I had a very interesting discussion recently, attempting to explain the orientation of my research. In particular, how to make sense of capabilities. Are they things that you write down point-for-point on a piece of paper, or are they “just is”; in other words, exist is some form whether they are consciously being thought of or not?

My point of departure is that, yes, capabilities can to some extent be written down and by implication designed. For example, organisations may hire particular individuals because they have the skills and experience in a particular field that enhances an organisation’s capability in some way. I, however, suspect that capabilities are far more emergent that this and may be the consequence of the conditions under which managers, entrepreneurs and disruptors operate. Thus, capabilities are a function of contextual factors and the actions and interactions of individuals. Capabilities “naturally” emerge as organisations, or the individuals in them, have to respond to certain forces; or in fact, in some way extract value out of the context that they find themselves in.

Individuals also possess “context” – their background, skills and experience cause them to act in a certain way; and when these individual contexts are “mixed up” certain novel organisational capabilities emerge that cannot be predicted from an a priori understanding of the characteristics of individuals or “macro” contextual conditions. This “just is” – in any organisation of any size.

These principles can then be applied to particular organisational events – such as business model innovation. Emergent capabilities to a lesser or greater degree facilitate an organisation’s ability to seek out a “configuration” that allows it to survive and adapt. But IMPORTANTLY, the act of configuring a business model is likely also a contextual condition that influences the characteristics of the capability. In one sense the relationship between conditions, capabilities and outcomes are “recursive” or self-reinforcing.

Very interesting stuff … I think.

Now to convince case study firm to participate in my research to further shape these preliminary ideas.