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A Structural Hole in Salt Lake City

Wednesday 06 August 2014

My writing coach says that I should write first thing in the morning, but writing took second place this morning to the arrival of three new bookcases in my office. Forty-five linear feet of new storage and display! So all the books were sorted and re-shelved. I separated the strategy from organization theory, Schumpeter from everyone else, and the philosophy of science from science. And the critical realism and evolutionary economics books are now on a bottom shelf in the corner – out of sight.

Anyhow, back to the subject at hand, even though it is nearly midnight.

A Structural Hole in Salt Lake City

Dear reader, if you are unfamiliar with the term structural hole, as it is used in social network research, I shall elucidate briefly. One of the least intuitively named constructs in the social sciences, the structural hole is a knowledge bridge between two different networks. The “hole” represents a sparse nexus of connections in the overall network. In a visualization, this would look like a gap in what would otherwise be a dense web of redundant connections.

Now to describe it as a bridge, rather than a hole…

One of the exciting scholarly partnerships that will drive new thinking in entrepreneurship research is between Robert Wuebker and Russell McBride of the Eccles School of Management at the University of Utah. Rob has a background in startups and innovation. Russ is a philosopher of mind. They work together, across the network boundary between strategy and cognitive science, on developing a new theoretical account of entrepreneurial action. It is based upon social ontology, in which Russ was trained under John Searle of the UC-Berkeley Department of Philosophy.

At the Academy of Management meetings in Philadelphia this week, Rob organized a session on the social ontology of entrepreneurship. Russ led off the session with an introduction to social ontology, stressing the importance of the language – speech acts – in building shared understanding of concepts that take on the ontological status of social facts. The classic examples used are paper money as currency and socially constructed titles like “President of the United States”. This presentation was followed by a very interesting “next step” paper co-authored by McBride, Wuebker, and a researcher from ESADE in Spain, Jana Thiel. In this paper, (see here) they do two important things. First, they explicitly unyoke entrepreneurial action from entrepreneurial opportunities, particularly those that are allegedly discovered as objective facts. Second, they propose a three-phase process of the creation of a new social institution – the entrepreneurial venture – that begins with a declarative (speech act). This phase is followed by enrollment, the social interactions that occur around the declarative between persons that will associate with the venture (team members, funders, customers). The third phase is embedding, completing the construction of the new social reality by linking the venture to the broader social environment, i.e. the market. Along the way, the authors note the linkage to the microfoundations project that is afforded by a theory of entrepreneurial action that cannot be mimicked by “the opportunity”.

I want to make one observation about the ambitious project that Wuebker and McBride and their collaborators have begun. There are two important levels in which social ontology will inform entrepreneurship research. First, the process of social ontology occurs at the level of the community of scholars engaged in creating social facts that can be researched and taught. The community can agree on the constructs, models, and processes associated with innovation and other forms of entrepreneurial action. Second, social ontology offers an account of entrepreneurial action that that deals with what I call collective entrepreneurship, others call team entrepreneurship, and what Wuebker calls joint action. Rather than having some mysterious, emergent process or just-so stories serving as the accounts of entrepreneurial action, accounts that are based on social ontology can be defensible as good science.

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