Macquarie University
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How do business models evolve in practice?: a complex-adaptive perspective

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posted on 2022-03-29, 03:22 authored by Iain Rolfe
Firms in the high-technology sector must navigate an environment that is dynamic and fast-moving. It is an environment that displays continual disequilibrium and witnesses regular shocks. In such a discordant environment, traditional top-down modes of strategic planning struggle to generate sufficient flexibility and speed of change necessary for a firm to maintain environmental fit over time. Instead, to coevolve with its environment a firm, and in particular, its business model(s) must adapt constantly. To achieve this, significant decision-making must necessarily be located in the operational layers of the firm. To understand how the resulting multitude of small decisions result in change(s) to the firm’s business model, I conduct a multiple method case study on Cisco as a kind of phenotype in the high-technology sector. Cisco is a firm whose business models have the capacity to change themselves in response to external stimuli. Through a strategy-as-practice lens, I establish that Cisco’s business models exhibit characteristics of complex adaptive systems and function analogously to them. I suggest the notion of a complex adaptive business model is theoretically located in evolutionary economics and emergent strategy instead of neoclassical economics and mainstream strategy. Consequently, I recommend the firm perceive itself as the facilitator and orchestrator of the business model rather than the controller of it. To guide the business model, I recommend the firm embrace an overall strategic framework that provides high-level rules and boundaries but otherwise allows the business model to develop freely. Such freedom has both positive and negative implications. For firms housing or seeking to establish a complex adaptive business model, I highlight the firm’s own high-level purpose must be clearly resolved and cultural and structural adjustments inside the firm be made.


Table of Contents

1. Introduction -- 2. Literature review -- 3. Complex adaptive business models -- 4. Method -- 5. Results -- 6. Discussion -- 7.Conclusion -- References -- Appendices.


Theoretical thesis. Bibliography: pages 243-267

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


PhD, Macquarie University, Faculty of Business and Economics, Macquarie Graduate School of Management

Department, Centre or School

Macquarie Graduate School of Management

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Lars Groeger

Additional Supervisor 1

Kyle Bruce


Copyright Iain Rolfe 2017. Copyright disclaimer:




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