Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Doctor of Philosophy




Verge, Jean-Philippe


University College London


Organizational adaptation is one of the most important concepts in strategic management. Historical conceptions suggest that without it, organizations are likely to succumb to inertia in dynamic environments and with it, organizations are likely to thrive. Despite its rich scholarly history, organizational adaptation continues to lack clarity and is often conflated with market entry, performance, or survival. More importantly, managers do not have a meaningful way to determine whether their organization is well-adapted or maladapted. Knowing when organizations begin to adapt to their changing environments subsequently becomes a difficult question to answer. In this thesis, I develop much-needed clarity to the concept of organizational adaptation while also examining its origins. I distil a clear and precise definition of organizational adaptation as intentional decision-making undertaken by organizational members, leading to observable actions that aim to reduce the distance between an organization and its economic and institutional environments. I then develop a multilevel conceptual framework that evaluates the full spectrum adaptation before zeroing in on a neglected question—how is adaptation initiated? By elaborating on the attention-based view of organizations in the context of financial services and the emergence of financial technologies, I argue that multiple attention-drawing attributes combine to initiate adaptation. I find that combinations of attributes provoke strategic attention to technological artifacts, known as technological innovations, but preclude strategic attention to consumer-based applications, know as market innovations. In addition, these attributes negate the effects of executive technological experience, long believed to be a driver of early adaptation. I demonstrate my results through a novel use of topic modelling and multivariate, mixed effects Bayesian regression. Ultimately, I allude to a return to playfulness in the executive suite and that experience may be an inhibitor to initiating processes of adaptation. In a world filled with large incumbents faced with unprecedented change, initiating adaptation earlier is prudent and simultaneously allows for timely adaptation while avoiding the challenges of suddenly adapting to change.

Summary for Lay Audience

What does it mean for organizations to adapt? Managers are often faced with the challenges of adapting to new environments and pursuing new technologies. Sometimes, adapting can be a matter of changing strategies and sometimes it is observed after the fact based on organizations that perform well. The manager is, therefore, faced with a challenge: how do they know if their organization is well adapted when it is not clear what adaptation truly represents. This thesis seeks to provide clarity for managers navigating their organization’s changing environmental conditions. I first refine adaptation down to its core attributes, namely that an organization is intentionally aligning to multiple environments, and then examine a long-neglected question—how does adaptation begin? I use concepts of cognition and behavioural strategy to outline how various forms of stimuli in the technological environment can provoke or slow processes of adaptation. I then use advanced statistical techniques to prove my theoretical propositions in the context of incumbent financial service organizations adapting to the emergence of financial technologies. Ultimately, I find that incumbents tend to have their strategic attention drawn to technologies that are supplied to organizations versus market applications of technologies that are demanded by consumers. Moreover, the stimulating factors of technologies tend to offset technological experience present in the executive suite, suggesting that experienced managers are prone to delaying adaptation. Ultimately, remaining at the cutting edge of industries appears to call on experimentation and playfulness more so than expertise. Due to biases toward forms of novel stimulus in the environment that drives hesitation in experts, playfulness may allow adaptation to begin earlier, prolonging the process, without necessarily adapting too late as technological changes manifest around incumbents.