In Search of Optimal Distinctiveness: Balancing Conformity and Differentiation via Organizational Learning

Yimei Hu, Huanren Zhang, Yuchen Gao

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Firms in a nascent industry need to search across various technological trajectories and market opportunities with limited prior knowledge. While inter-firm learning (e.g., imitation) helps the focal firm adapt in the process of conformity, intra-firm learning (e.g., independent experimentation) helps a firm stand out from rivals in the process of differentiation, both of which can gain competitive advantages. This study investigates how the conformity-differentiation balance can be achieved from the cross-level learning perspective. Adopting a mixed-method design, we first conduct a case study on the Chinese photovoltaic industry. The case suggests that firms are inclined to conform in upstream and bottleneck technological domains but differentiate in the downstream market applications. We then extend the case findings through a computational simulation based on March's learning model. When experimentation and imitation are possible, the balance between conformity and differentiation can be reframed as the classical balance between exploitation and exploration across the firm and industry levels: while experimentation is often exploitative at the firm level but exploratory at the industry level, imitation is often exploratory at the firm level but exploitative at the industry level. The study makes a new attempt to bridge the optimal distinctiveness literature with the organizational learning literature.

Original languageEnglish
JournalManagement and Organization Review
Issue number4
Pages (from-to)690-725
Number of pages36
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • conformity
  • differentiation
  • exploitation
  • exploration
  • optimal distinctiveness
  • paradoxical balance


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