Research Interests

My research focuses on the dynamics of market emergence and disruption and the related topics including technological innovation, market entry, and organizational adaptation in changing environments. The fundamental problem that motivates me is how organizations, entrepreneurs, and their audiences make sense of and deal with ambiguity when a new industry emerges or when a mature industry encounters challenges from competing industries or drastic environmental changes (e.g., societal crises and digital transformation). Some of my specific interests include:

  • Industry emergence and evolution

  • Technological innovation and entrepreneurship

  • Communities and organizations

  • Organizational values, identity, and authenticity

  • Cultural, creative, and craft industries


Technology, Local Communities, and Market Evolution: The Rise, Fall, and Perseverance of American Movie Theaters, 1896-2020

  • Robert Ferber Dissertation Award, University of Illinois, 2021

Working Papers

Li, Y. The Show Must Go On: The Role of Organizational Values in Art House Movie Theaters' Identity-Challenging Transformation during COVID-19 (Dissertation Chapter 4). Under review at Administrative Science Quarterly.

  • Best Student Paper Award, Organization and Management Theory (OMT) Division, Academy of Management, 2021

The literature has established that organizational change is challenging when it is deemed as contradictory to “who we are as an organization.” However, organizations may have no choice but to change drastically when a sudden shift in environmental conditions thrusts organizations into a life-or-death situation. The important question is how organizations maintain a sense of self when they are forced to become “who we are not” in a crisis. In this qualitative study of American art house movie theaters, based on data collected both before the outbreak of COVID-19 and in real time as the pandemic unfolded, I uncover the importance of organizational values in crisis-induced identity-challenging changes. I find that organizations can successfully navigate such changes through identity compartmentalization, which refers to organizations separating identity into technology components and value components, and value infusion, which refers to organizations using values to give new meanings to a technology that was previously considered as antithetical to organizational identity. In doing so, organizations consider their changes as revising the technology part of their identity but staying true to the more important, value-based part of identity. This study contributes to research on organizational values, organizational identity, and adopting new technology in extreme situations.

Li, Y. Naming as Market Claiming: How the Presence of a Local Market’s Namesake Organization Influences Entry Rates (Dissertation Chapter 2). Revise & Resubmit at Special Issue of Strategic Organization: “Categories and Place: Materiality, Identities, and Movements.”

Due to the lack of direct information about competitive intensity in new markets, potential entrants rely on signals to indirectly infer the competitiveness of their rivals. Drawing on the literature on organizational names, local places, and information asymmetry, I investigate how the presence of a community namesake, which refers to an organization that is named after the local community in which it is located, influences founding rates in this community. Using data on the population of Chicago movie theaters during the historical emergence period of the movie exhibition industry (1905-1927), I find that once a local community hosts a theater that is a community namesake, the ensuing founding rates of new theaters in this community decrease. This power of namesake in deterring new entries is found for potential entrants who are affiliated with a chain but not for those who are independent entrepreneurs. Furthermore, I find that even when the namesake ceases operation, it still discourages new entries because its material form may leave a legacy with which potential entrants imagine as difficult to overcome. However, I find no effect of being a community namesake on the focal organization’s survival, which suggests that namesakes may be unreliable signals of competitive intensity.

Li, Y., S. Reis, & O.M. Khessina. Cultural Embeddedness and Social Salience: How the Programming of TV Shows Disrupted the Single-Screen Movie Theater Market, 1944-1962 (Dissertation Chapter 3). In preparation for submission to Organization Science.

  • Nominated, Best Student Paper Award, European Group for Organizational Studies Colloquium (EGOS), 2021

How can an emerging industry without initial obvious technical, ideological, or collective action advantages cause the decline of an established market? To answer this question, we need to identify mechanisms that shift consumer attention from the old to the new industry, even when the latter does not possess obvious advantages. In this paper, we develop two such mechanisms – cultural embeddedness and social salience – to explain how organizations in an emerging industry can help customers see their novel offerings as familiar as well as perceive these offerings as potential substitutes for incumbent products. We suggest that companies in an emerging market may achieve cultural embeddedness by immersing their novel offerings in cultural artifacts of an incumbent industry. Newcomers may also achieve higher social salience by reflecting public discourse in their offerings better than the incumbent industry. Cultural embeddedness and social salience prompt customers to shift their limited attention and resources from the established market to the emerging industry, causing the former to decline. We find empirical support for our theorizing in an event history analysis of how the incumbent industry of all single-screen movie theaters in the state of Illinois was negatively affected by the newcomer U.S. TV programming industry during 1944-1962.

Li, Y. & O.M. Khessina. Before the Birth of an Organizational Form: The Role of Proto-form in the Emergence of Historical Movie Theaters (Dissertation Chapter 1).

  • Part of the symposium “The Role of Community in Organizational Form Emergence and Proliferation” – Finalist for the OMT Best Symposium Award, 2019

While significant knowledge has accumulated about the diffusion and legitimation of new organizational forms, it is not well understood where entrepreneurial ideas for new forms come from and why geographic communities may develop different organizational forms to exploit the same innovation. In this paper, by focusing on the often-neglected earliest stage of organizational form emergence, we uncover the role of experimental spaces in facilitating entrepreneurial recognition of provisional templates for organizing, which we call “proto-forms.” We theorize that proto-forms provide potential entrepreneurs with ideas about how to start ventures of a new type and, if different proto-forms prevail across geographic communities, organizational form emergence exhibits community-specific patterns. Using archival data on historical movie theaters in Chicago communities, 1896-1927, we find empirical support that community variance in the number and types of experimental spaces for early movie projectors (e.g., opera houses, vaudeville theaters, and dime museums) led to community-level differences in the emergence of movie theaters with different forms: nickelodeons, movie houses, and movie palaces. This study advances scholarship on form emergence by revealing the role of experimental spaces in shaping localized opportunity structures for entrepreneurial actions.