By: Kirk Kardashian, Tuck School of Business Posted: Feb 3rd, 2015

Technologies like 3D printing have always been strategic bombshells because they seem to change the rules of the game. They’re easy to identify after the fact—the microchip, the PC, the Internet—because each one represents a revolution that spawns other revolutions, creating opportunities for new businesses while catching some established firms off guard. James Brian Quinn was one of the first strategy professors to deeply investigate the role of technology in strategic management. Quinn passed away in 2013 but his spirit lives on at Tuck in the research and teaching of Constance Helfat Helfat, the J. Brian Quinn Professor in Technology and Strategy.  Helfat teaches some of the most popular electives at Tuck: the Research-to-Practice Seminar Deconstructing Apple, and Strategic Principles for Internet Businesses.

Some strategy thinkers latch on to the fact that technological change can spell failure for established firms, and they examine the reasons for those failures. Helfat, who’s been teaching at Tuck since 1998, is broadly interested in discovering and understanding the capabilities that make firms successful. “Instead of focusing on the problems, I focus on solutions, and how firms create opportunities for themselves,” she said. “It’s a glass-half-full strategy.”

And why do firms succeed? Through her research, Helfat has come up with quite a few factors, but a major one is a firm’s dynamic capabilities, or how well it accomplishes strategic change. In 2007, Helfat collaborated with Tuck professors Margaret Peteraf and Sydney Finkelstein, and others at other institutions, to write the book “Dynamic Capabilities: Understanding Strategic Change in Organizations.” The authors define “capability” as the “ability to perform a particular task or activity.” A dynamic capability is oriented toward changing the current condition of a business, or, as they state, to “purposefully create, extend or modify its resource base.” Basically, how to grow or survive in a constantly changing world.

While sketching out the contours of dynamic capabilities in general, Helfat has spent a lot of time researching the building blocks of those capabilities, from superior R&D to integrative skills like communication and coordination, which allow companies to pursue strategies such as vertical integration, product diversification, and joint ventures.

Along this line, in a 2009 paper she wrote with Alva Taylor, an associate professor of business administration at Tuck and the faculty director of the Glassmeyer/McNamee Center for Digital Strategies, Helfat developed a conceptual model that explains why some firms survive technological transitions well. They identified four influences—economic, structural, social, and cognitive—that allow a company to shift to a new technology while using “valuable preexisting capabilities,” focusing on the critical role of middle managers in linking the old with the new.

More recently, Helfat has been digging even deeper—into the “microfoundations” of dynamic capabilities. In a forthcoming journal article, Helfat and Peteraf examine the cognitive underpinnings of skills that make managers adept at handling change. They focus on several managerial cognitive capabilities: sensing and seizing opportunities, which require perception, attention, and problem solving; and reconfiguring and orchestrating assets, which necessitates skills in language, communication, and social interaction.

“The mental processing of information has been underemphasized in strategic management, but managers’ cognition is very important,” Helfat said. “The way you think about things affects what you do.”

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Read the entire series!

Part 1 - Tuck Strategists: The history of “strategy”
Part 2 - Vijay Govindarajan
Part 3 - Richard D'Aveni
Part 4 - Constance Helfat
Part 5 - Sydney Finkelstein
Part 6 - Giovanni Gavetti
Part 7 - Ron Adner
Part 8 - Andrew King

Article originally published on, December 12, 2014.

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