I have developed my research trajectory in the field of Organization Theory and have focused on two related questions: (1) how social science (especially economics) affect the design of market institutions and management practices, and (2) the emergence of novel institutions, such as Open Source Software, Sustainability Reporting and Responsible Investing. In addition to these core research projects, I have also published a number of different articles and book chapters on (3) the evolution of global corporate networks and on (4) architectural changes in industries.
1. Economics Language, Assumptions and Performativity
I have studied how economics can shape institutional designs and management practices as well as social norms and expectations about behavior, thereby shaping the behavior they predict. This is the core of two articles published, in collaboration with Jeff Pfeffer and Bob Sutton (Stanford University) in the Academy of Management Review in 2005. In these articles, I suggest three theoretical mechanisms to explain the process through which social science theories can affect the same reality they are studying: institutional design, normative influence, and language framing. I illustrated these ideas by considering how the language and assumptions of economics can shape management practices: theories can “win” in the marketplace for ideas, independent of their empirical validity, to the extent their assumptions and language become taken for granted and normatively valued, therefore creating conditions that make them come “true.”
This work contributed to the development of the performativity perspective which is gaining momentum as a theoretical lens to understand modernity, markets and organizations across all social sciences. Scholars in this field stressed the role of material artifacts in shaping markets and organizations. Equations, financial visualizations, application software, according to this literature, help actors engage in calculative decision-making in the face of uncertainty. According to this perspective, which developed in the field of social studies of science, economists and other social scientists do not just describe markets but provide them with an infrastructure made with their models, their formulas and their calculative devices. Thanks to these devices individuals can successfully operate in markets, and therefore it can be said that economics performs the economy. My work contributed to this debate by providing an integrated view of its theoretical mechanisms, and linking them with institutional theory in sociology and framing theory in social psychology.
In 2009, I published a follow-up article titled “How and Why Theories Matter: a Comment on Felin and Foss” in Organization Science. In this article I expand on the epistemological foundation of our theory, suggest novel scope conditions that limit its applicability, and link my contribution to more recent work in other fields (sociology, social psychology, political science, and economics).
- Ferraro, Fabrizio, Jeffrey Pfeffer, and Robert I Sutton. 2005. “Economics Language and Assumptions How Theories Can Become Self-fulfilling” Academy Of Management Review 30:8-24.
- Ferraro, Fabrizio, Jeffrey Pfeffer, and Robert I Sutton. 2005. “Prescriptions are not enough” Academy of Management Review, 30: 32-35.
- Ferraro, Fabrizio, Jeffrey Pfeffer, and Robert I Sutton. 2009. “How and Why Theories Matter: A Comment on Felin and Foss” Organization Science 20 (3):669-675.
2. Emergence of Novel Institutions and Industries
Understanding how novel institutions emerge and consolidate is the core question at the basis of my work on open source software communities, sustainability reporting, and responsible investing. In this stream of work I focused on understanding the mechanisms explaining the emergence of novel practices, organizations and institutions: basis of authority, membership and boundary formation, analogies, and collaboration. Methodologically this work ranged from in-depth ethnographic fieldwork, to content analysis and social network analysis.
2.a Open Source Software Community
Together with Siobhan O’Mahony (Boston University), I have been studying the Open Source Software community Debian for a number of years and explored how their members developed a shared basis of formal authority but limited it with democratic mechanisms that enabled experimentation with shifting conceptions of authority over time. When members settled on a shared conception of authority, it was more expansive than their original design. By blending bureaucratic and democratic mechanisms, the governance system evolved with the community’s changing conceptions of authority (O’Mahony and Ferraro, 2005).
We also studied another essential process of the emergence of formal organizational structure: the development of a membership process. We examined the project’s face-to-face social network during a five-year period (1997-2002) to see how changes in the social structure affect the evolution of membership mechanisms and the determination of gatekeepers (Ferraro and O’Mahony, 2012).
With Jordi Torrents, we studied the network structure of collaborative communities with a structural cohesion approach. In our work we identify the structural characteristics of collaborative communities, and empirically test our theory with a longitudinal analysis of the Debian Community. Finally, we developed a novel algorithm to compute structural cohesion, which might help researchers overcome the computational barrier that prevented wider use of this concept.
- O’Mahony, Siobhan, and Fabrizio Ferraro. 2007. “The emergence of governance in an open source community” Academy of Management Journal 50:1079-1106.
- Ferraro, Fabrizio, and Siobhan O´Mahony. 2012. “Managing the boundaries of an ‘Open’ project” In Padgett, John and Walter Powell, The Emergence of Organizations and Markets. Princeton University Press.
Work in progress:
- The network structure of collaborative communities: a structural cohesion approach (co-authored with Jordi Torrents)
Abstract: Collaborative communities have emerged in the last few decades in a variety of knowledge intensive occupations and organizations. Previous research has explored the role of trust, governance rules and identity in the emergence and development of these novel organizational forms. We suggest that a structural approach to the social networks created among producers in collaborative communities might help better specify the underlying network structure that characterize such communities. We explore the evolution of the Debian Open Source Software community and compare two models to characterize its collaboration network: small world and structural cohesion. Drawing on the theoretical stream of collaborative communities and on insights derived from the empirical analysis, we hypothesize that the network structure of collaborative communities is characterized by high levels of both local and global cohesion. This network structure enables the generation and development of trust among produces, which is the main coordination mechanism of the community principle of social organization.
- Structural Cohesion: a theoretical extension and a fast approximation algorithm (co-authored with Jordi Torrents)
Abstract: The structural cohesion model (White and Harary, 2001; Moody and White, 2003) is a powerful theoretical conception of cohesion in social groups, which is defined as the minimal number of actors that need to be removed to disconnect it. In this paper we extend the model by using average node connectivity, in addition to node connectivity, to formalize cohesion. We also present an approximation algorithm to compute it for moderately large networks in a reasonable time frame. This approach makes it possible to analyze cohesion in large bipartite networks. We tested our algorithm in four different collaboration networks and show that previous results obtained on one-mode projections of collaboration networks might be biased, as the recent literature on bipartite networks suggests. Thus we show that our approximation algorithm can provide acceptable measures of structural cohesion in large networks.
- Small world model and bipartite networks (co-authored with Jordi Torrents)
Abstract: In the development of the research on the structure of collaborative communities, we found that traditional procedures used to deal with affiliation networks yield inaccurate results regarding measures of local cohesion. The usual practice when an analyst is dealing with an affiliation or 2-mode network is to perform the 1-mode projection in order to be able to apply well known measures. The analysis is usually performed only on one side, the one that is considered more relevant in terms of the substantive analysis performed. However, there is an important loss of relevant information in this process and a growing literature on measurement techniques that can be applied directly to affiliation networks. Using data from published studies on collaboration networks and board interlocks, we illustrate the impact of the loss of information of the traditional approach, showing that inferences about local cohesion can be misleading if we do not take into account the underlying bipartite structure of the original affiliation networks. These results are specially relevant for the growing literature on small world models for collaborative activities (such as co-authoring relationship among scientists) because those networks are usually modeled as affiliation networks but analyzed only in terms of their 1-mode projection.
2.b Emergence and Diffusion of Sustainability Reporting: The Global Reporting Initiative
Together with Dror Etzion (Mc Gill University), we studied the early stages of institutionalization of the Global Reporting Initiative, the dominant framework for sustainability reporting. We found out that the analogy with financial reporting played a key role in the emergence of this novel institution, and studied how the analogy was employed differently overtime, and link its role to the processes of design and diffusion of the novel institution. We show that analogies with more established institutions can be used to bring more legitimacy to the fledgling novel institution in the early stage of the process, and then later on to stress differences between the existing institution and the novel one.
- Etzion, Dror, and Fabrizio Ferraro. 2010. “The Role of Analogy in the Institutionalization of Sustainability Reporting” Organization Science 21 (5): 1092–110.
Work in progress:
- Pragmatically Rational: Robust Action and Large-Scale Social Challenges (co-authored with Dror Etzion).
Abstract: Although appealing to our common sense and daily experience of organizing, we suggest that a rational planning approach may not to be the most effective for addressing large scale, complex challenges – often coined “wicked problems” – such as poverty and climate change. Fundamentally, wicked problems are characterized by analytical intractability, thereby limiting the effectiveness of rational planning. Consequently, meaningful progress on large scale social challenges may be incompatible, both in theory and in practice, with a planning approach that emphasizes ex-ante rationality, clearly articulated long term goals and efficient coordination of effort. In this paper, we propose an alternative approach to addressing large scale social challenges, based upon the concept of robust action. Robust action emphasizes multi-vocal rhetoric and ambiguity, and thrives upon participatory governance and diverse networks to establish conditions which can lead to large scale change. We outline a research agenda that examines the contexts and scope conditions that delineate arenas in which robust action can successfully address large scale social challenges.
2.c Responsible Investing
Supported by a five-year grant of the European Research Council (ERC) (2011-2015), my research project “The role of technology, models and metrics in the socially responsible investing field – SRITECH” aims to study how institutional investors, asset managers, and the whole financial sector gradually integrates environmental, social and governance factors in their investment process. The project is articulated in a number of studies focused on the design of novel technological and data infrastructure for responsible investing, the emergence of novel investing practices, and finally the role of shareholder engagement in the process.
I have also developed a related stream of research on opinion formation in financial markets, to better understand how beliefs are formed in financial markets. In this work, together with Matteo Prato, we develop a theory of conformity and deviance among securities analysts and contribute to the debate on the role of status in the process.
Work in progress:
- The Voice of the Market: Conformity and Deviance Among Securities Analysts (co-authored with Matteo Prato)
Abstract: Sociological approaches to the market posit that market actors solve evaluative uncertainty by following the opinions of others. These approaches assume that the “voice of the market” formed by these opinions always provides clear, unambiguous guidance to focal actors. This paper starts from the premise that the voice of the market is not always univocal, and asks how the distribution of opinions on an issue affects the propensity to conform or deviate. We represent the voice of the market as the full topology of opinions focal actors observe, and represent it with two dimensions: loudness (the number of opinions expressed) and accord (the degree of agreement across the opinions expressed). We hypothesize that up to a certain level of loudness, accord increases actors’ propensity to conform. But as conformity plants the seeds of deviance we expect that beyond a certain threshold of loudness, accord increases actors´ propensity to deviate. We test our theory with a dataset of all US securities analysts from November 1995–September 2006.
- Understanding Voice: Mechanisms of Influence in Shareholder Engagement (co-authored with Daniel Beunza)
Abstract: While contentious tactics provide activists with a credible way to threaten corporate reputation, their extra-institutional nature is arguably less effective in fostering dialogue. This limits their effectiveness as a vehicle for what Hirschman called voice, namely, for helping corporations learn from deteriorating performance. Our study of so-called “shareholder engagement” points to an alternative form of influence. Our qualitative analysis of a leading American coalition of faith-based investors examines how its members file resolutions and conduct corporate dialogues to advance social and environmental issues. First, it highlights their ability to formulate emerging moral issues and their business implications; and second, their efforts at sensitizing corporations by influencing the internal corporate debate, simultaneously signaling loyalty and standing for what they believe. These two mechanisms give shareholders a moral voice that complements the contentious tactics used by other activists
- Consequences of Shareholders’ Engagement on Financial Markets (co-authored with Matteo Prato)
- Voicing Status: When High-Status Actors Conform? (Co-authored with Matteo Prato)
3. Global Corporate Networks
Together with Erica Salvaj, we studied Board Interlocks in Spain, finding that recently privatized companies play an important role in the Spanish Corporate Networks, and family firms play a marginal role in this network.
I have also been involved in an International research project led by Prof. Bruce Kogut (Columbia University), on comparative governance regimes in 45 countries. Using a subset of this data, I co-authored a book chapter on the evolution of corporate control in Europe, comparing the trajectories of Spain, Italy, France, and Germany during the 1990s.
- Salvaj, Erica; Ferraro, Fabrizio; Tapies, Josep. 2008. “Family Firms and the Contingent Value of Board Interlocks: the Spanish Case” In Family Values and Value Creation: How do Family Owned Businesses foster enduring values. Edited by Josep Tapies and John Ward. Palgrave 2008.
- Salvaj, Erica, and Fabrizio Ferraro, 2005. “Las Redes de Propiedad y de Consejos de Administración del IBEX 35” in Alvarez, JL, Gifrà, J y Ricart, JE, Los accionistas y el gobierno de la empresa: Análisis de la situación Española, Ediciones Deusto.
- Ferraro, Fabrizio, Raffaele Corrado, Gerhard Schnyder, Eelke M. Heemskerk, and Nathalie Del Vecchio. 2012. “Structural Breaks and Governance Networks in Western Europe” In Kogut, Bruce (ed.) The Small World of Corporate Governance. MIT Press.
4. Industry Evolution in the Motion Picture Industry
The emergence of novel industry architectures is the focus of my study of the evolution of the movie industry in the United States. In the paper “Building Architectural Advantage in the US Motion Picture Industry: Lew Wasserman and the Music Corporation of America,” co-authored with Kerem Gurses, we use an historical case study on Lew Wasserman and the Music Corporation of America, to develop a theory of the emergence of novel industry architecture. We show how the new architecture was the result of the interaction of the Studios’ actions, constrained by the institutional logic of the industry and by the regulatory framework, and Lew Wasserman’s introduction of novel industry practices (profit-sharing and packaging) which both consolidate his grip on talents and facilitate the growth of independent production and TV production.
- Ferraro, Fabrizio and Gurses, K. 2009 “Building Architectural Advantage in the US Motion Picture Industry: Lew Wasserman and the Music Corporation of America” European Management Review, 6: 233-249.
- Ferraro, Fabrizio. 2010. “Shaping an Industry in Your Favor“, IESE Insight, Issue 4: 30-37.