Coevolutionary Lock-In in External Search
While external search allows organizations to source diverse ideas from people outside the organization, it often generates a narrow set of non-diverse ideas. We theorize that this result stems from an interplay between organizations’ selection of ideas and the external generation of ideas: an organization selects ideas shared by external contributors, and the external contributors, who strive to see their ideas selected, use the prior selection as a signal to infer what kind of ideas the organization is looking for. Contributors whose ideas are not aligned with the organization’s selection tend to stop submitting ideas (i.e., self-selection) or adjust the ideas they submit so that they correspond (i.e., self-adjustment), resulting in a less diverse pool of ideas. Our central hypothesis is that the more consistent organizations are in their selection, the stronger the co-evolutionary lock-in: organizations with greater selection consistency receive future ideas with lower content variety. We find support for these predictions by combining large-scale network analysis and natural language processing across a large number of organizations that use crowdsourcing. Our findings suggest a reconceptualization of external search: organizations are not simply passive receivers of ideas but send signals that shape the pool of ideas that externals share.