Capabilities: Their Origins and Ancestry

Sidney Winter, Management, The Wharton School

Abstract: In a statement that is relatively famous, considering its position at the back of an old book, Alfred Marshall remarked on the ‘the manifold influences of the element of time’. He noted the obstacles those influences pose to mathematical analysis (or, he said, any analysis) of a complex, ‘real life’ problem – and the tendencies to over-simplification that often result (Marshall, 1920, p. 850). Marshall’s statement remains broadly relevant today, notwithstanding the very major advances in the analysis of dynamical systems that have occurred in the interim. It is relevant in particular to the complex problem featured in this special issue, understanding the origins of organizational routines and capabilities.

In this essay, I argue that an adequate answer to the origins question must fully respect the element of time. That this is the case might seem obvious, considering the connotations of the word ‘origins’. Yet, if the call for this special issue is indicative of the general state of the discussion on origins (and the related ‘microfoundations’ discussion), the centrality of time is not widely acknowledged. The word ‘time’ appears just once, and important related words appear not at all. Particularly striking is the absence of ‘history’ and ‘historical’, considering the expressed intention to emphasize empirical studies of the origins question. The explanation for this may be the one suggested by Marshall, i.e. an understandable drive towards analytical simplification. Regardless, I argue that it is inherent in the nature of the topic that the obstacles must be confronted, and that evolutionary theory is the effective way to organize the confrontation.

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