My broader research focuses on understanding mechanisms and processes to facilitate effective cross-boundary coordination within organizations, markets, and ecosystems. 

I. Truce Structures: Cross-Boundary Coordination among Professional Groups in Organizations

One stream of my research, which is part of my dissertation, is motivated by the challenges of facilitating cross-boundary coordination among professional groups in organizations during periods of technological change. I examine this phenomenon through a 24-month ethnography (supplemented with historical and quantitative analysis) of 911 emergency management organizations. The dissertation comprises three separate essays: 

In the first essay, I focus on the history of jurisdictional disputes between police officers and fire fighters in the United States and describe how such disputes turned into protracted jurisdictional conflicts following a mandate to establish 911 as the “nationwide emergency number.”  My findings articulate the importance of what I am calling “truce structures” — specific role-structures and organizational forms — that are intended to minimize the protracted jurisdictional conflicts among symmetrical professions (such as police officers and fire fighters). Truce role-structures serve to absorb the contested tasks and insulate the competing professions from those tasks, while truce organizational forms provide the resources for workers in new roles to enact formal authority. The coevolution of truce role-structure and organizational form resulted in the emergence of a specific truce profession – the 911 Public Safety Telecommunicators (PST), also referred to as the 911 call-takers and 911 dispatchers. I further provide counterfactual evidence from 3 comparative sites to specify the conditions that are needed for the emergence of PSTs: (a) hiring new civilian employees who were neither part of the police or the fire department, and; (b) establishing a new organizational unit that is physically separate from the police or the fire department’s headquarters. My findings here and the articulation of the concept of truce structures can be analytically valuable in other contexts, such as pre-sales engineers in software services firms, patient healthcare advocates in hospitals, and development executives in creative industries.  

In the second essay, I highlight how and why truce professions are characterized by relatively lower professional status over the focal professions (in this case, police officers and fire fighters) even though they have higher formal authority. Existing theory on cross-professional coordination would predict that coordination will most likely fail in such contexts when: (a) there are limited avenues available for the lower-status profession to perform scut work and generate relational authority (Huising, 2015); (b) there is no scope for face-to-face social interactions between the coordinating professions (Crampton and Hinds, 2005), and; (c) there are limited cross-cutting demographics between the coordinating professions (DiBenigno and Kellogg, 2014). However, in my empirical setting, where I examine cross-professional coordination between the 911 PSTs (who are civilians, 85% of them are women, and from minority communities) and police officers (who are “sworn” officers and majority of them are men), I found that despite the asymmetries in status and authority, the disadvantages of demographic distance, and lack of face-to-face social interactions, some PSTs were able to effectively enact cross-professional coordination with the police officers than others. Conducting within-shift comparisons of ~4850 coordination encounters between PSTs and police officers, I identify a set of practices that PSTs enact during their remote coordination encounters with the higher-status police officers. I found that while the “escalatory practices” [e.g., reporting a noncompliant, unresponsive, or bullying police officer to a supervising sergeant] and “personalization practices” [e.g., personalizing the 911 call-dispatch process as per the needs and preferences of the individual police officer] led to subpar outcomes, the “public knowledge” practices that the PSTs enact resulted in more effective coordination outcomes. Through the public knowledge practices, PSTs control the common information spaces – the open-broadcast police radio channel – to steer self-disciplining and voluntary compliance among police officers, and in the process facilitate effective cross-professional coordination.

In the third essay of the dissertation, I focus on the accountability challenges that truce professions are confronted with due to the public’s increasing use of smartphones and social media. While existing theory predicts that the public’s use of smartphones and social media to report the issues they might have about an organization should increase organizational accountability, in my empirical setting I find that the public’s usage of such technologies can also worsen accountability. Findings suggest that in organizational contexts that call for complex, interdependent coordination, and when the work of the truce professionals (i.e., 911 call-takers) initiating the coordination process involve significant discretionary decision-making, public's use of smartphones and social media as vehicles to voice their issues and complaints about an organization can paradoxically worsen organizational accountability. I unpack why this is the case through elaborating on the underlying mechanisms - truce professional’s increased risk-aversion, changing role-identities, strained role-relations, and resource-lock-up - and explaining how these mechanisms create a vicious cycle of coordination that result in worse accountability outcomes.

These dynamics also temporally hinder the police officers from participating in initiatives such as “community policing” and “walk-and-talk” programs that are aimed at relationally re-embedding law enforcement professionals into their local communities, and have also shaped the development of a “customer service rhetoric” within this profession, where "the public" in need of help is reframed as “the customer” who is requesting a service, and where the meaning of emergency in the digital age is contested and reconfigured in an ongoing manner.

Finally, I compare the role-assignment practices at two structurally similar emergency management organizations delineate the importance of role-rotation in breaking the aforementioned vicious cycle. At one of the organizations, the middle-managers recognized this problem of 911 call-takers becoming risk-averse, and they tried an intervention of role-rotation within a shift – where the 911 call-takers worked half of their shift as 911 dispatchers, and vice-versa. The role-rotation practice decreased risk-aversion because (1) the 911 call-takers, when they worked one half of their shift as a 911 dispatcher, experienced the consequences of their risk-aversion and over-coding of incoming calls as legitimate emergencies; (2) role-rotation decentered their individual role-identities as a 911 call-taker or a 911 dispatcher, and instead strengthened their superordinate professional identity as a public safety telecommunicator.

This research contributes to our understanding of changing dynamics of organizational accountability in the wake of public’s use of smartphones and social media. First, this study identifies the chain of unintended consequences that emerge as external monitoring and reporting intensify in the age of smartphones and social media. Second, this study makes a distinction between internal (or managerial) and external (or public) loci of accountability, and examines why the external locus of accountability - created in part due to public’s use of technology-based reporting tools such as smartphones and social media - is marked with significant uncertainty concerning when one is held to account and to whom. The study also elaborates upon the notion of “paradox of accountability” – where the very external pressures for accountability, expressed and broadcasted by the public through social media, can inadvertently dampen cross-professional coordination, strain role-relations, and worsen organizational accountability. Finally, the study shows the importance of role-rotation in overcoming some of the above challenges, especially in minimizing risk-aversion, decentering role-based identity, and creating an overarching sense of professional identity. This research also contributes to the broader conversation on organizational reforms in the emergency management and criminal justice domains by highlighting the value in examining how the nature and structure of emergency work have significantly changed over the past decade, in part due to external technological changes.

II. Cross-boundary Coordination in Ecosystems

My second stream of research examined cross-boundary coordination in platform-based ecosystems. Drawing on an 18-month field study of a cloud computing platform, its customers, and ecosystem of app developers, I examined the coordination challenges confronted by firms during their transition from a product-based to a platform-based business. One of the papers from this project (“In Cloud We Trust? Normalization of Uncertainties in Online Platform Services," Under Review at Organization Science) examines the uncertainties that emerge during the organizational adoption of novel digital technologies such as cloud computing platforms, how cloud platform provider firms “normalize” these uncertainties in practice, and with what governance implications. First, I describe the dimensions of uncertainties associated with the platform (privacy, security, flexibility, capacity, responsiveness, innovativeness) and the platform provider (trustworthiness, credibility). I then identify four mechanisms that the platform provider enacts — controlling through code, performing algorithmic governance, producing trust rhetoric and establishing trust indicators — to remotely coordinate with customers and manage the uncertainties. The first two mechanisms constitute platform work, while the latter two constitute trust work. Together, platform and trust work reconfigure the “arena of uncertainty” through a process of normalization, in which (a) certain dimensions of uncertainty that are unpredictable and/or cannot be managed well (e.g., responsiveness, privacy) by Sigma are downplayed, while other dimensions of uncertainty that Sigma can effectively control (e.g., security, flexibility) are emphasized; (b) value-laden “matters of concern” are objectivized into “matters of fact” through metrics, visual indicators, and algorithms. This study shows how platform firms, through a process of normalization, can coordinate with a distributed customer base and reconfigure the arena of uncertainty to their advantage. Such a normalization approach to managing uncertainties sensitizes us to view uncertainties not as static and fixed, but instead, as contingent, dynamic, and ongoing accomplishments that produce significant consequences for governing inter-organizational relationships. 

Another paper in this stream of research (“Boundaries, Breaches, and  Bridges: The Case of Climategate,” co-authored with Raghu Garud and Joel Gehman; published in Research Policy) examined how scandals that unfold through social media affect not just the credibility of the associated professionals, but also pollute the entire professional ecosystem. We examined the incident known as “Climategate” in which emails relating to climate scientists and their work were illegitimately accessed and posted to the Internet. The contents of the files prompted questions about the credibility of climate science and the legitimacy of some of the climate scientists’ practices. Multiple investigations unfolded to repair the boundary that had been breached. While exonerating the scientists of wrongdoing and endorsing the legitimacy of the consensus opinion on climate change, the investigating committees suggested revisions to some scientific practices. Despite this boundary repair work, the credibility and legitimacy of the scientific enterprise were not fully restored in the eyes of several stakeholders. We explore why this is the case, elaborate upon the practices that professional communities can follow to bridge the boundary that has been breached – of what we refer to as “boundary bridging” practices – and reestablish their collective credibility.

Across all my work, I seek to understand cross-boundary coordination in the wake of technological changes that produce significant professional- and organizational- consequences. I plan to continue this line of work to examine the various facets of cross-boundary coordination in organizations and ecosystems. For example, one of my research projects (that I plan to continue after completing my dissertation research) is aimed at examining reconfigurations to cross-boundary coordination when predictive analytics platforms are introduced into the workplace, and when data scientists are hired and expected to coordinate with HR executives, marketing managers, and IT analysts.  

Specifically, I ask the following questions: (1) How does the organizational adoption of predictive analytics shape knowledge production and with what consequences for cross-professional coordination? (2) How does the resulting knowledge produced shape (or not) organizational accountability? Findings shed light on the different “regimes of quantification” that these organizations have historically traversed, how each of these quantification regimes produced varied kinds of knowledge (e.g., descriptive, inferential, algorithmic) – distinct in their type, structure, and granularity – and together how these shaped professional jurisdictions and reconfigured organizational accountability.

I am highly collaborative and actively pursue joint-projects that are aimed at examining various facets of digital technologies and its impact on professions and organizations. For instance, with Professor Raghu Garud and colleagues, I am exploring changes to innovation- and coordination- processes within firms with the advent of new digital tools and techniques (such as rapid prototyping, A/B testing). One of the papers explores how firms can foster identity-challenging innovations via participative experimentation through examining the longitudinal case of Google’s Gmail and AdSense (forthcoming in Strategic Organization). 

I have also co-organized symposiums (such as the AOM’2017 symposium on “Occupational Reactions in the Wake of Technological Shifts”), AOM’ 2016 symposium on “Analytics at Work”) and conferences (e.g., Boston Field Researchers Conference) aimed at building and sustaining a community of researchers interested in organizational theory, digital innovation, and field-based research.


In conclusion, in addition to my published work and manuscripts under review, I have developed a pipeline of research papers from my two field studies on cross-boundary coordination in organizations and ecosystems.


Copyright © Arvind Karunakaran 2017