How Organizations Evolve: One University and Its Faceoff on Science

by Jennifer Beck

Colyvas How do institutions transform over time? How do the roles of key players within those organizations evolve? How do policies become entrenched?

These are some of the critical issues that assistant professor Jeannette Colyvas studies. She looks not only inside organizations but also at the larger movements that resonate beyond individual organizations to transform an entire field.

The rapidly evolving world of research science has given Colyvas ample material. She traced the transformation at one university that occurred over a 30-year period as public (academic) science increasingly confronted private (commercial) science. Over this time, the once-precarious pairing not only gained legitimacy but also became desirable and even esteemed. Two trends at the heart of this evolution were the increase in patenting at universities and the rise of technology transfer departments at universities. In today's university, technology transfer departments facilitate the movement of inventions into industry. "This is a really nice case of looking at the introduction and implementation of a new logic into an organization," she says.

Rise in patenting and technology transfer

Colyvas's study of Stanford University from 1970–2000 provided significant findings for understanding the development of academic entrepreneurship. It also offered ways of examining broad-scale organizational change in other important settings. She investigated the process of institutionalization and how change becomes embedded in "the practices, procedures, norms and identities of what we do over time." She explains, "I'm showing how that takes place and why it takes the form that it does."

Jeannette Colyvas As part of her research, Colyvas ventured into scientists' laboratories, examined correspondence and conducted interviews. She collected data on the relationships that developed as public and private science co-mingled. "I have been engaging particularly in looking at what happens in the lab — and how these ideas about being an inventor, patenting, licensing and entrepreneurship have become infused into the university, the laboratories and the relationships among faculty, students and staff," she says.

She found an upsurge in faculty involvement. Faculty scientists became increasingly involved in inventing and patenting, in place of the non-tenure track scientists who had previously been associated with these activities. "Faculty started identifying themselves as inventors," she explains. "They started engaging much more in the details of the technology transfer process." As a result, these faculty scientists were forced to redefine their roles and pioneer new linkages with university and industry.

This new frontier, largely void of established policies and accepted terminology, led scientists to grapple with difficult questions such as what to do with invention-related profits and whether consulting for corporations was appropriate. Practices were tenuous in the early years, often determined on a case-by-case basis. Over time, however, Colyvas found that guidelines were constructed on crucial issues such as conflict-of-interest policies. In addition, standardized routines fell into place, eventually becoming widely accepted and self-reinforcing. The boundaries between public and private science had been redrawn.

Colyvas also noted a trend for key players. Scientists at an earlier career stage, including students and postdoctoral researchers, became more frequently engaged in inventing. This trend suggested acceptance and desirability of the practice. "Basically, you see this as more legitimate. You do it earlier in your career. You do it pre-tenure. You do it before you've even gotten a job," she explains of the trend. Pointing to the overall shift toward inventing at early career stages, she says, "This is, to me, an indicator of this transformation permeating academic science."

Transforming institutions

Now Colyvas has started to explore the implications of this transformation. She wonders whether commercialization could impact the direction of research science and how the professional pursuits of younger scientists might be influenced by their training. "I'm doing research now that is looking at these junior folks," she says. "Do they continue to patent if they got exposed to it in their lab? Do they move into industry as opposed to the academy? Are there meaningful differences?"

Overall, her research connects to the broader context of learning and organizational change. "This has many implications for how new activities and new logics become institutionalized," she explains. "We're very interested in how things spread. We want accountability in schools, or we know that a technology or intervention really works, and we want those things to spread."

She points to two factors that are important for large-scale diffusion: implementation and integration. "You can try to get organizations to do something, but sometimes they do it only partially. They do it symbolically, or they respond in ways that signal they're conforming and doing what they're supposed to but in a meaningful way don't actually implement it. So doing this kind of research pushes the implementation." In addition to tracking how changes are slowly adopted by an organization, Colyvas also explores how they endure and become self-reinforcing. Indeed, she followed how university technology transfer grew into entrepreneurship and became embedded into university procedure. "I'm thinking about how this took the form that it did, how something that spreads or becomes integrated transforms as it is spreading."

Based on her research, Colyvas developed a variety of analytical tools. These include indicators that highlight expectations for early, middle and late stages of organizational change. She hopes the tools will be helpful to people exploring institutional change in other settings. "I want our future producers and consumers of knowledge to have tools to study change and also to make sense of what kind of situation we're in."

Colyvas, who joined the SESP faculty in 2007 after receiving her PhD from Stanford University, is eager to apply her research to organizations such as schools and nonprofits where parallel phenomena exist. For this reason, she found SESP provided an ideal environment for continuing her work.

Photos by Andrew Campbell

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By Jennifer Beck