Georg Reischauer (WU Vienna) interviewing Kate Odziemkowska (Rice University), Winner of the OMT Responsible Research Paper Award, for “Frenemies: When Firms and Activists Collaborate”
Georg Reischauer (GR): Congratulations on winning the OMT Responsible Research Award! Can you please briefly highlight what your paper is about?
Kate Odziemkowska (KO): Thank you very much! The paper examines which firms and social movement organizations (SMOs) form collaborations. Most research to date has focused on social activists’ use of contentious tactics, such as protests or boycotts, to pressure firms to change their practices. However, we also know that SMOs and firms do, from time to time, collaborate. In this paper, I focus on how contentious targeting of firms by movements influences the formation of firm-SMO collaborations. While existing theory posits that contentious targeting of firms by a movement should be a catalyst for collaboration, I argue that this view overlooks the risks to SMOs of partnering with the movement’s adversaries (i.e., targeted firms). I propose that contentious targeting can only be a catalyst for collaboration when collaborations are socially-accepted by the broader movement, and when a firm’s reputation provides assurance it will follow-through on its collaboration commitments. I test my arguments using a 25-year panel of contentious and collaborative interactions between 118 environmental movement organizations and 500 firms in the U.S., complemented by 14 environmental movement networks which I use to proxy for the social-acceptability of collaborations to the movement. The findings support a view of firm-SMO collaborations as strategic tools for firms to quell contention, but difficult to establish because they can spark intra-movement conflict.
GR: What motivated the paper and how did it evolve?
KO: The paper was motivated by my broader research agenda to develop and test theory around firms’ formal interorganizational relationships with nonmarket stakeholders, what I refer to as “cooperative nonmarket strategy.” This a phenomenon I saw or participated in repeatedly in my pre-PhD professional experience, but one that seemed undertheorized in the existing literature. The first set of papers that builds theory on cooperative nonmarket strategy (with Sinziana Dorobantu) focused on contracts between firms and geographic communities. For my dissertation, I wanted to continue the inquiry but, in a context, where there was a history of hostility between firms and nonmarket stakeholders but where firms were not motivated to establish formal relationships because of location-specific investments. Social movement organizations, which we typically think of as contentiously targeting firms, were a perfect fit for this purpose. By switching nonmarket contexts in which these cooperative relationships exist, the ultimate goal was to continue to drill down to an overarching theory of these relationships.
The paper’s research question – which firms and activists collaborate – has always been the same because it’s fundamental to understanding the implications of these relationships. What really evolved in the paper is where I looked for the answer. When I wrote up the first short proposal for the idea, the feedback came back as (paraphrased): “okay, important question, understudied phenomenon, but you’re just testing existing theory in a new context.” That prompted a search for what is theoretically different in firm-SMO collaborations, especially from what we already know from research on firm-firm alliances or the literature on cross-sector partnerships. That meant setting to the background things important to any interorganizational relationship, like trust or past cooperation between a firm and an SMO, for example. That early feedback led me to focus on the interplay of conflict and collaboration, and how these relationships can be opposed or challenged by the broader movement of which an SMO is a member.
GR: Would you like to share any challenges you faced during the research process? If so, how did you overcome them?
KO: The biggest challenge – a time-consuming and intensive data collection process – ended up being a blessing in disguise. The data in the paper took nearly four years to hand-collect and code from over 160,000 archival documents. These represent any media, press release or 10-K that mentioned a sampled firm and an SMO (500 firms x 118 SMOs, or 59,000 dyads) and any document in Factiva where two SMOs were mentioned (118 x 117 SMO or 13,806 SMO dyads) over 25 years. I had hoped to at least partly rely on machine-coding or natural language processing but quickly discovered that it wouldn’t be accurate enough. Thanks to generous funding from various Wharton grants, my advisors, and the Strategic Management Society’s Dissertation Research Grant, I hired research assistants to help with the hand-coding effort
So why was this a blessing in disguise? First, I personally read, coded and entered into a database every archival document that the research assistants coded as having an interaction between a firm and SMO or between SMOs. These documents were a treasure-trove of qualitative data to supplement my theoretical arguments and empirical results. Second, reading about how a relationship between a firm and an SMO or broader environment movement evolved over 25 years yielded a rich picture of the strategic moves SMOs, firms and movements make, and where collaborations fit into this. This sparked a lot of ideas for new research questions and papers. Finally, I was forced to write and revise the theory for the first two years without any results. Not being distracted by results helped to focus me on what was most theoretically interesting in the context and developing the building blocks for the theory. Don’t get me wrong, this “theory awaiting data” phase, as I call it, was frustrating as well. But it turns out that those 20 or so theory awaiting data drafts in my Dropbox are very useful as the paper goes through the journal review process.
GR: Your paper addresses the paradoxes of forming cooperative ties with unlikely parties. Can you tell us more about your key learnings for examining and theorizing paradoxical relationships in organizational life?
KO: The two biggest learnings are: 1) conflict, or the threat of it, can be a catalyst for collaborative relationships; and 2) interorganizational relationships can be socially contested. The first is built on a somewhat simple, but sometimes overlooked, idea that there are strategic benefits to partnering with enemies or friends of your enemies. While pre-existing cooperation or trust may enable many interorganizational or interpersonal relationships, sometimes we form relationships to attenuate a threat. The second challenges the assumption that all interorganizational relationships (e.g., alliances) have achieved a taken-for-granted status in a given context. I’d like to see more research on the legitimacy of interorganizational relationships or its emergence, as we have for other practices. It seems a critical assumption and very relevant where you have two parties embedded in different organizational fields with their own norms, identities and understandings of what is and isn’t legitimate.
GR: Again, congratulations for winning the award! If you were able to do this study again, what if anything would you do differently?
KO: One thing I would have done differently is to begin seeking interviews earlier (i.e., with key decision makers at both the firms and SMOs in my sample). These yielded a lot of great insight but proved a little more challenging to access than in my research on firm-community contracts where I had a lot of professional contacts. Once I got the first interviews, there was a snowball effect of referrals (i.e., the Greenpeace interviewee would refer me to someone at Sierra Club and so on). But I definitely underestimated how long it would take to get that first one.
GR: Finally, do you have any advice for members of the OMT community who aim to receive the award in the future?
KO: I think one challenge of studying business practices that can benefit society is that the research is often phenomenon-driven at first – at least, it was for me at the beginning. That can translate into a long search for the best framing and where you can make a theoretical contribution. I found the best recipe to shorten that search was to get feedback early and often (the more brutal, the better), and to continually revise.