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How technological frames transform: the case of the global microgrid industry

Hetzel, M. (2021). How technological frames transform: the case of the global microgrid industry. (Unpublished Doctoral thesis, City, University of London)


This thesis applies three distinct technology-centred perspectives to explore the mechanisms through which an emergent, complex technology gains acceptance. I develop innovative models to improve our understanding of the processes by which technologies are adopted and institutionalised. This work was motivated by studies that have addressed criticisms to give technology a more central role within the management and organisation science literature and by looking at solutions to the far-reaching consequences of the current energy transition and related problems. The main setting is the global energy sector with a focus on microgrids, which are self-sufficient energy systems. Considering the significance of microgrids for the transformation towards a more sustainable energy sector, they have only received limited attention outside the technical literature. Paper 1 is an in-depth industry study of the emergence of the energy sector and microgrid technologies. It provides the reader with a deeper understanding of microgrid technologies and the markets through which they are bought, sold, and eventually spread. The study integrates the global microgrid industry into the historical context of energy transitions and decentralization and elaborates the technology’s relevance in these processes and what tensions exist that might hinder its adoption. The paper’s main contribution is to provide a novel perspective on the energy sector and microgrids reflecting recent developments by considering a wide spectrum of data sources. The paper analyses over 245 cited sources reaching from academic journal papers to practitioner industry proceedings, specialist industry publications, news websites and forums, consulting and research reports, as well as company white papers and websites. The engagement with industry experts revealed that non-standardization of microgrid technologies is a key concern. This led to the second study to explore how the interpretation of a technology’s capabilities, focusing on standardizability, changes over time and affects the technology’s trajectory. Paper 2 extends prior research by introducing the concept of complexity differentials, which describe the difference between the complexity of a technology and the complexity of the technology’s environment, to technological frames. Technological frames were introduced as a concept for understanding how organisational stakeholders evaluate and experience technologies. I argue that previous research has not sufficiently examined the role of complexity differentials in determining the usefulness of technological frames. The two-year study of the emerging microgrid industry examines technological frames dynamics by considering the role of complexity. It emphasises the importance of how novel technologies are framed as large deviations between the framing and technology destabilise the frame and thus reduce the understanding and adoption of a technology. I find that technological frames that extensively deviate in complexity from the technology they describe become instable over time, ultimately leading to their transformation or overall replacement. This perspective adds to the literature that examines the limitations of frames such as encouraging overconfidence in a technology, inhibit learning and problem-solving processes, or reinforcing unreflective reliance on established assumptions. The processes studied in paper 2 unveiled that our understanding of how technologies become accepted often does not include the materiality of the technology as a central factor. This led to the third paper, that aims to give the technology itself a more central role in the proposed technology institutionalisation process model. Paper 3 is a conceptual study in form of a multi-level model of technology institutionalisation incorporating micro, meso, and macro-lenses to better explain how novel technologies become widely accepted and taken-for-granted. The paper presents a conceptual model to guide future studies of the technology institutionalisation process. In arguing for a more technology-centred approach to investigate the institutionalisation process of novel technologies, the study conceptualises technology as an independent institution. It addresses the lack of technology-focused studies within institutional theory, as well as the call for multi-level models to explain the technology institutionalisation process. The proposed multi-level model of technology institutionalisation emphasises that micro and macro-level of analysis should be regarded as complementary to each other and that both technological and organisational field-level mechanisms act as moderating forces within the technology institutionalisation process.

Publication Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Subjects: T Technology > T Technology (General)
Departments: Bayes Business School
Bayes Business School > Bayes Business School Doctoral Theses
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