Emulation in Academia: Balancing Structure and Identity

Giuseppe Labianca, James F. Fairbank, James B. Thomas, Dennis A. Gioia, Elizabeth E. Umphress

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

102 Scopus citations


This study seeks to expand our understanding of interorganizational emulation decisions made by top administrators in a broad sample of American colleges and universities. We analyze their emulation choices and show that these decision makers tend to emulate universities similar to their own. Our findings suggest, however, that the choice of emulation target within one's industry is not simply a matter of choosing the most structurally similar organization, but rather that identity-related attributes, such as reputation, organizational image, and organizational identity, also play a significant role in the emulation decision. The data also show that industry subgroups based on emulation decisions (strategic reference groups) differ in both structural and identity-related attributes. Further, interorganizational emulation decisions based on tactics of upward comparison (e.g., emulating universities with better reputations) are associated with greater strategic change, while downward comparisons are associated with greater perceived external threat. Finally, the data show that top management's perceptions of the university's level of environmental threat are related to their choice of a more coarse-grained or fine-grained set of attributes when determining the emulation target. We discuss some of these findings' implications for theory and practice.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)312-330
Number of pages19
JournalOrganization Science
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2001


  • Emulation
  • Organizational image and identity
  • Reputation
  • Strategic reference groups

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Strategy and Management
  • Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management
  • Management of Technology and Innovation


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