (e.g. Wenzel, Wagner, & Koch,
2017). Some papers address small and medium-sized enterprises and family firms (e.g. König,
Kammerlander, & Enders, 2013), and even start-ups (e.g. Larrañeta, Zahra, & González, 2012) that are
rarely, if at all, considered inert or persistent, not to mention path dependent.
1 In February 2020 we searched the Web of Science for co-occurrence of keywords in papers that cited
Sydow et al. (2009). The results for similar keywords like ‘organization’ and ‘organizations’ were merged.
The relatedness of words is based on the number of documents in which they co-occur (VOS Viewer).
Apart from business firms, organizations in the fields of education (e.g. Kristiansen & Houlihan, 2017),
healthcare (e.g. Sinclair & Whitford, 2013) and public administration (e.g. Kim & Chen, 2020) seem to
be of concern to researchers from a path dependence perspective. Beyond organizations from
different fields, papers citing ours investigate other organizational forms such as communities of
practice (e.g. Dobusch & Quack, 2011), innovation networks (e.g. Cahoon et al., 2013), as well as
strategic alliances and networks (e.g. Schmidt & Braun, 2015). Professions and professionalization are
also occasionally subjected to studies of path dependence (Jeong & Leblebici, 2019; Farndale,
Brewster, & Mayrhofer, 2019).
In the field of management, the concept of organizational path dependence was – as already indicated
by Figure 1 – most often pursued by strategy scholars. These address topics like strategic planning (e.g.
Carvalho, Guarido Filho, & Eberle de Almeida, 2018), business modeling (e.g. Bohnsack, Pinkse, & Kolk,
2014), stakeholder management (Rasmus, Vaccaro, & Berrone, 2020), dynamic capabilities (e.g.
Nedzinskas, Pundziene, Buoziute-Rafanaviciene, & Pilkiene, 2013), mergers and acquisitions (e.g.
Hutzschenreuter, Kleindienst, & Schmitt, 2012), joint ventures (e.g. Pajunen & Fang, 2013), strategic
alliances and networks (e.g. Burger & Sydow, 2014), but also more comprehensive business portfolio
decisions (e.g. Alscher & Brauer, 2015) as well as the counterparts of organizational growth: strategic
inertia (e.g. Koch, 2011) and business exit (e.g. Decker & Mellewigt, 2012). Unsurprisingly, and as also
indicated by Figure 1, classic topics such as organizational change and routines (incl. routine dynamics)
also received above-average attention (e.g. Pentland, Feldman, Becker, & Liu, 2012; Kremser &
Schreyögg, 2016; Wenzel & Koch, 2018; Hoekzema, 2020; Sydow, 2021).
However, organizational path dependence was also considered, though less prominently, in the
context of internationalization (e.g. Chandra, Styles, & Wilkinson, 2012), digitalization (e.g. Hirsch-
Kreinsen, 2018), transport logistics (e.g. Truschkin, Elbert, & Günter, 2014), human resource
management (e.g. Chen, Su, & Zeng, 2016), top management turnover (e.g. Say & Vasudeva, 2020),
extra-long working hours (e.g. Blagoev & Schreyögg, 2019), knowledge management and
organizational learning (e.g. Berggren et al., 2017), organizational identity (e.g. Kirchner, 2010) and
trust (e.g. Möllering & Sydow, 2019), corporate political activity (e.g. Perchard & MacKenzie, 2020),
industrial relations (e.g. Holtgrewe & Doellgast, 2012), and information systems (e.g. Singh,
Mathiassen, & Mishra, 2015). The study of organizational path dependence has even reached topics
such as entrepreneurship (e.g. Wood, Bakker, & Fisher, 2020; Samuelsson, Söderblom, & McKelvie,
2020; Renko et al., 2020; Hallen, Davis, & Murray, 2020), innovation (incl. creativity and ambidexterity)
and knowledge transfer (e.g. Brennecke & Rank, 2017), project management (e.g. Manning & Sydow,
2011) and ad hoc problem finding and solving (e.g. Ritala, Heiman, & Hurmelinna-Laukkanen, 2016),
that is, topics for which one would not expect organizational persistence resulting from path
dependence to be important.
Beyond the field of management and organization studies, our paper received many citations from
studies with a geographical or technological focus. This was to be expected, as economic geography as
well as the social studies of technologies have been concerned with the difficulties of regional and
technological change respectively for a very long time (cf. Henning, Stam, & Wenting, 2013). More
recently, grand societal challenges, that “lack a clear single solution, and encompass incomplete,
contradictory, or changing requirements that often unfold in complex systems” (Grodal & O'Mahony,
2017: 1801), seem increasingly to have been addressed with reference to organizational path
dependence. These include issues such as climate change, migration, mobility, authoritarianism and
populism, as well as environmental and societal transformation more generally (e.g. Cooke, 2012;
Toelstede, 2019). Even rather exotic topics such as slavery in Brazil (Rodrigues & Craig, 2018) and the
cadastral system in China (Lin, Kalantari, Rajabifard, & Li, 2015) have been analyzed with reference to
path dependence. Last but not least, economics has restarted the still rare endeavor of reflecting its
status as a path-dependent discipline (Yalcintas, 2016).
As one would expect, these studies address path dependence not only on the organizational and
interorganizational level of analysis but also on more macro, even societal and inter-societal levels. On
these macro levels, including fields or industries (Bergek & Onufrey, 2013; Singh et al., 2015), regions
(Henning et al., 2013; Frangenheim, Trippl, & Chlebna, 2020) or (trans-) national institutional systems
(Djelic & Quack, 2007), the coexistence of more than one path is more likely than within hierarchically
coordinated organizations. In face of pervasive inscription processes we would expect only one
organizational path, if any at all, to exist within organizations (Koch, 2011; Sydow et al., 2020).
4 Methods Employed – Further Theories Considered
If it comes to theorizing, organizational path dependence is only occasionally combined with other
theories, most prominently with evolutionary approaches or – as also shown by Figure 1 – the
resource-based view (e.g. Lambert, 2014). The combination with these two theories was to be
expected. Evolutionary approaches are often considered as the foundation of path dependence theory
(not least by economic geographers, in whose discipline they currently seem to dominate). The
resource-based viewpoints to path dependencies as a source for developing a firm’s strategic
resources, but typically overlooks the downside of this process: the possibility of becoming persistent
and even locked-in (cf. Sydow et al., 2020). In most cases, however, the theory of organizational path
dependence is only mentioned either together with other approaches considering organizational
persistence (such as imprinting or escalating commitment), or used as a separate theoretical lens to
analyze hyper-stable organizational or institutional arrangements (e.g. Jing & Benner, 2016).
The by far most frequently used methodology is case study research combined with historical analyses.
In line with Yin’s (2018) recommended usage of the case study approach, the inquiry into cases of
organizational path dependence is theory-driven from the start (see for different usages of case studies
also Piekkari & Welch, 2018). This is in sharp contrast to such classical historical analyses as well as to
the allegedly widespread use of grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Suddaby, 2006) in
management and organization studies. Several authors using the case study method plead for a
multilevel analysis of the phenomenon (e.g. Strambach, 2010; Brunninge & Melander, 2016; Perchard
& MacKenzie, 2020). The analysis of organizational path dependence may indeed benefit from
capturing more or less parallel path dependencies on more micro as well as more macro levels of
analysis (Sydow, Windeler, Müller-Seitz, & Lange, 2012).
A few papers suggest and employ alternative methods to qualitative case study research, including
agent-based simulation (e.g. Vergne & Durand, 2010; Petermann, Schreyögg, & Fürstenau, 2020) as
well as survey research using longitudinal data (e.g. Samuelsson et al., 2020). While welcoming
methodological pluralism, we are convinced that the choice of the most appropriate method clearly
depends on the question at stake. As in management and organization research in general, the time
nevertheless seems ripe for using more mixed-method and unconventional designs (Bryman &
Buchanan, 2018). From a methodological perspective, however, path dependence studies, due to their
different phases and the different logics and regimes involved in these phases, require tailor-made
empirical designs in order to grasp, analyze and understand the underlying (historical) processes in
5 Summary and Conclusion
In conclusion, our theory of organizational path dependence has often been cited to either point to or
to explain the phenomenon that organizations or interorganizational arrangements can become
persistent or inert and, hence, difficult to change. Of utmost importance to us here are studies that
investigate in a rather strict, path-theoretical manner relevant cases of organizational persistence (e.g.
Jing & Benner, 2016; Ding, Kininmonth, & McKinstry, 2017; Fortwengel & Keller, 2020). We also greatly
value those papers that engage critically with our theorizing and have thus stimulated our thinking
(see, e.g., Garud, Kumaraswamy, & Karnøe, 2010; Suddaby & Foster, 2017). Papers critically engaging
with the proposed theory have focused on four issues: the notion of a path, the role of agency, the
importance of history, and the character of the process on which the theory builds (see in detail Sydow
et al., 2020).
Beyond the citation of our article that focused on organizational path dependence, the interest in the
broader field of path research is much wider, even if path dependence is not hastily equated with
“history matters”, but rather conceived as a historically informed process producing organizational,
technological or institutional persistence via self-reinforcement. In this narrower sense as well, path
research is concerned not only with the emergence and maintenance of paths, but also with their
creation, extension, diversification, disruption and dissolution (e.g. Garud & Karnøe, 2001; Garud et
al., 2010; Djelic & Quack, 2007; Meyer & Schubert, 2007; Sydow, Windeler, Schubert, & Möllering,
2012; Isaksen, 2015; Gjelsvik & Aarstad, 2017; Jing & Benner, 2016; Bothello & Salles-Djelic, 2018). All
of these aspects are of course of particular interest, not least to management and organization studies,
and should in the future receive even more scholarly attention.
We are extremely grateful to the German Research Foundation (DFG) for generously funding the
Research Training Group “Pfadkolleg” (GRK 1012) from 2005 to 2014 (https://www.wiwiss.fu-
berlin.de/en/forschung/pfadkolleg/index.html). This group provided the fertile ground for advancing
theoretical and empirical research in collaboration not only with emerging, but also with established
scholars, not only within management and organization studies, but across a broader range of
disciplines as well. Finally, we thank Dr. Carolin Auschra for her help with the analysis of the citation
landscape and, in particular, its visualization.
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