Mergers and acquisitions can be fascinating to observe. When they work—think: Disney/Pixar, Apple/NeXT, Pfizer/Warner-Lambert—the results can be spectacular. But when they don’t—remember AOL/Time Warner?—well, it can be like watching cars pile up on an icy highway.

Professor Myles Shaver has spent considerable time studying the realm. “Depending on who you talk to, the estimate is that more than half of all M&As don’t work,” he notes. “And that raises a question: What’s going on if we’re always doing these things that don’t work so well?”

According to Shaver, answering that question involves taking an in-depth look at all potential sources of advantages and disadvantages that emerge when companies come together. With that in mind, he used the biotech industry as launching point. One reason why: Strategic alliances are common throughout biotech, in part because they can provide the synergy needed to create a competitive advantage. The field also has some unexplored territory when it comes to M&As. “Past studies have explored how alliances can affect firm performance,” says Shaver. “But they haven’t examined how an acquisition can change performance or the nature of an alliance.”

With that in mind, Shaver took an exhaustive look at biotech firms that made acquisitions, examining the factors behind acquisition target choices, including patent portfolios, market niches, and more. One key finding: “Companies take alliance networks into account as part of the M&A process,” he says. “They certainly care about other elements such as patent portfolios, but those are not weighted any more heavily than the effects of overall alliance positioning.”

In short, M&As are happening thanks to the synergies produced by changes in the companies’ network of strategic alliances. And that opens up exciting new areas for future research. “We’re beginning to isolate a new source of advantage or disadvantage,” he says. “By doing so, we have a much broader puzzle to work with. And we can also begin to piece together that puzzle’s elements to understand what makes some M&As successful and others unsuccessful.”

Mergers and acquisitions are extremely complex phenomena, and they often end in failure. Systematically highlighting the different mechanisms or sources of advantages and disadvantages is important. Alliance network synergies is an area that hasn’t been looked at until now.