Formal Collaboration and Informal Information Networks
(Theme 3: The Evaluation of Collaboration and Networking in European S&T;)

Stuart Macdonald


The Project

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.


Research Questions

  1. What are the most important sources of technological information for a firm in collaboration? Does collaboration alter the relative importance of sources of technological information? Does it simply add a new source, leaving the contribution of the others unaltered? Does collaboration have a permanent effect on sources exploited, or do these return to ënormal‰ after collaboration has ended?
  2. What is the impact of formal collaboration on informal information flow? Policy has always assumed that formal collaboration can only add to the information supply the firm requires for innovation. Yet theory suggests that formal links are inefficient for the transfer of some sorts of information, and also that their very existence may inhibit informal information flow. Are these problems evident in practice? If so, how extensive and immediate are these effects?
  3. What is the impact of informal information flow on collaboration? Do the two complement each other, or does the importance of informal information flow for the transfer of tacit and uncodified information result in rejection of formal transfer mechanisms and resistance to the collaboration?
  4. What is the relationship between internal information networks and external information networks? Much interesting work has demonstrated the importance of external information sources to innovation within the firm. A very different academic tradition looks at information systems within the organisation. It is known that internal information systems and external information networks rarely cross the organisational boundary and that gatekeepers play an essential role in moving information from one regime to the other. But the gatekeeping role is largely informal; what happens to gatekeepers when there is formal collaboration? Are there other means by which information crosses the organisational boundary?
  5. What is the impact on innovation of any alteration in information flow caused by collaboration? Collaboration is unlikely to mean simply that more information is available for innovation. It may mean that there is less, or that it is of the wrong sort, from the wrong sources.

Methodology

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.

Survey 1:
Twenty UK firms which have collaborated in Esprit projects between five and ten years ago will be selected using the databases of the evaluating consultants, the DTI and the European Commission. Each of these firms will have entered into a formal agreement to collaborate in technological innovation with other organisations in the UK and on the Continent. The same sources have also agreed to provide the names of the individual contacts responsible for administering the collaboration of each firm. These individuals will be approached by mail and telephone. Some will no longer be in post and others will prefer not to participate. From the twenty collaborators, only fifteen are required for investigation, some still in collaboration, and no longer in collaboration.

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.

Survey 2:
Questionnaires will be sent to the individuals nominated in Survey 1 asking them to identify their own sources of technological information both within and without their organisations (which may now include organisations other than firms). This will produce, as before, data about sources of technological information, some of which will be further individuals. From these nominations, Survey 3 can proceed.

Survey 3:
this survey will repeat the procedure in Survey 2, allowing those individuals identified in Survey 2: to reveal their own major sources of technological information. Once again, some of these will be individuals and these will be approached in Survey 4.

Survey 4:
This is the last of the surveys and simply repeats the procedures of the previous two.


Network Mapping

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 extent of the network system
  • the prevalence of co-nomination
  • linkages between overlapping networks
  • changes over time in the shape, and therefore functioning, of the network system
  • links between external networks and internal information systems

Analysis

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:

  1. The most important internal and external sources of technological information for firms which have been in formal collaboration, and what changes have taken place in these over time

  2. The networks through which individuals give and receive technological information they consider important, and changes in these over time

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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