Sub-theme 40: Building on the Work of Max Boisot: The Knowledge-based Study of Complex Organizations and Systems

Wolfgang H. Güttel
Johannes Kepler University Linz, Austria
Agustí Canals
Universitat Oberta de Catalunya & I-Space Institute, Spain
Martin Ihrig
The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania & I-Space Institute, USA

Call for Papers


This sub-theme was originally designed to gravitate around the strategic governance of learning processes. This was one of the multiple interests that Max Boisot shared with the rest of the initial team of convenors. Tragically, Max passed away last September. We thought that one way of honoring his memory would be to open the sub-theme and extend it to the multiple areas that interested Max as a scholar, thereby giving people who had worked with him or had used his ideas the opportunity to participate. Thus, this EGOS sub-theme is being organized to build on the different facets of Max Boisot's work. Papers should focus on one of the main areas in which Max forged new understanding:

(a) Analyses of the Chinese System

  • M. Boisot & J. Child (1996): "From fiefs to clans and network capitalism: explaining China's emerging economic order", Administrative Science Quarterly, 41 (4), 600–628.
  • M. Boisot, J. Child & G. Redding (2011): "Working the System: Toward a Theory of Cultural and Institutional Competence", International Studies of Management and Organization, 41 (1), 62–95.

(b) Organizational Complexity

  • M. Boisot & J. Child (1999): "Organizations as Adaptive Systems in Complex Environments: The Case of China", Organization Science, 10 (3), 237–252.
  • M. Boisot & B. McKelvey (2007): "Extreme Outcomes, Connectivity, and Power Laws: Towards an Econophysics of Organization", Academy of Management Conference, Philadelphia, PA, August 3–8, 2007.

(c) The Strategic Management of Knowledge

  • M. Boisot & I. MacMillan (2004): "Crossing Epistemological Boundaries: Managerial and Entrepreneurial Approaches to Knowledge Management", Long Range Planning, 37 (6), 505–524.
  • A. Canals, M. Boisot & I. MacMillan (2008): "The spatial dimension of knowledge flows: a simulation approach", Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, 1 (2), 175–204.

(d) Organizations and Big Science

  • M. Boisot & R. Sanchez (2011): "Organization as a Nexus of Rules: Emergence in the Evolution of Systems of Exchange", Management Revue, 21 (4), 378–405.
  • M. Boisot (2011): Generating knowledge in a connected world: The case of the ATLAS experiment at CERN, Management Learning, 42 (4), 447–457.

We have provided a small selection of references for each of the four themes that highlight some of the work Max has done in the field. Interested participants can also consult his book "Knowledge Assets: Securing Competitive Advantage in the Information Economy" (Oxford University Press, 1998).

Of course, papers related to the original topic, governing learning strategically, will also be welcome:


The Governance of Effective Learning Strategies

Large research projects such as ATLAS at CERN operate under conditions of high uncertainty, complexity, and a substantial lack of centralized top-down planning. Collaboration and mutual learning take place in an environment where loose control and vague boundary rules govern behaviors. Expectations and social norms then emerge to create a context that shapes exploratory and exploitative learning processes (March, 1991). While research on ambidexterity focuses on the simultaneous pursuit of both of these learning modes, they differ significantly in terms of intensity (Tushman & O'Reilly, 1996; Gupta et al., 2006).

Yet how the modes emerge, how they need to be configured in order to govern the organization's development path, and how organizational design facilitates strategic learning still remain a largely under-investigated research field. We therefore still lack a robust explanation of how learning processes emerge, how the learning behavior of experts is shaped, and how designed structures and social norms complement each other in the quest to facilitate learning. In short we still lack a well-grounded framework for the governance of learning strategies.

Based on the idea of a social learning cycle (Boisot, 1998), Zollo and Winter (2002) describe the cyclical evolution of organizational knowledge from an evolutionary perspective, one in which the development of a firm's knowledge base passes through stages of exploration and exploitation on their way to being institutionalized. The required learning cycles are often developed through knowledge management projects, conceptualized as a bundle of organizational rules and routines that are explicitly developed to manage the firm's knowledge base (Nelson & Winter, 1982). The density these determines the firm's evolutionary trajectory (March et al., 2000).

Our track further extends and develops our discourse on learning from the 2011 EGOS Colloquium by broadening our focus from the specifics of "big science" projects to the more general issues of the governance of learning behavior in firms. We welcome contributions that investigate how learning routines emerge and develop and how structures – whether designed or evolved – impact the evolutionary development of learning routines. Our focus, broadly described, is on how design and self-organization balance out to explain organizational learning. Given this, we welcome contributions that address one or more of the following questions:

  • How does organizational design (e.g. by implementing knowledge management projects) influence the emergence and evolution of learning processes?
  • How do organizational design and self-organization interact in learning processes?
  • Where do the opportunities and constraints that influence a firm’s learning strategies reside? In particular, how can firms govern their learning processes, and with what consequences?
  • How do different regimes of rules and routines influence the evolution of learning processes? In particular, how might firms accelerate or slow down the pace of learning?


Boisot, M. (1998): Knowledge Assets: Securing Competitive Advantage in the Knowledge Economy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gupta, A.K., K.G. Smith & C.E. Shalley (2006): "The Interplay between Exploration and Exploitation", Academy of Management Journal, 49 (4), 693–706.
March, J.G. (1991): "Exploration and Exploitation in Organizational Learning", Organization Science, 2 (1), 71–87.
March, J.G., M. Schulz & X. Zhou (2000): The Dynamics of Rules: Change in Written Organizational Codes. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Nelson, R.R. & S.G. Winter (1982): An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.
Tushman, M. & C. O'Reilly III (1996): "Ambidextrous organizations: Managing evolutionary and revolutionary change", California Management Review, 38 (4), 8–30.
Zollo, M. & S.G. Winter (2002): "Deliberate Learning and the Evolution of Dynamic Capabilities", Organization Science, 13 (3), 339–351.


Wolfgang H. Güttel Wolfgang H. Güttel is Professor of Human Resource and Change Management at the Johannes Kepler University Linz (AUT). Previously, he was professor at the Universities of Kassel (GER) and Hamburg (GER) and Research Fellow at the Universities of Liverpool (UK) and Padua (ITA). He serves as board members at the European Academy of Management (Special Interest Group: Knowledge and Learning) and at the Strategic Management Society (Interest Group: Strategy Practice). His main research interests are dynamic capabilities, ambidexterity (the relationship between exploratory and exploitative learning) and replication. In particualar, he investigates the relationship between strategy and learning processes. Recently, he organized an EGOS track in 2010 (Lisbon).
Agustí Canals Agustí Canals is Professor of Knowledge Management at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya in Barcelona and head of the KIMO Research Group on Knowledge and Information Management in Organizations. His research interests are in the information management and strategic knowledge management areas. He has published several articles and the book, in Spanish, "Gestión del Conocimiento" ('Knowledge Management'). Recently, he organized an EGOS-track in 2011 (Gothenburg).
Martin Ihrig