Formal Collaboration and Informal Information Networks
Collaboration has long been a means favoured by both national and European policymakers for extending the knowledge base of individual firms, thus encouraging innovation and increasing the competitiveness of collaborating firms. Industry itself, however, has shown some preference in recent years for collaboration of a more binding sort, for mergers and acquisitions. Over the same period, management theory has been focusing on the advantages of looser ties with many more players, on networks of various sorts. It may be that there is no real divergence here, that as far as a firm‰s knowledge base is concerned, an acquisition is no more than a more controlled collaboration, and a network simply a less controlled collaboration. Perhaps all that has happened is that the spectrum of collaboration has broadened. However, it is also possible that traditional collaboration of the sort long espoused by policy has proved to be less than satisfactory in the long term. The explanation may be that the information acquired through formal collaboration is insufficient for innovation, that other information from these other sources is required. Formal collaboration may inhibit the acquisition of information from these other sources, particularly from external information networks.
Empirical research will study information flow in the collaborations of the EU‰s Esprit Programme, designed to encourage technological innovation in information technology. Originally aimed at pre-competitive research, the Esprit Programme has become increasingly concerned with producing innovation. The Programme has already been extensively evaluated, but there has been no investigation of the long term impact of collaboration on information flows. The evaluations, many of them in real-time, will provide excellent background material on the network effects of collaboration as they were perceived at the time. One important finding of the evaluations deserves particular attention: it was discovered that collaboration was most successful between firms which had relationships pre-dating the Esprit Programme. This may indicate a complex and dynamic interaction between formal and informal information flow.
From each of the fifteen contacts, the names of other individuals will be sought who were most involved with technological (rather than administrative) aspects of the collaboration. Following pilot testing in interviews, questionnaires will be sent to each of these nominated individuals asking them to identify the sources of information, both inside and outside their organisations, which have been most important in their own contribution to the firm‰s innovation, before, during and (where appropriate) after collaboration. This small survey will provide some idea of major sources and of how they have changed with time and circumstances, but it will also provide the information required for the next survey - the names and addresses of individuals identified as major sources of technological information.
Four passes will produce a considerable number of individuals who are, or have been, sources of technological information. These are all personal contacts, and, in themselves, evidence of only a rudimentary technology transfer mechanism. But do these numerous contacts betray a much more powerful and sophisticated mechanism - information networking? By mapping the connections, the information flow, between the contacts, it should be possible to construct network maps. As information networks are purely functional constructs, their existence and size reveals much about the use being made of them. Mapping of these networks will disclose:
The data will allow extensive analysis. Beyond that to determine the networks themselves, it will, for example, be possible to relate network participation to the characteristics of individuals and of their employers. By this stage, analysis will show:
Both of these are worth knowing in themselves, but analysis will also link changes in information sources over time with the existence of formal collaborative agreements. Did the agreements provide sources of information which complemented other sources, or which displaced them? In particular, what was the effect of formal collaboration on informal information networks? And what is the importance of informal information networks for effective collaboration?
Interactive Case Studies
Further empirical work is required to relate the information flow evident from the sources mentioned and from the network mapping to the innovative performance of firms which are, or have been, in formal collaboration. This involves returning to five of the core firms to present the original respondents with evidence of where their information has come. This will be a revelation of some interest to them and should stimulate their consideration of the real importance to specific innovations of certain sorts of information acquired in certain ways from certain sources. This is inevitable a subjective exercise, but none the worse for that.
The project will start as soon as a Research Fellow has been appointed and will continue for two years.
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