Wellsprings of Knowledge: Building and Sustaining the Sources of Innovation

Posted: 4 Nov 2009

Date Written: 1995


Since firms are knowledge institutions, or well-springs of knowledge, they compete on the basis of creating and using knowledge; managing a firm's knowledge assets is as important as managing its finances. A firm's expertise is acquired by employees and embodied in machines, software, and institutional procedures. Management of its core or strategic capabilities determines a firm's competitiveness and survival. Through decision-making and action, core technological capabilities can be built and changed. The author proposes to (1) help managers think about the knowledge-building consequences of their technology-related decisions and (2) provide academics materials usable in training managers to think about knowledge building. All aspects of product or process development must be viewed in terms of knowledge management and growth. Knowledge cannot be managed the same as tangible assets; to manage knowledge assets, one must understand them. Successful adaptation is an incremental re-direction of skills and knowledge. A set of four core technological competencies bestows competitive advantage on firms; these are the firm's skill and knowledge bases, physical technical systems, managerial systems, and values and norms that create a firm's special advantage. These may reside at any line-of-business level. Core capabilities must be managed to foster, not inhibit flow of critical knowledge. There is a dilemma: core capabilities are also core rigidities when carried to an extreme or when the competitive environment changes. Limited problem solving, inability to innovate, limited experimentation, and screening out new knowledge can undermine the development of competencies. Four key activities create and sustain flows of knowledge and direct them into core capabilities: (1) Integrated, shared creative problem solving across cognitive and functional barriers - shared problem solving achieves new level of creativity when managed for "creative abrasion." (2) Implementation and integration of new internally generated methodologies and technical processes and tools. These can move beyond merely increasing efficiency when managed for learning. (3) Formal and informal experimentation. Experimental activities create new core competencies that move companies purposefully forward and are guards against rigidity. (4) Importing and absorbing technological knowledge expertise from outside the firm. Technology alliances, for example, develop outwise wellsprings of knowledge (identify, access, use, and manage knowledge from external sources). Well managed, these enable companies to tap knowledge wellsprings consistently and continuously. Many dysfunctional attitudes and behaviors within firms inhibit these activities. These activities are oriented to present, internal, future, and external domains, and involve managers at all company levels and all functions. Specific managerial behaviors that build (or undermine) capabilities are identified. Managers must design an environment that encourages enactments of these four activities to create an organization that learns. Thereby, organizations and managers can create an atmosphere for continuous renewal; application to commercial ends is as important as managing it internally. The growth and nurturing of core capabilities (expressed in successful product development) requires learning from the market (understanding user needs), or feeding market information into new-product development. Identifying new product opportunities depends on empathic design, actual observed customer behavior, and technological capabilities. Technology transfer can also be understood as transferring technological capabilities to a new site, which is examined at four levels (assembly or turnkey, adaptation and localization, system, redesign, product design). Transfer of production development capability is illustrated with the cas

Keywords: Competencies, Capabilities, Collaboration, Diffusion of innovations, Information acquisition, Product development, Problem solving, Technology transfer, Knowledge transfer, Firm management, Knowledge management, Organizational learning, Innovation process, Competitive advantages, Asset management, Organizational cultures

Suggested Citation

Leonard-Barton, Dorothy, Wellsprings of Knowledge: Building and Sustaining the Sources of Innovation (1995). University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership Historical Research Reference in Entrepreneurship, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1496178

Dorothy Leonard-Barton (Contact Author)

affiliation not provided to SSRN

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