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Can Trading Zones and Interactional Expertise Benefit Business Strategy? Bolko von Oetinger The Need for Change in Business The constancy of change is a hallmark of business. Management spends most of its time initiating numerous minor changes and a few dramatic ones, and hopefully these changes are implemented. The emphasis here is on the word “hopefully,” since the track record of success in regard to substantial changes is somewhat mixed. The academic trading zone is a communication/collaboration framework intended to overcome well-defined boundaries across different science disciplines. The approach comprises processes (e.g., common language, collaborative activities, tacit knowledge, mediating, values, and identities) and structures (various settings for interdisciplinary organization). The notion of a trading zone is used throughout this chapter, but in the narrow sense of a neutral field with a collaborative “interlanguage” approach, or what Collins, Evans, and Gorman (2007) have specified as an “interlanguage trading zone.” In this chapter, I will explore whether the concept and practice of academic trading zones can be applied to business. Is the Trading Zone an Effective Framework for Change in Business? In the realm of business, customers and competitors, and technologies and markets, are always on the move. Firms must quickly adapt, often in a reactive way but preferably proactively. Therefore, identifying weak signals early on, evaluating their importance , testing new ideas and reflecting on the situation in the light of perceived new evidence should be part of an ongoing strategy process. Although the logic sounds simple, in reality it is daunting. Great organizations are great because of their strong, consistent performance. Accordingly, strong performance leads to strong beliefs. Strong beliefs create strong mental models, which can in turn end up as unwritten laws and taboos. This is where 11 232 Bolko von Oetinger the problem begins. This is not to say that business success is a problem—managers are paid to engineer economic success—but that the consequences of their success could turn into a weakness that threatens the life of the company: the more successful businesses are, the greater the risk of suppressing weak signals that seem to disturb the (mental) business model being pursued. In other words, we have the belief that what should not be true cannot be true. Although firms are social entities, the traditional firm is profoundly asocial: it has strong boundaries and is therefore something of a walled city. The notion of the “firm” already indicates an entity that is solid and steadfast. Life within this corpus (the corporation) is based upon an established culture of specific processes, beliefs, governance , laws, and taboos. The advantage is obvious: changes within the scope of the guiding business model are somewhat routine and therefore done quickly. If it were otherwise, continuous efficiency gains and continuous innovations could not be achieved. The more difficult type of change is that requiring massive adaptations of the governing business model. Indeed, the modern firm pays a high price for its closed culture: dialog and innovations are hampered, there is steadfast resistance to fundamental change, and there is more exploitation within the walls than there is exploration outside them. Consequently, it should come as no surprise that large, successful organizations, despite their increasing efficiency, have often faced the threat of extinction. Despite the natural resistance to substantial change, the changes that occur in business can be brutal. They break organizations apart, result in the firing of leadership, separate units from their homelands, lead to the sale of business divisions, and engender mortal enemies. If one wishes to “depart,” one must “break away” first. We owe to the great economist Joseph Schumpeter (1975, 82–85) the famous notion of “constructive destruction.” One must truly destroy a business in order to build a new one. Occasionally such change is reminiscent of a butcher’s work. Logically, given the difficulties of change, most great changes in business are taking place not at the center but at its periphery (outside the walled city). These changes move from the periphery ever closer to the old center, eating into its customer and economic base as they go. Therefore, a high price is paid due to the inability to change; or—on the positive side—the business’s inability to change pays off for the challenger who ignores the guiding (mental) business model. He can prosper for a while in front of the walled city, and no one behind the walls will really care. The science of organizational behavior has failed to help business with the process...


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