19 February 2020

University of Edinburgh Business School doctoral student Jahir Palas interviews Dr Raluca Bunduchi about her most recent research.
Woman reading in office by a window

Dr Raluca Bunduchi currently works as a Senior Lecturer in the Entrepreneurship and Innovation group at the University of Edinburgh Business School. Her research focuses mostly on technology and organisational change, digital transformation, and product innovation. In this extended interview, she discusses her journey with a recent paper published in the Journal of Product Innovation Management, and some of her thoughts on the product innovation research space.

Jahir: This research challenges the much-established 'Rational Choice' perspective in product innovation research, and uncovers the strong and rather practical influence of 'Legitimacy Seeking Behaviour' to resource product innovations. The idea of understanding the critical role of 'Organisations' Internal Legitimacy' in product innovation, besides economic calculations of strategic fit, is quite impressive. What motivated the initial research idea? How were the rough ideas and insights developed into fully fledged research? Did you find anything surprising in the research process?

Raluca: Shaping the research idea for this paper followed a pragmatic approach, characterised by more messiness than is generally depicted in a published paper. In my case, the initial idea rarely remains the same in the end. Before writing this paper, I was working on research drawing from institutional theory, but examined a completely different phenomenon related to the adoption of information technology in an organisation. Institutional theory argues that decisions that people make in organisations are not always rational. Often decisions are made in order to gain legitimacy (that is, social acceptance) and legitimacy is underpinned by non-self-interested behaviour.

This research emerged as a cross-fertilisation between different projects.

My other research interest is in product innovation and originally in collecting the data for this paper, I was trying to understand the best practices of product innovation. While analysing and engaging with the data, I realised that the product was not successful because of its outstanding financial performance, but because it became widely accepted by the wider organisation, which began to see both the product and the originating business unit as legitimate.

Consequently, I perceived that legitimacy is significant here, and began to examine how legitimacy was gained in this context. This research emerged as a cross-fertilisation between different projects that were completely different in terms of both areas of study and target audiences.

What was surprising in the data was not the practices they engaged in, but the fact that there was a peripheral business unit with a history of developing a not-so-great product that suddenly became acknowledged by the rest of the organisation as being amazing on the back of this product. As a result, the product manager got promoted, and the unit itself became much more visible and strategic in the organisation. It was being made part of strategic decision-making, whereas other much larger units were not included. So clearly, this was something interesting.

In my view, the question should not be 'rigour vs relevance' but 'rigour and relevance'.

Jahir: There is an ongoing debate in academia regarding the 'rigour vs relevance' of research outputs. Why do you think the idea of explaining the legitimacy of product innovation through the organisational lens is interesting and relevant? How would you expect this research to have an impact in both academia and practice?

Raluca: In my view, the question should not be 'rigour vs relevance' but 'rigour and relevance'. Methodological rigour assures the validity of research results and therefore should matter for relevance. Without rigour, research would be highly inaccurate—would this not invalidate its relevance?

This paper has a very well-developed section on managerial implications, which is partly due to the journal's strong preference for relevance to practice. This research provides managers with a framework to explain the many different ways of negotiating and pitching product ideas to senior managers beyond just highlighting financial performance.

Jahir: This paper has three primary research questions:

  • Contextual factors to seek legitimacy
  • Forms of legitimacy
  • Mechanisms to enact legitimacy responses

How were the research questions formed? Were they driven by theory or extension of your previous work on innovation and/or institutional perspective?

Raluca: The research questions originated from theory in that they were stimulated by the way research framework was applied to study how actors gain resources to support new product ideas. The research framework talks about legitimacy as a way of acquiring resources. Therefore, legitimacy is important, and there are distinct types of legitimacy which can be formed in different ways. This is what this particular theory allowed the research to ask. In the beginning, contextual factors were not part of the research. However, the reviewers highlighted their importance, and that is how contextual factors found their place in the research questions.

Jahir: The paper builds on Suchman (1995) and Meyer and Rowan (1977) to establish the junction of institutional theory and legitimacy. For highlighting contextual premises, Van Dijk et al (2011) offered major support that ultimately relates internal legitimacy with product innovation. However, as acknowledged in the paper, the rational choice perspective is still dominant in the literature of product innovation. Faced with the well-accepted view in the innovation community, did you encounter any difficulty positioning your idea? How did you engage with the dominant 'rational choice' view and effectively pitch your new research idea?

This paper provides the innovation community with a way of conceptualising cases where rational choice does not work.

Raluca: In general, the product innovation community looks at how actors acquire resources and this question is addressed as a portfolio decision problem. Some research in this space looked at portfolio decisions as being political and negotiated. As there is recognition that funding product innovation ideas are not always driven by financial performance, the approach I took here had support in existing research. This paper provides the innovation community with a way of conceptualising cases where rational choice does not work. Fortunately, Suchman's framework on legitimacy is well-developed and is commonly used in other contexts. Therefore, the paper did not antagonise the innovation community because the legitimacy framework is highly exploited in other areas.

Jahir: The study timeline spans from 2007–2015. As the timeline demands long commitments and technology is a fast-changing market, what made you select a consumer technology firm at the outset? How did you manage to get access? How did your guiding structure, theoretical argument, and framework about legitimacy seeking behaviour emerge over the course of these seven years?

Raluca: The consumer technology firm was selected because I had a strong relationship with one of the senior key players who facilitated access to the organisation over time. I have engaged with this organisation since my PhD. As such, I could go back to data I had collected in 2007–8 to complement the data I collected in 2010 to incorporate different products.

The interview guide and framework changed a lot. In the first stage, the interview guide was quite broad. The idea of this paper was in the first interview guide, but it was only a small part relating to how a new product idea acquires resources. Though I was examining product development again in 2010, the interview guide was not exactly the same. In 2013, while the paper was under review, the idea was more mature, and as such the interview guide for the last part contained exact questions as I knew what I was interested in.

The theoretical framework absolutely changed. The paper's framework on legitimacy was developed only after I collected the data in 2010. There were a lot of negotiations and explorations in terms of which framework gave me more to say about what was interesting here.

Jahir: Crafting a systematic and easy-to-follow data analysis with qualitative data is a complex process. Can you explain your data analysing journey and its challenges? Was there any analysis that did not make it to the paper's final version?

Raluca: In my experience, the way data is depicted in any published paper implies that the process is much more rational and cleaner than it actually is. The data analysis was incredibly messy. The way I structured the first codes, the descriptive codes, was trying to understand what people said and what it meant. I prepared a lot of tables to try to get to the broader picture, and things were not clear from the beginning. The data analysis was very iterative and took a lot of time as initially I started by aiming to understand practices. As legitimacy emerged as an interesting theme, I went back to the descriptive codes to try to look for it and consider whether it was relevant in explaining patterns, and recoded the data around legitimacy concepts.

Originally, the paper also included a time dimension in explaining legitimacy. Because I had three time-points, I could say something about how legitimacy evolves over time. This sequential approach is common in organisational research but unfortunately the reviewers did not find it interesting and it was dropped from the final paper.

Jahir: You started the paper with two thought-provoking questions for the readers. Can you explain your experience or strategies that you followed for this paper's introduction?

Raluca: When drafting a paper, the last piece I work on is the introduction, because I only know how best to introduce the research after I write the whole paper. For this paper, I was inspired by Van Dijk et al's paper (2011) which began with a question, and I liked their approach of summarising the entire paper in one question. It does not always work because research objectives can be too complicated. The introduction tells a story and follows a particular format that depends on the journal. Generally, the introduction should highlight the research objectives and contributions. It should also talk to the key audiences of the research. This attracts discussion from the relevant audience while also helping the journal's editor consider who the best reviewers for the paper are.

Jahir: How did you weave the scattered ideas and results with literature from multiple directions? Did you face the issue of 'writer's block'? What writing challenges, if any, did you face?

Raluca: I remember a novel that we read in school where the entire story was organised in a circle. It starts and ends in the same place, and it is a useful metaphor I go back to when writing an academic paper: the discussion has to bring the reader to the same place they started at in the literature review section. I generally structure the discussion in terms of the research questions, and I link their discussions to research covered in the literature review.

The problem I have is that with so many revisions, I often get to the point where I have had enough of crafting the same story.

I don't experience writer's block, but I do get bored with a paper. Unlike other researchers who think before writing I unfortunately tend not to! I therefore write quite easily, but a manuscript needs a lot of revising before it is anywhere near readable. The problem I have is that with so many revisions, I often get to the point where I have had enough of crafting the same story.

Jahir: The Journal of Product Innovation Management is one of the prestigious (ABS Rank 4) journals. Can you walk me through the review process? What were the most challenging aspects?

Raluca: The paper's review process was really good. I received a decision within 4–5 months, which is really quick in my experience. There was a lot of useful feedback from the reviewers and in this case, the editor was very helpful. While re-emphasising the important points, the editor actually went through the reviewers' comments and helped me understand which approach I could take. The reviewers suggested collecting more data which was the most challenging part because I had to go back, conduct interviews, and reorganise the results and discussion section. The review process was long as the paper went through four review stages. Overall, the paper was much improved after addressing the reviewer's comments.

Jahir: More often than not, authors face contradictory opinions in the reviewers' comments. Some reviewers might ask the author to change research direction or even challenge the author's understanding of the research field. Did you face any such situations? What was your strategy to counter these challenges?

Raluca: With this paper, one of the reviewers contradicted the other two, and that is where the editor came in to provide guidance. I was lucky that I had two reviewers who engaged with the paper and its methodology, and an editor who gave me a lot of advice about how to move forward.

In the case of contradictory comments I usually make a decision on which comment I think is more appropriate. Then in my response to reviewers, I would clarify the contradiction and justify my choice. The response to reviewers' comments has to be clear because reviewers don't see the other reviewers' comments, just the author's responses.

Jahir: The paper offered quite a few pathways for future research. Are you planning to complement this research in any of the suggested avenues? Do you see any new research directions that evolve from or are related to this research? What suggestions do you have for researchers following your research directions and/or adding to your work?

Raluca: Yes, I am working with product innovation and there is traction to use legitimacy to explore a few more avenues in this space. I have a paper under review with the same journal that applies a legitimacy framework to understand frugal disruptive innovation in new ventures. The paper focuses on external legitimacy in the context of a particular type of innovation. I have another paper in development that looks at matching how firms seek acceptance for their products and how customers evaluate these products' legitimacies.

I believe there might be scope to draw from these approaches to better understand how innovator actors operate.

I was lucky in the sense that this is the first paper that uses the legitimacy framework in product innovation. Fortunately, I found the gap and highlighted that there is interest here. How long will this last? I don't know. Within this space, I think generally there is too little focus on examining these phenomena as socially constructed and possibly institutionalised. Therefore, I believe there might be scope to draw from these approaches to better understand how innovator actors operate.

If considering legitimacy in product innovation, I would suggest examining the legitimation process and its time dimension. It is interesting to know how legitimation develops over time. The other thing that is interesting but has not been looked at much is the relationship between actors' legitimacy seeking actions and audiences' legitimacy bestowing evaluations.

Journal Articles

  • Bunduchi, R. (2017). 'Legitimacy-seeking Mechanisms in Product Innovation: A Qualitative Study', Journal of Product Innovation Management, 34(3), pp.315–342.
  • Bunduchi, R. (2013). 'Trust, Partner Selection and Innovation Outcome in Collaborative New Product Development', Production Planning and Control, 24(2-3), pp.145–157.
  • Bunduchi, R., Smart, A., Charles, K., McKee, L., and Azuara-Blanco, A. (2015). 'When Innovation Fails: An Institutional Perspective of the (Non) Adoption of Boundary Spanning IT Innovation', Information & Management, 52(5), pp.563–576.
  • Meyer, J.W. and Rowan, B. (1977). 'Institutionalised Organisations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony', American Journal of Sociology, 83(2), pp.340–363.
  • Suchman, M.C. (1995). 'Managing Legitimacy: Strategic and Institutional Approaches', Academy of Management Review, 20(3), pp.571–610.
  • Van Dijk, S., Berends, H., Jelinek, M., Romme, A.G.L., and Weggeman, M. (2011). 'Micro-institutional Affordances and Strategies of Radical Innovation', Organization Studies, 32(11), pp.1485–1513.

Conference Papers

  • Bunduchi, R. (2014). 'Strategic and Institutional Approaches to Product Innovation: Peripheral Product Innovation and the Challenge of Organisational Legitimacy'. 21st Euroma Conference, Palermo, Italy.
  • Bunduchi, R. (2009). 'Challenges in Building Creativity and Innovation into NPD Process-results from a Case Study'. 20th ISPIM Conference, Vienna, Austria.
  • Bunduchi, R. and Berar, S. (2012). 'Building Organisational Trust with New Technology Partners in NPD Projects'. Academy of Management Proceedings Conference, Boston, UK.