Sub-theme 23: Digital Technologies and Institutional Theory: Opportunities and Challenges

Thomas Gegenhuber
Leuphana University Lüneburg, Germany, & Johannes Kepler University Linz, Austria
C.R. (Bob) Hinings
University of Calgary, Canada
Danielle Logue
University of Technology, Sydney

Call for Papers

Digitally-enabled institutional arrangements, such as new organizational forms, are increasingly changing the rules of the game in many industries and fields. Consider the following examples: Platforms, such as TripAdvisor, restructured entire evaluation systems in the tourism industry – moving from an expert-based model (based on an episodic, standardized review by professionals) to a crowd-based model, that is continuously harnessing and aggregating consumer’s evaluations (Orlikowski & Scott, 2014). Despite meeting resistance by regulators, Uber and AirBnB gained legitimacy for disrupting, disintermediating and reconfiguring the delivery of taxi and accommodation services (Bauer & Gegenhuber, 2015; Cusumano et al., 2019; Mair & Reischauer, 2017). Organizations in the diamond industry have begun to mobilize support for a transparent, blockchain-based model of tracking diamonds from production to end-consumer in order to weed out conflict diamonds (Iansiti & Lakhani, 2017; Seidel, 2018).
Although lagging behind other research fields, such as information systems research or the technology and innovation management literature, institutional theorists are increasingly attentive to the role and impact of digitalization (Davis, 2016; Deephouse et al., 2017; Hinings et al., 2018; Hinings & Meyer, 2018; Powell et al., 2016). There is no doubt that digitally-enabled institutional arrangements permeate and reshape industries and fields, challenging power structures and meaning systems. This presents a significant opportunity for institutional theorists to probe further into how actors leveraging digital technologies can transform the very ways in which institutions are created, complemented, threatened or destroyed. For instance, Powell et al. (2016) demonstrate how actors use social media technologies in the early stages of institutionalization processes. These technologies aid ventures, bloggers or activists alike to introduce novel ideas into a field by circumventing traditional stakeholders, reaching large audiences and making their ideas understandable and easily adoptable (see also Gegenhuber & Dobusch, 2017; Hannigan et al., 2018).
In a similar vein, the cultural entrepreneurship literature (Lounsbury & Glynn, 2019) began to examine how ventures using a digital platform, such as crowdfunding, results in legitimacy spillovers (i.e., individual outcomes encourage or discourage audiences to support similar projects; Soublière & Gehman, 2019) as well as in open negotiation of appropriate norms driving ventures’ actions (Gegenhuber & Naderer, 2019). Etter and colleagues (2017) make the case that social media plays a critical role in the formation of social judgments, resulting, however, in increasingly fragmented and multi-vocal audience judgments (see also Glozer et al., 2018). Conversely, however, Kornberger and colleagues (2017) indicate that rating mechanisms in various platforms fuel homogenized social evaluations. Lindebaum, Vessa and den Hond (2019) also suggest the need for further theorising on the rapid rise and implications of algorithmic decision making in organizations and for organizational studies more broadly.
Using this emerging work as a vantage point, we envisage this sub-theme as an invitation to explore the interplay of novel digital technologies and institutional processes, including processes of institutional emergence, change, institutionalization and de-institutionalization. We see this as encompassing new, platform-based organizations that disrupt existing institutional processes (e.g., Uber, Spotify, TripAdvisor); organizations that are well established in digital innovation and thus are part of ongoing institutional processes (e.g., Amazon, Google; Microsoft); and organizations within established fields that are subject to digital innovation and are dealing with changing institutional processes (e.g., banks, telecommunications, retail) (Davis, 2017; Hinings et al., 2018).
We therefore call for empirical (qualitative, quantitative, mixed-methods) or conceptual papers addressing the ‘digitalization of institutional theory’, encouraging different levels of analysis and inviting papers that make integrative and innovative contributions to a range of topics and themes, such as:

Institutionalization mechanisms and processes

Novel digitally-enabled institutional arrangements, that is a bundle of legitimate practices, values and actor constellations intertwined with digital technologies, may rearrange institutionalization mechanisms such as inter-organizational monitoring (e.g., Tolbert & Zucker, 1996), theorization (e.g., Strang & Meyer, 1993), and interest group advocacy or resistance (e.g., Lounsbury, 2001). This raises the question:

  • How do novel digital institutional arrangements based on technologies such as social media, blockchain, artificial intelligence, or algorithms, reconfigure institutionalization mechanisms and processes?

  • For instance, how does leveraging social media affect (de-)legitimation processes of a new venture?

  • How does the interplay of ‘new’ arrangements (e.g., social media) and ‘old’ institutional arrangements (e.g., traditional media) mediate these processes?


Emergence of novel actors and agency

Corporations, such as Apple, Amazon, Google/Alphabet, and Facebook, are powerful actors providing and controlling critical infrastructure of a digital economy (Cutolo & Kenney, 2019; Srnicek, 2017; Zuboff, 2015). It is in these infrastructures in which many processes of institutionalization take place.

  • Hence, how does their infrastructure impact institutionalization processes?

  • How do these actors make use of their dominant positions to affect these?

Another aspect is that institutional theory posits that professions such as law or medicine are critical arbiters in enacting institutional arrangements. For instance:

  • What does artificial intelligence mean for the boundaries and positioning of traditional professions (Barrett et al., 2012)?

  • Who are the arbiters in a digital economy (e.g., (data)analysts, programmers)?

  • What new logics or values does certain digital infrastructure infuse, embed or reinforce in organizations (Berente & Yoo, 2012)?

Relatedly, and building on the rich literature of socio-materiality (Leonardi & Barley, 2010; Orlikowski & Scott, 2008):

  • How can we account for the emergence of new (artificial) actors or the displacement of other actors by artificial intelligence?

  • And furthermore, how can we theorise artificial agency in institutional contexts?


Fields and their infrastructures

Fields (exchange or issue fields) and their respective field infrastructures are essential in understanding the emergence and diffusion of novel institutional arrangements (Zietsma et al., 2017; Hinings et al., 2017). New organizational forms, such as digital platforms and their ecosystems, often seek to become arbiter of a subfield within a field (e.g. Apple and Android within the mobile phone industry).

  • How can an understanding of fields inform understandings of digital platform ecosystems (Jacobides et al., 2018; Ozalp et al., 2018)?

Digital platforms also enable more loosely coupled forms of cross-field collaboration, or emerge at the intersections of fields or between fields, intermediating in different ways to traditional boundary organizations (Randhawa et al., 2017). They may be used to pursue a range of goals, both for-profit and for the production of social good (Logue & Grimes, 2018). Research, thus, may ask:

  • How novel digital institutional arrangements change the way how we understand negotiation processes within fields, and the interaction and mutual dependence between and across fields and subfields (Furnari, 2016)?

This sub-theme forms the basis for developing submissions for a forthcoming volume in Research in the Sociology of Organizations on “Digital transformation and institutional theorizing: Consequences, opportunities and challenges”, scheduled for publication in 2021.



  • Barrett, M., Oborn, E., Orlikowski, W.J., & Yates, J. (2012): “Reconfiguring Boundary Relations: Robotic Innovations in Pharmacy Work.” Organization Science, 23 (5), 1448–1466.
  • Bauer, R.M., & Gegenhuber, T. (2015): “Crowdsourcing: Global search and the twisted roles of consumers and producers.” Organization, 22 (5), 661–681
  • Berente, N., & Yoo, Y. (2012): “Institutional Contradictions and Loose Coupling: Postimplementation of NASA’s Enterprise Information System.” Information Systems Research, 23 (2), 376–396.
  • Cusumano, M., Gawer, A., & Yoffie, D. (2019): The Business of Platforms: Strategy in the Age of Digital Competition, Innovation and Power. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.
  • Cutolo, D., & Kenney, M. (2019): Playing in God’s Garden: Dependent Entrepreneurs in the Platform Economy. BRIE Working Paper 2019-3. Berkeley: University of California;
  • Etter, M., Ravasi, D., & Colleoni, E. (2019): “Social Media and the Formation of Organizational Reputation.” Academy of Management Review, 44 (1), 28–52.
  • Davis, G.F. (2016): “Can an Economy Survive Without Corporations? Technology and Robust Organizational Alternatives.” Academy of Management Perspectives, 30 (2), 129–140.
  • Davis, G.F. (2017): “Organization Theory and the Dilemmas of a Post-Corporate Economy.” Research in the Sociology of Organizations, 48, 311–323.
  • Deephouse, D.L., Bundy, J., Plunkett Tost, L.P., & Suchman, M.C. (2017): “Organizational Legitimacy: Six Key Questions.” In: R. Greenwood, C. Oliver, T.B. Lawrence & R.E. Meyer (eds.): The SAGE Handbook of Organizational Institutionalism. London: SAGE Publications, ch. 1.
  • Gegenhuber, T., & Dobusch, L. (2017): “Making an Impression through Openness: How Open Strategy-Making Practices Change in the Evolution of New Ventures.” Long Range Planning, 50 (3), 337–354.
  • Gegenhuber, T., & Naderer, S. (2019): “When the petting zoo spawns into monsters: open dialogue and a venture’s legitimacy quest in crowdfunding.” Innovation: Organization & Management, 29 (1), 151–186.
  • Glozer, S., Caruana, R., & Hibbert, S.A. (2018): “The Never-Ending Story: Discursive Legitimation in Social Media Dialogue.” Organization Studies, 40 (5), 625–650.
  • Furnari, S. (2016): “Institutional fields as linked arenas: Inter-field resource dependence, institutional work and institutional change.” Human Relations, 69 (3), 551–580.
  • Hannigan, T.R., Seidel, V.P., & Yakis-Douglas, B. (2018): “Product Innovation Rumors as Forms of Open Innovation.” Research Policy, 47 (5), 953–964.
  • Hinings, C.R. (Bob), Logue, D., & Zietsma, C. (2017): “Fields, Institutional Infrastructure and Governance.” In: R. Greenwood, C. Oliver, T.B. Lawrence & R.E. Meyer (eds.): The SAGE Handbook of Organizational Institutionalism. London: SAGE Publications, ch. 6.
  • Hinings, C.R. (Bob), Gegenhuber, T., & Greenwood, R. (2018): “Digital innovation and transformation: An institutional perspective.” Information and Organization, 28 (1), 52–61.
  • Hinings, C.R. (Bob), & Meyer, R.E. (2018): Starting Points. Intellectual and Institutional Foundations of Organization Theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Iansiti, M., & Lakhani, K.R. (2017): “The Truth About Blockchain.” Harvard Business Review, January–February, 3–11.
  • Jacobides, M.G., Cennamo, C., & Gawer, A. (2018): “Towards a theory of ecosystems.” Strategic Management Journal, 39 (8), 2255–2276.
  • Kornberger, M., Pflueger, D., & Mouritsen, J. (2017): Evaluative infrastructures: Accounting for platform organization.” Accounting, Organizations and Society, 60, 79–95.
  • Lindebaum, D., Vessa, M., & den Hond, F. (2019): “Insights from the machine stops to better understand rational assumptions in algorithmic decision-making and its implications for organizations.” Academy of Management Review; first published online on May 8, 2019:
  • Leonardi, P.M., & Barley, S.R. (2010): “What’s Under Construction Here? Social Action, Materiality, and Power in Constructivist Studies of Technology and Organizing.” Academy of Management Annals, 4 (1), 1–51.
  • Logue, D., & Grimes, M. (2018): “Platforms for the people: Enabling civic-crowdfunding through the cultivation of institutional infrastructure.” Working paper.
  • Lounsbury, M. (2001): “Institutional Sources of Practice Variation: Staffing College and University Recycling Programs.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 46 (1), 29–56.
  • Lounsbury, M., & Glynn, M.A. (2019): Cultural Entrepreneurship. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Mair, J., & Reischauer, G. (2017): “Capturing the dynamics of the sharing economy: Institutional research on the plural forms and practices of sharing economy organizations.” Technological Forecasting & Social Change, 125 (C), 11–20.
  • Orlikowski, W.J., & Scott, S.V. (2008): “Sociomateriality: Challenging the Separation of Technology, Work and Organization.” Academy of Management Annals, 2 (1), 433–474.
  • Orlikowski, W.J., & Scott, S.V. (2014): “What Happens When Evaluation Goes Online? Exploring Apparatuses of Valuation in the Travel Sector.” Organization Science, 25 (3), 868–891.
  • Ozalp, H., Cennamo, C., & Gawer, A. (2018): “Disruption in Platform-­‐‑Based Ecosystems.” Journal of Management Studies, 55 (7), 1203–1241.
  • Powell, W.W., Oberg, A., Korff, V., Oelberger, C., & Kloos, K. (2016): “Institutional analysis in a digital era: mechanisms and methods to understand emerging fields.” In: G. Krücken, C. Mazza, R.E. Meyer & P. Walgenbach (eds.): New Themes in Institutional Analysis. Topics and Issues from European Research. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 305–344.
  • Randhawa, K., Josserand, E., Schweitzer, J., & Logue, D. (2017): “Knowledge collaboration between organizations and online communities: the role of open innovation intermediaries.” Journal of Knowledge Management, 21 (6), 1293–1318.
  • Seidel, M.-D. L. (2018): “Questioning Centralized Organizations in a Time of Distributed Trust.” Journal of Management Inquiry, 27 (1), 40–44.
  • Soublière, J.-F., & Gehman, J. (2019): “The Legitimacy Threshold Revisited: How Prior Successes and Failures Spill Over to Other Endeavors on Kickstarter.” Academy of Management Journal; first published online on March 25, 2019:
  • Srnicek, N. (2017): Platform Capitalism. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

  • Strang, D., & Meyer, J.W. (1993): “Institutional conditions for diffusion.” Theory and Society, 22 (4), 487–511.
  • Tolbert, P.S., & Zucker, L.G. (1996): “The Institutionalization of Institutional Theory.” In: S.R. Clegg, C. Hardy & W. Nord (eds.): Handbook of Organization Studies. London: SAGE Publications, 175–190.
  • Zietsma, C., Groenewgen, P., Logue, D., & Hinings, C.R. (Bob) (2017): “Field or Fields? Building the Scaffolding for Cumulation of Research on Institutional Fields.” Academy of Management Annals, 11 (1), 1–95.
  • Zuboff, S. (2015): “Big other: Surveillance capitalism and the prospects of an information civilization.” Journal of Information Technology, 30 (1), 75–89.
Thomas Gegenhuber is Junior Professor of Business Management, in particular of Digital Transformation, at Leuphana University Lüneburg, Germany, and researcher at Johannes Kepler University Linz, Austria. Under the umbrella of digital transformation, Thomas researches novel forms of organizing, crowdsourcing, various types of openness (open strategy, open innovation, and open government), and (cultural) entrepreneurship in a digital economy. His work appears in international journals such as ‘Long Range Planning’, ‘Business & Society’, ‘Information & Organization’, ‘Innovation: Organization & Management’, and ‘Government Information Quarterly’.
C.R. (Bob) Hinings is Professor Emeritus at the Alberta University School of Business, Canada; a Senior Research Mentor at the School of Business, University of Calgary, Haskayne, Canada; a Fellow of Cambridge Digital Innovation; and an Honorary Research Fellow at the Judge School of Business, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, a Fellow of the US Academy of Management, and an EGOS Honorary Member. Bob’s research interests are in organizational change and institutional theory.
Danielle Logue is Associate Professor of Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Management at University of Technology Sydney, Australia. Her research draws from a broad base of institutional theory, in exploring the diffusion and theorisation of innovations within and across organizational fields and markets. Danielle has published in ‘Academy of Management Annals’, ‘Human Relations’, ‘Journal of Management Inquiry’, ‘Organization Studies’, and others. She serves on the Editorial Board of ‘Journal of Management Inquiry’.