In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Organizational Adaptation

  • Introduction
  • Journals

Management Organizational Adaptation
Andrew Sarta, Jean-Philippe Vergne, Rodolphe Durand
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 June 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846740-0149


Organizational adaptation is a ubiquitous concept in management and organization research. Discussed in many theories, sometimes under different labels, the notion of adaptation is related to organizations being congruent to the environments within which they operate. Research traditions including behavioral theory (see A Behavioral Theory of the Firm [Cyert and March 1963, cited under Organizations and Environmental Fit]) contingency theory as explained in “Differentiation and Integration in Complex Organizations” (Lawrence and Lorsch 1967, cited under Organizations and Environmental Fit), population ecology (see The Population Ecology of Organizations [Hannan and Freeman 1977, cited under Adaptation versus Selection]), institutional theory elaborated upon in both “Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony” (Meyer and Rowan 1977) and “The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields” (DiMaggio and Powell 1983 (both cited under Constraining Forces to Adaptation]), resource dependence (see The External Control of Organizations: A Resource Dependence Perspective [Pfeffer and Salancik 1978, cited under Constraining Forces to Adaptation]), and evolutionary economics (see An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change [Nelson and Winter 1982, cited under Adaptation versus Selection]) all address organizational adaptation—though they emphasize different mechanisms. Adaptation, regarded as the strategic choice that organizations make, is often contrasted with the notion of selection driven by the determinism imposed by environments (see “Organizational Adaptation: Strategic Choice and Environmental Determinism” [Hrebiniak and Joyce 1985, cited under Negotiating with Environments in the Adaptation Process]). Adaptive organizations are those able to obtain congruence both within organizations, reflected as congruence in internal functions and strategies, and across organizations, reflected as congruence with the needs of the external environment. The form of adaptation is also particularly relevant. Organizational theory has viewed adaptation as a state, as an ability, and as a process. States of adaptation discuss stability and adaptation at points in time. From states of adaptation, adaptive abilities determine the impetus of adaptation and the locus of adaptation within organizations. Finally, the adaptation processes describe the means by which organizations adapt the challenges they face in negotiating new positions within environments. Research has covered each of these areas and this article is organized primarily around forms of adaptation to elaborate on the ways in which it has been viewed by organizational theory and strategy scholars. Research traditions examining organizational adaptation have not always aligned, however. Each research tradition seeks to explain different outcomes, from survival to performance to change. Thus, across theoretical traditions, the adaptation construct has been measured in many different ways—and often not as congruence with the external environment. In fact, this represents one of the challenges that recent research has identified as holding back progression of the adaptation research agenda. As such, this bibliography concludes with a section on issues in adaptation research in order to assist researchers in pursuing research in this area.


Organizational adaptation is not discussed by any one particular journal, but it is represented in the most prominent journals of management, strategy, and organizational theory. Current research continues to elaborate on organizational adaptation as a theoretical concept, notably in leading management journals such as Academy of Management Review, Administrative Science Quarterly, Organization Science, and Strategic Management Journal. Each of the aforementioned journals, with the exception of the Academy of Management Review also publish empirical studies on organizational adaptation. Scholars seeking to discover further empirical studies that evaluate organizational adaptation should also consult the Academy of Management Journal and Management Science as outlets for high-impact research. A strong lineage of organizational adaptation can also be traced to prominent journals in sociology. Although articles on organizational adaptation occur less frequently in the American Sociological Review and the American Journal of Sociology, some of the most influential articles have emanated from authorship in these journals historically.

  • Academy of Management Journal. 1958–.

    A flagship journal of management research, Academy of Management Journal is the primary outlet for empirical research published by the Academy of Management. Organizational adaptation has been reflected in this journal through a wide range of studies that leveraged processual approaches, mixed methods, and quantitative methods.

  • Academy of Management Review. 1976–.

    Academy of Management Review is the primary outlet of theoretical research published by the Academy of Management. Research has been published in this journal to reflect conceptual models and theoretical mechanisms associated with organizational adaptation.

  • Administrative Science Quarterly. 1956–.

    A flagship journal of management research that publishes research to advance management theory and report empirical studies on organizations.

  • American Journal of Sociology. 1895–.

    A flagship journal of sociological research that includes studies of management and economic sociology. Studies on organizational adaptation are less frequent in this journal; however, historical roots of both institutional theory and population ecology emanate from sociological roots and were important theories that shaped the literature on organizational adaptation.

  • American Sociological Review. 1936–.

    A flagship journal of sociological research published by the American Sociological Association. Research published in this journal focuses on advancing the understanding of social processes, which includes research on industrial and organizational sociology. Research on institutional theory that has influenced organizational adaptation has been reflected in this journal.

  • Management Science. 1954–.

    A management journal that focuses on the practice of management and covers a broad range of management topics, including strategy, decision making, organizational theory, and entrepreneurship. Organizational adaptation has been well reflected in this journal through methodological advances that simulate the adaptive behavior of organizations.

  • Organization Science. 1990–.

    A management journal that publishes theoretical and empirical research on a broad range of management topics, including strategy, organizational behavior, and organizational theory. Research on organizational adaptation has been prominently featured in this journal and studied from a variety of perspectives that includes cognition and learning in the process of adaptation.

  • Strategic Management Journal. 1980–2018.

    A management journal that publishes theoretical and empirical research focused on improving the theory and practice of management. This journal is designed to appeal more broadly to practicing managers and covers topics related to strategic decision-making, resource allocation, competitive advantage, and organizational capabilities. Research on organizational adaptation has been published to reflect the adaptive abilities or organizations and the competitive advantages and disadvantages associated with adaptation and inertia.

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