Interorganizational linkages and population dynamics: buffering and transformational shields

Anne S. Miner

This paper examines evidence concerning the existence of organizational buffers, which insulate an organization from environmental disturbances, and transformational shields, which insulate an organization from the risk of failure due to transformation. It proposes that interorganizational linkages in particular can (1) buffer organizations from failure, (2) affect the likelihood of organizational transformation, and (3) modify the effect of organizational transformation on failure. These propositions are examined using event-history analysis of data on approximately 1,000 Finnish newspapers over a 200-year period. in this population, linkages reduced failure, increased organizational transformations, and altered the chances for failure after transformation. More generally, the findings support the existence of organizational buffers and transformational shields, suggesting further work on their role in population dynamics.

How do the characteristics of a population of organizations change over time? Much traditional organization and economic theory has assumed that the population changes because decision makers adjust the characteristics of individual organizations (Barnard, 1938; Child, 1972). In contrast, ecological research has argued that selective failures and foundings of whole organizations are the primary engines for change (Hannan and Freeman, 1977; Carroll, 1988). Combined perspectives have argued that both transformation and selection processes play major roles (Aldrich, 1979; Tushman and Romanelli, 1985; Singh, House, and Tucker, 1986). Studies that provide empirical evidence about the operation of both transformation and failure processes in a population of organizations remain rare, however. In this paper we propose that the presence of interorganizational linkages will significantly affect patterns of organization transformation and failure. We examine this basic proposition through the analysis of data on an organizational population of approximately a thousand Finnish newspapers over a 200-year period.

Our purposes in this investigation are twofold. First, we seek to contribute to understanding of the effects of interorganizational linkages on population dynamics. We explore in some detail the differences between transformation and failure patterns in organizations with and without interorganizational linkages. Second, we introduce and examine evidence for the occurrence of two phenomena that can affect the dynamics of population change: resource buffers and transformational shields. Resource buffers insulate an organization from environmental disturbances. Organizations protected by resource buffers should tend to have lower failure rates than other organizations and should show different patterns of transformation as well. We propose that interorganizational linkages may serve as a resource buffer.

Some organizational characteristics may alter the point at which organizational change leads to failure. Transformational shields insulate an organization from the risk of failure due to transformation. Organizations protected by transformational shields should be able to accomplish change with a lower risk of failure than can other organizations. We propose that the presence of interorganizational linkages will alter the effects of transformation on failure.


Interorganizational Linkages and Organizational Failure

The idea that some organizations are buffered from external pressures has a long history in organizational theory. Thompson (1967: 19), for example, proposed that “under norms of rationality organizations seek to seal off their core technologies from environmental influences.” According to Thompson, buffering insulates the core technology from disturbances in the task environment. Other theorists have broadened the concept of organizational buffering to include external factors that may protect an organization from failure. Aldrich (1979: 196), for example, suggested, “Organizational forms may be insulated against environmental pressures because of governmental protection or regulation, support from powerful elites, or shared beliefs and values that selectively screen out potentially disruptive external events.”

We propose here that the crucial feature of the construct of buffering is the notion of the sealing off of environmental influences (Thompson, 1967). From this perspective, a buffer is an intervening factor that insulates an organization from environmental disturbances. Within the framework of this definition, two broad types of buffering emerge from the literature: resource-based buffering and institutional buffering (Aldrich, 1979; Scott, 1987).

Resource buffering–the type of buffering studied in this paper–refers to insulation based on access to material resources, information, or technology. An organization may be buffered by being directly allied with another organization that can and will supply such tangible resources as money, people, machines, information, technology, products, and services. Resource buffering can spring from a variety of factors, including interorganizational arrangements, government support, assistance from social or political elites (Aldrich, 1979), or special access to outside financial resources and information networks (Quinn, 1980). The fundamental characteristic of resource buffering is that the organization is insulated because of its access to material goods.

Institutional buffering, in contrast, refers to the insulation the organization has through legitimacy. It can arise from prior compliance with general social expectations, professional norms, or government regulations Aldrich, 1979) and from identification with organizations that already carry high legitimacy (Galaskiewicz, 1985). It should be noted that institutional buffering can also lead to additional resources for an organization. A bank may extend larger loans and seek to foreclose less rapidly when a creditor has high legitimacy. We leave to future research the study of institutional buffering and focus here on the effects of resource buffering.

Interorganizational linkages have been frequently proposed as a source of both kinds of organizational buffering. Researchers have suggested several concrete ways in which linkages may insulate an organization from its environment. Linkages may dampen the effects of environmental uncertainty (Pfeffer and Salancik, 1978; Galaskiewicz, 1985), ensure higher and more stable flows of resources, especially in times of scarcity (Aiken and Hage, 1968; Stearns, Hoffman, and Heide, 1987), increase organizational power (Pfeffer and Salancik, 1978), and reduce risks in new ventures (Rogers and Whetten, 1982; Contractor and Lorange, 1988). In addition, institutional theorists have proposed that networks of interorganizational linkages can insulate organizations from broader environmental threats (DiMaggio and Powell, 1983).

The ultimate insulation from environmental pressures is protection from organizational failure. Differential failure rates are a fundamental concern of ecological theories. The idea that interdependence can provide protection from failure is a longstanding ecological proposition (Astley, 1985; Hawley, 1986). Recent ecological studies have called for further empirical research on the effects of linkages on mortality processes (e.g., Barnett and Carroll, 1987; Brittain and Wholey, 1988). Oliver and Baum (1989) found evidence that interorganizational links reduced mortality in daycare centers. More generally, Fombrum (1988: 234) recently speculated that various forms of “community-level acts,” such as linkages, joint ventures, and contracts, may moderate population dynamics.

Several literatures thus predict that the presence of interorganizational linkages can create organizational buffering, which in turn can reduce organizational failure. Taken as a whole, they imply that resource buffering through interorganizational linkages should reduce failure rates. Organizations without buffering can be thought of as making up a “refined risk set” because they are more at risk for more immediate failure (Levinthal, 1990: 213). The causal processes invoked are assumed to operate in the organization’s task environment. At a minimum, extra resources may permit the organization to operate at a lower efficiency than other organizations, to withstand threats or pressures that other organizations cannot survive, or to oppose actively threats from competitors or other organizations. This line of reasoning leads to our first proposition:

Hypothesis 1: Organizations with interorganizational linkages should show a lower failure rate than comparable organizations without such linkages.

A growing body of work suggests that organizational environments may change in a “punctuated” pattern (Schumpeter, 1950; Biggart, 1977; McKelvey and Aldrich, 1983; Tushman and Anderson, 1986; Zucker, 1987; Hannan and Freeman, 1989). During periods of relative stability, environmental change is incremental, slow-paced, and continuous. Organizational mortality arises from competition for resources or internal forces of decay and disorder. During environmental shock periods, however, change may be deep, fast-paced, and discrete. Shock periods may involve major changes in technology (Tushman and Anderson, 1986), regulatory shifts (Zucker, 1987), or radical disruptions of the general social environment (Tushman and Romanelli, 1985).

One might imagine that resource buffering provided by interorganizational linkages is especially relevant during periods of exogenous shock. Shocks may involve decreased resources in the organization’s local environment, increased uncertainty, and increased threats to survival from specific competitors or from overall economic decline. Linkages should provide extra resources that affect failure rates in several ways. Supplemental resources could permit the organization to mobilize resources quickly for new, unanticipated activities or self-defense, to continue without its usual sources of revenues until those sources return, and to avoid having to seek support from hostile groups. Interorganizational linkages could thus serve as buffers to organizations in periods of exogenous shocks. if so, linkages could protect organizations from the increased failure rates specifically associated with exogenous shocks:

Hypothesis 2: Interorganizational linkages will buffer organizations from failure due to exogenous shocks.

Interorganizational Linkages and Organizational Change

If hypotheses 1 and 2 are supported, they lend credence to predictions in the interorganizational literature of positive effects of linkages and the effects of resource buffering. From an ecological perspective, however, such a result merely adds linkages to the standard list of factors that can produce differential failure rates, such as age, strategy, niche width (specialist vs. generalist), and size (Carroll, 1985, 1988; Hannan and Freeman, 1989). We propose, however, that linkages, while modifying failure rates, may also affect organizational transformation rates. Existing theory supports such an idea, although it implies two opposite predictions about the nature of the effect we should expect.

Cyert and March (1963) proposed that organizations engage in “slack search” when their actual performance exceeds either their true efficiency requirements or their aspirations. Under slack search, the presence or possibility of extra resources can actually trigger innovation or change. The changes may or may not represent shifts designed to match some environmental characteristic or change. Extra resources provided by linkages may simply permit more ordinary change initiatives or more accidental transformations to persist (March, 1981; Nelson and Winter, 1982). Some of the organization’s changes may be proactive changes not mandated by external pressures (Fombrum, 1988). Research on organizational decision making (Cyert and March, 1963), on innovation (Mansfield, 1963), and on organizational risk taking (Singh, 1986) has provided some empirical support for a positive effect of extra resources on organizational change.

In contrast, a substantial number of theories imply that organizations insulated from environmental pressures should be least likely to change. From Thompson’s perspective, sealing off the task environment permits the organization’s core to remain unchanged (Thompson, 1967). Scott (1987) argued that organizations can actively choose not to respond to their environments because they are buffered by size or power. March (1981) suggested that slack may make organizations less likely to recognize the need for change. Others make an even stronger prediction: regardless of resource levels, organizations will be fundamentally inertial (Stinchcombe, 1965). In Hannan and Freeman’s (1984) theory of structural inertia, external selection pressures actively favor organizations with high reproducibility, so that, on average, surviving organizations will be highly inertial. Starbuck (1983) suggested that organizations not only fail to seek change but aggressively resist it even when strong evidence supports its value. Other theories also predict active resistance to change, based on internal factors such as the potential impact of change on the balance of power among potentially conflicting groups (Pfeffer, 1981; Nelson and Winter, 1982). From this perspective, organizations with resource buffering provided through linkages should be less likely to change than organizations not so protected.

Research on interorganizational linkages does not provide empirical evidence on the relationship between linkages and organizational change. Research to date has tended to concentrate more on fixed aspects of structural patterns than on dynamic outcomes of interorganizational relationships (Galaskiewicz, 1985). The theoretical literature on linkages implies, however, that organizations form some linkages in order to free themselves from the need to respond to every environmental change or to the demands of individually powerful environmental actors (Pfeffer and Salancik, 1978). If such linkages are successful in reducing the organization’s vulnerability to environmental shifts, one would expect to see linked organizations forced to make fewer changes than organizations without such linkages.

Two strong theoretical perspectives–slack search and organizational inertia–thus both predict that interorganizational ties will affect the probability of organizational transformation. They predict opposite directions for the effects, however, as expressed in hypothesis 3:

Hypothesis 3: Interorganizational linkages will affect the likelihood of organizational transformation.

Theories of organizational change and the effect of linkages similarly lead to two contrasting predictions regarding the way that linkages should affect transformations during periods of external shock. One literature implies that resource buffering should enhance the probability of transformation during shocks, especially of major transformation. Although the assumption in traditional organization theory has often been that organizations change more or less constantly, recent research has increasingly emphasized punctuated models of organizational change (Biggart, 1977; McKelvey and Aldrich, 1983; Tushman and Romanelli, 1985; Tushman and Anderson, 1986). Entire organizational populations may go through periods of relative stability, which are then punctuated by exogenous shocks that not only increase failure but also induce organizational transformation. Research provides some support for this perspective in terms of technological change in three industries (Tushman and Anderson, 1986) and changes in public institutions (Biggart, 1977; Zucker, 1987).

These models imply that environmental change during such periods goes beyond simple shifts in resource munificence. instead, change may involve change in the basic “rules of the game” for organizational functioning and survival. Organizations will thus attempt more extensive transformations to adjust to such fundamental shifts. The changes may be more extensive in the sense that they involve shifts in more fundamental organizational characteristics (Hannan and Freeman, 1984), or they may be more extensive in the sense that they involve changes in a larger number of characteristics at one time.

This perspective implies that periods of shock should induce somewhat higher rates of multiple changes in all organizations. Extra resources gained through interorganizational linkages should then buy organizations the time, information, and resources needed to undertake more changes and to change more characteristics of the organization. Thus shocks should induce a higher rate of multiple transformations in organizations buffered by linkages than in other organizations.

Research and theory on interorganizational relationships have also emphasized the role of linkages in reducing environmental uncertainty (Pfeffer and Salancik, 1978; Galaskiewicz, 1985; Stearns, Hoffman, and Heide, 1987), which leads to a contrasting prediction. This perspective suggests that organizations with linkages can ride out environmental changes and should thus be less likely to make extensive changes during exogenous shocks than would other organizations. From this viewpoint, the crucial value of extra resources is precisely the fact that they can allow a buffered organization to avoid making changes (Scott, 1987). Unbuffered organizations will have no alternative in periods of major environmental change but to attempt risky change or fail outright. From this perspective, then, all organizations will routinely seek to avoid change during periods of shock, but the extra resources of buffered organizations permit them to remain inertial when others simply cannot avoid change or failure.

Both perspectives imply that periods of exogenous shock should affect transformation rates and that interorganizational linkages should modify this effect. No definitive body of research compels one to adopt one perspective over the other, however. Hypothesis 4 thus embodies the prediction that linkages will moderate the effects of shocks and contrasts the predicted directions of that effect:

Hypothesis 4: Interorganizational linkages will affect the impact of exogenous shocks on organizational change, so that (a) linked organizations will have a higher probability of making more multiple transformations than other organizations, or (b) linked organizations will have a lower probability of multiple transformations than other organizations.

Interorganizational Linkages and the Effects of Change on Failure

The theories underlying hypotheses 3 and 4 focus on the effect of linkages on the chances of organizational change. They leave unanswered, however, what the impact of that change will be. Our final hypothesis explores this question. Before discussing ways in which linkages may modify the effects of transformation on failure, however, we need first to consider the relationship of transformation to failure under ordinary conditions. Two positions mark the end points of the range of theoretical speculation on this issue. At one end of the range, much traditional organization and economic theory has implied that, on average, most intended organizational changes should benefit the organization. Managers and leaders are at least intendedly rational in making the changes (March and Simon, 1958). Organizations that do not generally make adaptive transformations do not survive in the long run, as assumed in the economic theory of the firm. At the other theoretical end point, structural inertia theory posits that fundamental change will increase the risk of failure. Modern environments favor organizations with high reliability of performance. Transformation disrupts the organization, produces more variability in outcomes, and therefore raises the risk of failure. Thus, even changes that might eventually reduce the risk of failure through aligning the organization better with its environment on particular dimensions will increase the short-term risk of failure (Hannan and Freeman, 1984).

Between these positions lie theories arguing that transformation will depend on the nature and context of specific transformations. If one assumes that most change is intentional and managers can generally make good guesses about what is needed, then change will on average have a positive outcome. If one assumes good results are about as likely as bad ones, change should, on average, have no net effect. If one assumes that the cost of change is too high, or that change fails to improve the organization, then the effect will be negative, on average. This would be true even though some individual changes may increase both short-term and long-term survival chances.

Adaptive learning models, in particular, portray organizations as experiencing both planned and unplanned changes and selectively retaining changes that appear to have good outcomes (Levinthal and March, 1981; Huber, 1989). Most changes, however, like genetic mutations, are quite unlikely to represent improvements (Holland, 1975; March, 1981; Levitt and March, 1988). Nonetheless, a few changes may represent substantial improvements that increase survival chances.

Empirical research focused on the effects of change has produced inconclusive results. Brittain (1989) provided indirect evidence of organizational learning processes affecting mortality rates. Studies of the direct effect of change have produced varying outcomes. in some instances, change apparently reduced the risk of failure; in others, it increased the risk of failure; and in yet others, it had no effect at all (Carroll, 1984; Singh, House, and Tucker, 1986; Zucker, 1987; Amburgey, Lehtisalo, and Kelly, 1988). These results are consistent with several possibilities. Different types of change may cause different outcomes. The same change could also have different effects under different local conditions or timing. Finally, control variables may have been omitted from prior models that are necessary to unmask the true effects of change.

We pursue here one important additional possibility: that there may be organizational traits that can alter the effects of change on the probability of failure. We define a transformational shield as an organizational trait that insulates an organization against the probability of failure resulting from transformation. In terms of population dynamics, transformational shielding occurs if a trait insulates a set of organizations against failure effects normally caused by transformation.

In our discussion of buffering we noted that one of the specific purposes of resource buffering achieved through linkages is to permit the organization to avoid having to make changes in the core at all (Thompson, 1967; Pfeffer and Salancik, 1978). Theorists have also implied, however, that if changes do occur, linkages should mute their negative impact (Pfeffer and Salancik, 1978), making change less likely to induce failure. If so, linkages would meet our definition of a transformational shield.

As with buffering, transformational shielding can involve both resource- and legitimacy-based processes. We are concerned here primarily with resource-based processes. Extra resources can insulate the firm from potentially fatal results of transformation, through a variety of mechanisms. Resources can be used to prevent reduction in reliability following a transformation, by maintaining both old and new ways of doing things during periods of transition, for example. Extra resources can also permit the organization to control the timing of change to its benefit, for example, by using funds to communicate more extensively with stakeholders, asking them to remain patient during periods of change. Finally, extra resources can sustain the organization through short-term deprivations caused by changes themselves, by continuing to allocate resources for a fixed period to some groups who will eventually be harmed by the change, for example.

While interorganizational theory thus seems generally to imply that linkages should serve as transformational shields, some specific theories do suggest the opposite possibility. Linked partners who provide extra resources may reduce vulnerability to the general environment but create a special window of vulnerability at the same time. Linkages to one or a small number of other organizations, for example, may create a resource dependence that could make the organization more subject to the whims or fate of the resource-supplying organization (Cook, 1977; Pfeffer and Salancik, 1978; DiMaggio and Powell, 1983). Like links with a powerful patron, such linkages could thus create unique vulnerability to the source of buffering while offering protection from a wide variety of other threats. If these conditions hold, the absence of interorganizational linkages could actually serve as a shield against transformational failure. This line of reasoning implies that while linkages may insulate the organization against external pressures, they may actually enhance the risk of failure once transformation occurs. Our final hypothesis thus proposes that linkages will influence the effects of transformation on failure, but it leaves open the question of whether the linkages or their absence work as a shield:

Hypothesis 5: Interorganizational linkages will modify the effect of organizational change on failure, so that when transformations occur, (a) organizations with linkages will have a lower failure rate than other organizations, or (b) organizations with linkages will have a higher failure rate than other organizations.

We explored the above hypotheses in the population of Finnish newspapers from its beginnings in 1771 through 1963. The population went through a number of exogenous shocks during this period–including political, economic, and social upheavals and wars. Individual papers went through a number of transformations during the same period. This setting thus offered an unusually rich context for examining interorganizational linkages, failures, transformations, and their interaction over substantial periods of time.



The organizational population used in this study consists of all 1,011 newspapers published in Finland from 1771 to 1963. The Bibliography of the Finnish Newspapers, 1771-1963, published by the University of Helsinki, contains comprehensive information on these newspapers (Kaarna and Winter, 1965). The Bibliography contains information on name, location, content, frequency of publication, layout, language, geographic coverage (general or local), primary market (urban or rural), political affiliation, publisher, editor in chief, responsible editor, voluntary suspensions, government suppressions, mergers, and the dates of founding and failure. The timing of each change in one of these variables is recorded at least to the year and month, and, in the majority of cases, to the day. This publication is the most comprehensive listing of Finnish newspapers in existence. The only periodicals excluded were those containing little or no news, such as advertising sheets or trade journals.

Newspaper population density, entries, and exits by year are shown in Figures 1, 2, and 3 [omitted]. Both entries and exits are variable, with sharp peaks that reflect periods of intense creation or failure. As Figure 1 indicates, however, the longitudinal trend for population size is upward.

Each of the newspapers in the population is an independent organization. We have no evidence that media “chains” were in operation during the study period. There were a few instances of shared distribution, and many of the newspapers were associated through joint membership in wire-service associations, but the preponderance of the evidence suggests that treating each paper as an independent unit is justified.


Interorganizational linkages. The interorganizational linkage examined in this study was affiliation with a political party. A major wave of political party activity arose during the 1860s, with the primary issue being language policy. Pro-Swedish and pro-Finnish groups were the dominant factions. The schism over language had a major impact: the failure of one newspaper, Helsingfors Dagblad, has been attributed to its neutral stance on the language issue (Salmelin, 1968; Kurian, 1982). in later years, class schisms also arose and the Finnish press clearly split along party lines into four groups, with their own newspapers: Swedish nationalists (Svecomans), Conservatives (Old Finns), Liberals (Young Finns), and Social Democrats. By this time, more elaborate party structures had been implemented (Salmelin, 1968). During the remainder of the study period, political parties proliferated. Several centrist agricultural parties were founded, the left-wing fragmented, and several right-wing parties were instituted.

Newspapers affiliated with political parties were the recipients of resources but enjoyed a high degree of managerial autonomy. The party retained influence in the area of content, but in all other areas, the party newspapers operated largely as independent organizations. The papers affiliated with the Social Democrats are a case in point. On the one hand, the papers received direct benefits from the central party organization and even more substantial assistance from district organizations. These included loans, the redemption of debts, the establishment of funds to buy up shares, benefit functions, and support for the agents of the papers (Salmelin, 1968: 77). On the other hand, the papers were financially autonomous both de jure and de facto:

In contrast to other Scandinavian countries, where workers’ papers had passed into party ownership at an early stage, the financial basis of the Finnish press was established by selling cheap shares to all who wished to buy and by emphasizing the democratic nature of the ownership in a regulation whereby each shareholder had only one vote in the company meetings regardless of the number of shares he owned. (Salmelin, 1968: 74)

The autonomy granted the party press was often a matter of policy. During a party conference in 1901, for example, a proposal was made to bring the affiliated papers under party ownership by having the party buy all private shares, but this proposal was never implemented and was informally dropped by the party conference of 1903. instead, the party followed the principle of “moral guidance”: the independent companies should accord the party a say in decisions affecting the papers’ content and give the party the right to instruct the editorial staff on matters of political procedure (Salmelin, 1968: 76).

Even ideological control over the content of party papers was exercised only at the discretion of the newspaper and, on occasion, papers rejected party recommendations. “Decisive as ever was the degree of ideological solidarity. There was marked diversity in the party press, while a factor influencing all and sundry was the suspicion of any form of control over journalistic activity.” (Salmelin, 1968: 80)

Papers linked with political parties constitute the group of organizations with interorganizational linkages for this study. General-content papers correspond to what most people think of as a newspaper, e.g., local, national, and international news, sports, some advertising, announcements of upcoming events, and so on. Interestingly, however, because of the deep political schisms, “even the most unbiased newspaper acquired a political color in due course” (Kurian, 1982: 332).

The remaining types of papers (including party-affiliated papers) are all considered special-content papers, because they devoted large amounts of space to particular topics in addition to general news. Excluding party-affiliated papers, the largest group of special-content papers consisted of independent political papers. These papers were similar to the party press in that their primary focus was political advocacy, but they differed in that they lacked linkages to the parties.

The next most numerous group was labor papers, which specialized in content material of interest to wage laborers. Labor papers were not linked to workers’ associations (that role was filled by party-affiliated papers) except for the first several years of the newspaper, Tyomies (Salmelin, 1968: 73). Special-issue newspapers devoted a large amount of space to a special issue in each publication, and announcement papers gave unusually large amounts of space to announcements of events and advertising. Finally, there were a handful of religious papers and business-oriented commercial newspapers.

We have no evidence that general-content papers or any other special-content paper had interorganizational linkages similar to those of the party-affiliated papers. One might suspect that the religious papers received support from the Lutheran church or that commercial papers were subsidized by business interests, but we have no documentation of such links.

Failure. Failure was defined as the permanent cessation of a newspaper’s publication. Sometimes newspapers would temporarily suspend publication (either voluntarily or through suppression by the government) and then resume at a later date, but these events were not included as failures. In other cases, newspapers were permanently suppressed by the Tsarist regime or the republic. These instances were also not included as failures. To use a homely metaphor, we wanted to examine death from “natural causes” rather than murder. Furthermore, the suppression process has already been examined in previous research on this population (Amburgey, Lehtisalo, and Kelly, 1988). Finally, there were five instances in which a newspaper was sold to another publisher but continued to publish. These events were not included as failures because the organization itself continued. In addition, it is not clear that being sold implies either high or low economic performance in this population. Although this may produce problems of comparability with research that defines the transfer of ownership as a failure, the small number of events in question reduces the potential impact of this variation.

Transformation. Transformation was defined as the occurrence of a change in one or more of the following areas: content, coverage, editor in chief, language, layout (including frequency of publication), location, merger, publisher, or responsible editor. All of these changes represent serious changes for a newspaper in this population. Change in content represents a shift in the mix of topics in material reported. Change in coverage represents a change in the geographical areas covered. Change in layout includes change in frequency of publication or page size. While superficially minor adjustments, these changes often require shifts in staffing levels, technology, and production methods for a newspaper. Changes in publisher or responsible editor also represent potentially serious transitions because of the symbolic and substantive roles editors play in the newspaper business.

In some cases only a single attribute was changed; in others, as many as five characteristics were changed simultaneously. If only a single attribute was altered (frequency of publication, for example), the event was coded as a single attribute change. If more than one attribute was altered in the same issue (both frequency of publication and coverage, for example), the event was coded as a multiple-attribute change. Although a further breakdown by number of characteristics might appear desirable, there were too few instances of organizations making large numbers of changes simultaneously to do a meaningful analysis.

Dummy variables were constructed to assess the effect of transformation on the probability of failure and the probability of transformation. The single-attribute-change variable was coded as 1 if the newspaper had experienced a single attribute transformation within the previous five years and as 0, otherwise. The multiple-attribute-change dummy variable was constructed in the same way.

Environmental shocks. Environmental shocks or disturbances were represented by a set of seven period-effect dummy variables. Three of the dummy variables represent periods of restrictive press laws and/or repression by the Tsars while Finland was an autonomous Grand Duchy in the Russian Empire. The first set were periods of a priori censorship: 1829-1855, 1867-1905, and 1939-1946. The second set were periods of foreign-news censorship: 1809-1840 and 1892-1918. The third was a dummy for the “Years of Oppression,” when the Tsar attempted to revoke the autonomy of the Grand Duchy: 1899-1905.

Three of the shocks involved wars. The first was the civil war between the “Whites” and the Reds,” which resulted in Finnish independence from the Russian Empire: 1917-1921. The second was the “Winter War” with the Soviet Union that preceded World War II: 1939-1940. The last was World War II, during which Finland joined the Axis powers: 1941-1944. The remaining environmental shock was the Great Depression: 1930-1938. Although Finland’s agrarian economy seemed to reduce the depression’s impact, it did suffer economic hardship, especially during the earliest years.

Control variables. Previous research has indicated that failure and, in some cases, transformation rates may be affected by organizational characteristics, resource munificence levels, and population density. At the organizational level, ecological research has shown that age typically has a negative effect on failure (the “liability of newness”). Age was defined as the number of days since founding, divided by 365. Consistent with the well-established nonlinear relationship between age and probability of failure, the natural logarithm of age was used in the analysis.

Ecological research has also investigated in depth the effects of niche width, or the degree to which the organization follows a specialist or generalist product-market strategy (Freeman and Hannan, 1983). Three dummy control variables reflect different aspects of product-market positions for each paper. The first variable, content, refers to the paper’s overall breadth of subject matter. Each paper is either a general–or special-content paper. General-content papers cover a wide variety of topics and, by definition, are not dominated by one subject matter. Excluding party-affiliated papers, special-content papers include independent political, labor, announcement, special-issue, commercial, and religious papers. There are two types of special-content papers. Single-issue special-content papers devote little or no attention to any subjects other than their special concern. Multiple-issue special-content papers devote significant space to secondary or tertiary subject matter beyond their main focus. Finally, all papers are coded in terms of their geographical focus. Local-coverage papers focus chiefly on local news, while global-coverage papers also include regional, national, or international news.

Two other organizational characteristics were included as control variables. First, language of publication was entered as a dummy variable coded 1 for papers printed in Suomi (Finnish) and 0 for multilingual papers or papers printed in Swedish, Russian, or German. Language of publication represents a product characteristic of each paper that affects its potential market. To the degree that Suomi provided extra legitimacy because of nationalism, this variable may also control for legitimacy levels that provide institutional buffering. Second, frequency of publication was included as a control variable. More frequent publication requires a larger workforce. Furthermore, frequency of publication should affect the degree of difficulty the paper has in achieving reliability–a trait posited by Hannan and Freeman (1984) as critical to survival.

Resource munificence is an important environmental feature in all open-systems models of organizations (Scott, 1987). City population was used as an indicator of resource munificence. Population figures were taken from census reports that varied from every 20 years during the early 1800s, every 10 years during the late 1800s, and every 5 years beginning in the 1900s. City population was rescaled by dividing by 10,000 and entered as a step function that changed value at the time of a census report.

Finally, population density has consistently been shown to affect organizational mortality (Hannan and Freeman, 1989; Delacroix, Swaminathan, and Solt, 1989; Carroll and Hannan, 1989). The number of newspapers publishing in a given year was calculated for the entire observation period. The number publishing was then rescaled by dividing by 1 00, resulting in a measure of density.

Table 1 [omitted]contains descriptive information on the population. During the study period, there were 529 organizational failures among the 1,011 organizations in the total sample. Over the entire study period, the organizations studied made 3,300 single-trait changes and 605 multiple-trait changes.

Data Structure

The information contained in the Bibliography of Finnish Newspapers was used to construct a sequence of spells that mark all events for each organization. An event consisted of a change in any of the variables tracked for each organization, including coverage, editor in chief, language, layout, location, content, merger, publisher, or responsible editor. If one attribute was changed, the event was recorded as a single attribute change. If more than one attribute changed in a single issue, the event was recorded as a multiple-attribute change. The first spell began with the founding of the paper and ended with the second event. The second spell began the day after the first event and ended with the second event. This process was continued until the paper failed, was suppressed, or the study ended. Control variables were evaluated at the beginning of each spell (before an event occurred) in the analysis of their effects. Since some independent variables (such as density) vary rapidly over time, spells lasting longer than a year were segmented into yearly spells ending with a dummy event. This allowed time-varying independent variables to have their values updated at least yearly.

Model and Analysis

The analysis was conducted using a multivariate-point process to model the competing risks of transformation and failure. At any point in time, a newspaper was at risk for both transformation (a repeatable point event) and failure (a nonrepeatable point event). The rate of occurrence for both processes was taken as a loglinear function of the independent variables such that

r(t) = exp (BX),

where r(t) is the instantaneous probability of the event, X is a vector of independent variables, and B is a vector of coefficients for the independent variables. The coefficients were estimated using the method of maximum likelihood with Tuma’s RATE program (Tuma, 1982). Significance levels were evaluated by examining F-ratios for each of the coefficients.

A multivariate point-process model was used instead of conventional event-history methods because point-process models are especially well suited for analyzing repeatable events (Amburgey, 1986). In this population, the average number of events per paper was a little less than 5; one paper had 42 events. Using the point-process method permitted us to avoid two potential problems. First, we were not required to constrain our analyses to first events only, which would ignore approximately 80 percent of the data in this instance. Second, we did not need to analyze separately first events, second events, third events, and so on. Such an analysis would seem inappropriate, since we have no theoretical justification for disaggregating by order, and a completely disaggregated analysis would involve 42 separate analyses. Point-process models are being increasingly used in analysis of organizational populations (e.g., Carroll and Hannan, 1989), which mitigates the potential problem of comparability of results between this and future work.

Two basic modeling approaches were considered for the analyses: the use of single equations with interaction terms and the use of two separate models for linked and unlinked organizations. Separate equations were used, for four reasons. First, the underlying claim is that linkages will create different patterns of both failure and transformation. Treating linked and unlinked as potentially having different coefficients on both study and control variables is a conservative but prudent approach in the absence of prior evidence to the contrary.

Second, the variable of primary interest-presence or absence of linkages–is dichotomous. Thus, we do not lose information by using separate equations, as we might in the case of age or size interactions. Third, one of the main benefits of a combined analysis is the increased efficiency in estimating the coefficients constrained to be the same. In this study, the constrained coefficients would be the control variables, whose estimation is not of theoretical interest. Finally, using the interaction-term approach would add nine additional terms to the failure equation and seven additional terms to the transformation equation, each of which already has seventeen terms in the main-effects equation. Presentation of the results is more straightforward using two separate equations.

The test statistic for the comparison of coefficients in contrasting models for linked and unlinked organizations was a comparison-of-the-means test examining the difference between coefficients (Wonnacott and Wonnacott, 1970: 214).


Buffering from failure. Hypothesis 1 proposed that interorganizational linkages can buffer organizations from failure. Thus, party-affiliated papers, with their interorganizational linkages, should show a lower failure rate than other papers. The first column in Table 2 [omitted] shows the effect of the type of newspaper on organizational failure. Dummy variables were included for each type of paper other than general-content papers, which are the excluded category. As predicted, party–affiliated papers show a negative coefficient for failure. No other newspaper type has a failure rate that differs from the rate for general-content papers at a statistically significant level.

Age, newspaper density, and publications per year also affect failure rates in this model. Age displays the usual negative effect, while organizational density and publications per year show small but significant positive effects on failure. Unreported analyses included a quadratic term for density, which was not statistically significant.

Hypothesis 2 proposed that interorganizational linkages can also buffer organizations from failure related to exogenous shocks. Table 3 [omitted] shows the effect of the seven periods of shock on organizational failure for organizations with interorganizational linkages and for those without linkages. The data provide some support for the hypothesis. Four of the periods show statistically significant increased failure rates for papers without interorganizational linkages. In contrast, only one period shows a significant effect on failure rate for those with linkages.

With the addition of the shock variables to the equation, age continues to show the usual negative effect on failure for both groups. Density sustains a positive effect for organizations with linkages but not for the other organizations. Publications per year has a small negative effect for organizations without linkages, while multiple contents has a positive effect on failure for the unlinked organizations.

Transformation. Hypothesis 3 predicted that interorganizational linkages will affect the probability of transformation, with theories of slack search predicting an increased probability and inertial theories predicting a decreased probability. Columns 2 and 3 in Table 2 [omitted] show the effects of newspaper type on single and multiple organizational changes. Party-affiliated papers show a statistically significant greater tendency to make both single and multiple changes than papers in the omitted category of general-content papers. No other newspaper type shows such an increased tendency to make transformations, with one exception: commercial papers are more likely to make single-change transformations than are organizations in the omitted category. The data thus indicate that linkages affect transformation rates. Interorganizational linkages generally increase rather than reduce the chances of transformation.

Hypothesis 4 predicted that linkages would alter the effects of shock on the probability of major transformations. Table 4 [omitted] shows the effects of shocks on single and multiple transformations for linked and unlinked organizations. Periods of exogenous shock increase the tendency to make multiple transformations in four out of the seven periods for both linked and unlinked organizations. Both types of papers had increased chances of multiple transformations during the periods of foreign-news censorship, the Civil War, and the Winter War. World War II increased the chances of multiple changes just for the linked papers, while the Years of Oppression increased multiple-change rates for the unlinked papers.

A comparison of the size of coefficients for the two groups in Table 4 [omitted] provides very modest support for hypothesis 4(b), which predicted that periods of exogenous shock would produce a higher rate of transformations during shock periods for the linked papers. In four of the five periods in which either type showed an increased level of multiple transformations, the coefficient for the linked papers was greater. In one of the three periods during which both showed an increase, the difference is statistically significant at the .05 level. The data thus clearly imply that exogenous shocks increase the chances that any paper will make multiple changes and, though the results are not strong, suggest that the effect may be greater for organizations with resource buffering through interorganizational linkages.

Periods of exogenous shock do not have a statistically significant effect on the likelihood of single transformations. Only one coefficient is statistically significant below the .05 level for either the groups with linkages or those without.

The effects of linkages on transformational failure. Hypothesis 5 predicted that linkages will alter the effects of transformation rates on failure, with 5(a) predicting lower conditional failure rates for linked organizations and 5(b) predicting higher failure rates for linked organizations. The effects of a prior single change and prior multiple changes on organizational failure are shown in Table 3 [omitted] after the period effects.

Transformations significantly increase the probability of failure for all organizations. As one might expect, the effect is larger for multiple changes than for single changes. The presence of interorganizational linkages does moderate the effect: The difference between the coefficients for multiple changes by linked and unlinked papers is significant at the .05 level using a comparison-of-means test. Thus, the results support the prediction that the presence or absence of linkages can serve as a transformational shield.

The results support hypothesis 5(b), which predicted that linkages would increase failures following changes. The party newspapers with interorganizational linkages pay a greater, not a smaller survival price for transformation. Thus, it is the absence of linkages that serves as a transformational shield in this population.


Several aspects of this study strengthen our confidence in the value of our basic findings. The data on the population of organizations are unusually good: virtually all organizations in the population are included from the very beginning of a 200-year period. The data on transformations and failures are unusually reliable and consistent. The independent variables are always evaluated at a point in time before the dependent variables are measured. Thus, we have evidence of causality rather than evidence only of association, as would be provided by cross-sectional data. In contrast to some early studies of mixed transformation and selection processes, our models included many relevant control variables for organizational and environmental characteristics.

The results unequivocably support predictions that interorganizational linkages can buffer organizations from failure. Newspapers buffered through interorganizational linkages enjoyed a lower failure rate than all other types of newspapers and were protected from failure in periods of exogenous shock as well. The effects of this buffering are not minor: in this population, external linkages had a greater impact on organizational life chances than many of the characteristics typically studied by organizational ecologists, such as strategy and resource munificence. interorganizational linkages, long proposed in several literatures as a potentially important organizational feature, are thus confirmed in their role as an important environmental buffer in this population.

Interorganizational linkages also systematically affected organizational transformation rates. The finding that interorganizational linkages increased both single and multiple changes even during periods of relative stability is somewhat surprising. It is not consistent with the widely held assumption that organizations will change only under threat or great duress. It provides support for the possibility of slack search as one source of organizational change. It is also possible, of course, that external linkages created more complex demands that led to higher transformation rates.

Finally, this result is also consistent with the idea that some organizational changes may be proactive and are not necessarily mandated by immediate, visible threats. We suggest that it is important to keep an open mind about the possible origins of such changes. They may include changes made in anticipation of environmental threats or opportunities, purposeful changes made with no reference to environmental changes, and changes that occurred partly as a result of chance. Only additional research can assess the relative contributions of these mechanisms of change.

The finding that periods of exogenous shock increased the rates of multiple transformations for all organizations provides important support for punctuational models of population change (Tushman and Romanelli, 1985; Tushman and Anderson, 1986). It supports the claim that during shock periods, organizations may undertake more extensive change than during periods of relative stability. There is marginal support for the notion that the linked organizations may undertake more multiple changes during the exogenous shock periods. At a minimum, we can say that there is no support for the idea that linked organizations in this population “rode out” periods of exogenous shock. Organizations that make changes can be seen as one potential source of variation, of course. This, in turn, affects the possible outcomes of selection processes (Torres, 1988). These data thus suggest that linked organizations may provide as much, and possibly even more, variation than do other organizations during periods of shock.

Overall, the results of tests for the first four hypotheses are consistent with the concept of resource buffering. They imply that such buffering can decrease failure and enhance transformation rates, both in general and during periods of exogenous shock.

Turning to the effects of transformation on failure, we find that, in this population, transformation generally increases failure rates. This finding would be predicted by theories of structural inertia, which emphasize the cost of change. It would also be predicted by theories of adaptive change, which anticipate that change will have a negative effect on average, but organizations can sometimes choose to retain changes that prove beneficial, The analyses here do not permit one to distinguish between these two theories, although they are not inherently indistinguishable.

The presence or absence of interorganizational linkages had a statistically significant effect on the impact of transformation on failure, however. Organizations with linkages were more likely to fail after transformation than the other organizations. Thus, a trait that generally lowered chances of failure increased the chances of failure after transformation. This finding supports the existence of transformational shields. In this population, a factor that provided resource buffering–generally reducing failure-increased the chances of failure after transformation. Buffering and transformational shielding are thus distinct processes rather than different manifestations of a single protective factor.

The fact that interorganizational linkages increased rather than reduced failure following transformation–while a theoretical possibility–seems surprising. One explanation for the counter-intuitive result is the possibility that political parties, while giving operational freedom to the political newspapers, nonetheless withdrew support under some specific conditions. The parties may have reacted to change by withholding the very resources that generally provided buffering from external threats (DiMaggio and Powell, 1983). Alternatively, parties may be unable rather than unwilling to provide resources at certain times. Or, the parties may have provided both resources and legitimacy, with the legitimacy effects proving helpful when the organizations were stable but actually making transformations more difficult. Finally, the party linkage may have provided a stable customer base that normally protected them but that reacted negatively to change. These speculations suggest that further research on population dynamics could fruitfully examine the mechanisms of transformational shielding,

Questions of more complex interactions between periods, transformation, and failure over time offer another fruitful domain for further work. Table 4 [omitted], for example, showed that organizations of both types had increased transformation rates during certain shock periods. If one then examines the failure rates during these high transformation periods in Table 3 [omitted], the pattern seems different for the two groups. For the organizations with linkages, periods with increased transformation rates showed an increased failure rate in only one of four high transformation periods. For the organizations without linkages, there was an increase in failure rate in three of the four high-transformation periods. Additional analyses of the interaction of shock period, transformation, and failure appear to be warranted.

We see several additional possibilities for further research. Examining populations with several different groups of buffered organizations would permit greater generalizability of results. Further research could aggressively explore institutional, or legitimacy-based buffering. Further investigation of the effects of different types of changes seems obviously warranted. The inclusion of measures of organizational performance would permit more subtle examination of organizational adaptation arguments. Finally, our results are at least partially consistent with the idea of hierarchically nested systems, in which selection begins to move to a different level of analysis than the individual organization (Astley, 1985; Fombrum, 1988). Thus future work could add additional levels of analysis to the research design.

Although we see a variety of promising areas for further work, we began our investigation asking the simple question of how the characteristics of a population of organizations change over time. Our results provide some answers to that question. The existence of organizational buffers implies that some organizations will be at least partially excluded from environmental pressures at certain times. In that case, population dynamics may be said to proceed through partial selection processes (Stearns, 1982; Miner, Amburgey, and Stearns, 1987). Under partial selection, some organizations survive that otherwise would have failed. Traits of these organizations can then persist longer than one might otherwise expect. This could, in turn, produce different mixes of traits in the population than would otherwise occur.

At the same time, the presence of transformational shields means that some organizations can escape some of the costs of organizational transformation. This means that some organizations can experiment more than others, whether intentionally or unintentionally. This could, in turn, produce a wider variation in traits–and in the possible combinations of those traits–in the entire population. Transformational shields also make possible, although hardly inevitable, the occurrence of organizational learning, because they may permit some organizations to make use of experiments that would otherwise lead to failure.

Only future work will reveal if we will find satisfying and parsimonious ways to represent the potentially complex interactions of buffers and transformational shields in these population-change mechanisms. Our results imply that both separately and in combination, buffers and transformational shields can affect two of the most fundamental engines of population change: the process of selection and the creation of variation in population traits.


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