Strengthening the absorptive capacity of your organisation

This post is about the concept of absorptive capacity. When you are trying to improve a company, an industry, or promote innovation and learning in a region, this concept is very important. It is often poorly understood. My clients in the education sector always relate absorptive capacity to education levels. While this is true, it is only a part of the story. Business people, on the other hand, tend to focus their innovation efforts on product and process improvements, and they generally tend to not think much about their organisations absorptive capacity, nor do they think about how the environment beyond their enterprise affect their absorptive capacity.

Let me begin by unpacking absorptive capacity. My favorite recent definition is provided by UNCTAD (2014:23), where they define absorptive capacity as:

“The ability to recognize the potential value of new or novel knowledge and technology, and to transfer and assimilate it with the objective of bringing to market a product or a service. It determines if and to what extent a firm, an industry or, indeed, an economy, can use existing and new knowledge to compete”

Some researchers think of absorptive capacity as a completely distinct concept from innovation systems, but I do not agree with this. In our view technological capability (as captured by the description of the innovation system) describes the overall system dynamics: in essence at an aggregate level where it creates an ecology, whereas absorptive capacity describes the capability of individuals and smaller teams (such as a management team) within this ecology to identify knowledge gaps or new uses of knowledge, and to identify and access external knowledge and then combine it with existing knowledge. It is very hard to imagine what a dynamic innovation system would look like if it did not have strong absorptive capability at the levels of individuals, teams, organisations and networks.

This argument is based on the seminal work of Cohen and Levinthal (1990)who argued that:

  • Firms invest in basic research less for particular results than to be able to provide themselves with the general background knowledge to enable them to rapidly apply scientific and technological knowledge through their own innovations, or to respond quickly when competitors come up with a major advance. Thus firms do research to increase their knowledge base and learning which enables them to innovate when they need to.
  • The relationship between the absorptive capacity of firms and the broader technological capability present in the environment causes firms to be highly sensitive to the context within which they operate. This larger context not only provides inspirational ideas, but the implementation of the ideas depends on resources from this larger context, such as technical experts or specialists, professional, management and vocational skills, and even standards and financial or regulatory systems.

Cohen and Levinthal (1990) contend that the absorptive capacity of firms is more likely to be developed and maintained as a by-product of routine activity when the knowledge domain the firm wishes to exploit is closely related to its current knowledge base. This is different when a firm wishes to acquire and use knowledge that is more distant from its ongoing activity. The firm must then dedicate effort and resources to create absorptive capacity. It is hard to imagine how this can be done without reaching out to networks of institutions, skilled and professional employees, and networks of suppliers who are all striving to increase their relevant knowledge.

Hidalgo (2015) explains that with the increasing sophistication of technology, the ability of organisations to have all the relevant knowledge in-house is diminishing. Therefore knowledge is being increasingly spread among larger numbers of actors, who need to work together dynamically to produce and transact. Knowledge tends to flow more easily where there is a certain density of diverse actors. I have written about this often on my thinking out loud site.

This means that absorptive capacity is a dynamic capability that influences the nature and sustainability of a firm’s competitive advantage. As a side remark to policy makers, it means that incentivising R & D and then measuring patents is again only capturing half of the story. Most of the “R & D” that companies undertake are about deepening understanding, mastering variation and performance, and learning about boundaries, failure and so on.

Absorptive capacity is about knowledge and the ability to gain more knowledge, often through a process of iterative learning. Some years ago I wrote that  that this knowledge may be acquired in two different ways (Cunningham, 2012):

  1. In a solitary way where knowledge is gained through experimentation(as an individual or as part of a team) without much communication or interaction with other external actors, or through a process of deductive reasoning.Or it may involve a combination of tinkering and deduction (often referred to as deductive tinkering).
  2. By purposeful interaction with other external agents involving personal or non-personal communication with other people, specialists and knowledge sources.

The first point is mainly about absorptive capacity of the organisation or individuals. However, the second is a combination of absorptive capacity of the team, and the broader environment in which the organisation can reach out to other experts beyond its own boundaries. I argue that a large part of the knowledge a firm need is available internally, namely the knowledge of its engineers, managers, technicians and other employees.Their knowledge is partially acquired externally through previous formal training, and partially through a cumulative process of learning-by-doing. This internal knowledge, which is available at any given time, is the main innovation resource of a firm.  It is often highly tacit, which explains why firms of a particular type cluster together in regions. However, not all firms are able to tap into this internal asset, mainly because many are managed in a way that does not allow them to reflect on their own patterns of behaviour or the trends affecting their performance. When the day-to-day emphasis is on survival or routines, a tendency to under-invest in purposeful innovation activities may occur. This behaviour not only undermines the development of the internal knowledge base, but will also lead to underdevelopment of external networks that could lead to exchange or transactions with other knowledge sources.

Learning from others is only possible if the costs of interaction with peers and other organisations are low enough or if the density of networks makes this possible. One of my favourite innovation system gurus Malerba (2005:387) states that:

“knowledge is highly idiosyncratic at the firm level, does not diffuse automatically and freely among firms, and has to be absorbed by firms through their differential abilities accumulated over time.”

This accumulation often emerges through an iterative cycle combining deduction, experimentation, application, reflection, learning and adaptation between people working on the same problems, ideas or opportunities.

The implication is that in economic development we should focus on those firms, organisations and sectors that are able to innovate, and find ways to accelerate their learning journey. These are the companies that are already absorbing new ideas from their environment and beyond, and they are actively trying them out, experimenting, following or playing with ideas. They are usually not so hard to find, as they are curious about new ideas. At the same time, we must build bridges (or reduce the costs) for the rest of the economy so that future entrants and laggards can upgrade and step up and be more innovative and efficient than the incumbents, as the incumbents may also become complacent in future if new competitors do not challenge them.

For my business clients, it means that leaders must be sensitive to what their teams are learning about, and what can be done to encourage learning in the three ways I outlined earlier. I have developed a simple workshop format that I use with my coaching clients and students to asses which factors are hampering absorption and learning, and which factors are encouraging absorption.

Image credit: Images drawn by Lina Stoeckler during our annual Mesopartner Summer Academy where I usually teach on improving absorptive capacity.


COHEN, D. & LEVINTHAL, D. 1990.  Absorptive capacity: a new perspective on learning and innovation. Administrative Science Quarterly,Vol. 35(1) Pp. 128-152.

CUNNINGHAM, S. 2012. The fundamentals of innovation system promotion for development practitioners. Leveraging a bottom up understanding for better systemic interventions in innovation systems.Pretoria: Mesopartner.

HIDALGO, C.S.A. 2015. Why Information Grows: the Evolution of Order, from Atoms to Economies. New York: Basic Books.

MALERBA, F. 2005. Sectoral Systems. How and why innovation differs across sectors. In The Oxford handbook of innovation.Fagerberg, J., Mowery, D.C. & Nelson, R.R. (Eds.), Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

UNCTAD. 2014. Transfer of technology and knowledge-sharing for development: Science, technology and innovation issues for developing countries. UNCTAD Current Studies on Science, Technology and Innovation. UNCTAD/DTL/STICT/2013/8: UNCTAD.

Revised: Industry 4.0, IoT, 3D printing and more. Why some technologies diffuse so quickly and others don’t

I wrote this article yesterday on my thinking-out-loud site and was pleasantly surprised at the interest it sparked. My language guru Linton helped me to fix many grammar errors, so here is the revised version.

I receive questions daily about the Internet of Things, Industry 4.0, 3D printing and many other technologies and whether and how I think these technologies will disrupt manufacturing and education in particular and the world in general. These questions are not only from government officials, but also from businesspeople, friends and fellow geeks.

Let me briefly state that I don’t believe it is possible to spot a paradigm shift in the future or in the present. So I would be hesitant to predict whether or when all these big changes will happen. However, when we look back we can spot shifts. Technological change typically takes places slowly but surely, and then at a certain point there is a massive shift. The point I would like to make is that even the futurists have great problems predicting the direction of that sudden shift. We must also consider that technological paradigm shifts almost invariably do not work out the way they are predicted to do before they occur.

For the last few decades many major technological advancements have been heralded as game changers. The advances are often generalised as sweeping statements about large-scale change. However, in most cases, new advances take a long time penetrating our daily lives, if they ever get that far.

So let me rephrase the original question a little. Perhaps the question is more about figuring out which technologies are diffused quicker than others, and why. This is something that we can calculate to some degree using a short history and the current status quo of assessments of technologies that are being touted as near-term game changers.

Dissemination of technology or knowledge always consists of at least three elements. I will for now ignore the process of diffusion for the sake of brevity. There is a supply side, a demand side and some kind of institutional or social construct that enables and even multiplies the diffusion.

The supply side is often most optimistic about how their ideas are going to change the game. The demand side is often naive about how useful a new technology is in real terms. Many potential users simply wait and see. Then there are the institutional mechanisms that operate at local, national, regional and international levels. There are lots of tensions at this institutional level, because this is where a whole range of social technologies, formal and informal, have to emerge or change. Just think of how US-based software companies are constantly coming up against data privacy groups in Europe. I am sometimes grateful that the institutional level takes time to change. Changing institutions to enable knowledge dissemination often requires multiple knowledge domains, different management levels and social play-offs. Often changing institutional support to improve diffusion must also cater for integrating and synchronising many other simultaneous change processes that are not only technological. They could be about regulations, rights and creating new forms of organisation. Furthermore, physical technology does not always change things the way we expect. After all, innovation is a process of combination and recombination, both at the level of physical technologies and also at the level of social technologies.

There are typically a few constraints that frustrate the diffusion of new technologies broadly speaking. The first is the fixed costs of the technology itself. Fixed costs slow down supply (otherwise we would already have electric vehicle charging points throughout the country), and also slow down demand (I cannot afford a Tesla yet).

Suppliers like to think that their solutions will fix social mechanisms, but this is often the area where change is the slowest. Social technologies often take the longest time to evolve (for instance in developing standards and regulations for electric vehicles, charging points and recycling of batteries). By evolving, the technology itself often changes with respect to its use, meaning and value  – often beyond what the originators had in mind. Thus while individual users can quickly adopt a new technology or idea, formal institutions, regulations and supporting infrastructure often take longer to adapt to new ideas. This means that the supporting ecosystem that enables new ideas to be quickly diffused perhaps adds additional costs (perhaps massive infrastructure investment or learning is needed), or fails to reduce costs in the diffusion of ideas. This is where the second constraint comes in. It depends on how complex are the required social changes. I mentioned earlier that institutional diffusion must also integrate different complementary technologies. For instance, using a smartphone to make phone calls is easy (single technological paradigm). Using a smartphone to manage or monitor a part of a production line requires many complementary and concurrent capabilities and technologies. It may even require completely rethinking organisational structures, production lines and supplier networks. Simply put, if the new idea is very complicated to use (due to the many concurrent investments and capabilities that are needed), then the costs goes up in terms of education, regulation, infrastructure, coordination, specialisation, management and so on. Just think of what it would take for South Africa to adopt driverless electric vehicles …

Perhaps this also explains why individual companies (think hierarchies) tend to absorb technologies easier than societies or economic sectors. Inside a company management can overcome coordination failures much easier than within a sector or broader society. Meso institutions such as universities and technology transfer organisations are very important for overcoming these coordination costs, but they tend to change slower.

The complexity of technology and its demands on the meso organisation is important in my work. I help these organisations figure out how to navigate the complexity of new technology adaptation and diffusion. It requires an understanding of users, some understanding of technologies, but a lot of understanding of the process of change and organisation. I don’t think I would be able to do my work without my understanding of market failures, especially with regard to failures in the capturing, dissemination, absorption or valuing of knowledge.

There are lots of amazing technological ideas out there that have been tried, tested and measured and found to be effective. Many companies here in South Africa are already using these technologies. So supply and demand exists, and in many cases there are transactions. Yet many of our industries, enterprises, universities and policy makers don’t know how these technologies can save costs, improve efficiency or strengthen resilience. Nor do they know which ideas will stick or have the most impact. So there is a missing institutional capability that reduces the complexity of the technology. What is often missing are institutions that make the dissemination of new ideas easier and cheaper. It is often more the case that the users (and possibly suppliers) don’t know how much the full implementation or use of these ideas would cost, or what skills, complementarities or networks are needed to master new ideas. Many market-supporting social technologies (in the form of institutions and networks) are lacking. Somebody must reduce the search, evaluation and coordination costs. This is where the complexity lies. And neither do we want our institutions to try and implement every new technology – this is where social balance and a longer-term vision are required.

So now I can get back to trends such as the Internet of Things or digitisation of the manufacturing environment. Many manufacturers know about Computer Aided Design (CAD) simulation or even rapid prototyping. But how can we reduce their risk of trying 3D printing, or how can they add more sensors to their production facilities so that they can improve measurement and control? It is not just about the cost of using the technology once or twice. There are issues that are holding entrepreneurs back from simply rushing to an online store and hitting “buy now”. Where would they get the trained staff from? How would they train existing staff? How would they manage a new competency? What would it cost to certify or maintain? Where would they find new customers or suppliers, and what would it cost them to develop the complementary capability and optimally use the new technology? And most importantly, how do we reduce their risks of trying something in different combinations? These are the issues that a network of institutions must consider as they craft their technology extension and demonstration strategies.

For me there is a strong role for technology intermediaries to play in demonstrating, perhaps on a small scale, how new technologies can be integrated into existing workplaces. This means that technology intermediaries must be funded to host (and master) a wide range of complementary technologies, so that entrepreneurs can combine what they have in place with the capabilities of these technology intermediaries. Or that new entrepreneurs not burdened by sunk investments can use their agility to gain access to complementary technologies in order to create new markets. These institutions should not be measured by how many companies fully absorb new technologies (this could lead to perverse incentives), but perhaps by how many companies have tried, engaged with and been exposed to new ideas.

At the same time, policy makers should look at ways to introduce new technologies into developing countries beyond demonstration or technology extension. Some countries such as Germany or Singapore have also been purposefully supporting disruptive incumbent enterprises by supporting the uptake of new technologies. Sometimes you can demonstrate until you are blue in the face, but incumbents won’t change if they don’t have to, and small enterprises sometimes simply cannot build up the momentum to challenge the status quo.

I would like to end this blog by briefly summarising what I’ve been discussing. For me the question of how new technologies may affect our lives is too focused on the hardware  and the geeks who love it. Even though I admire the suppliers and developers of new technologies, and I really admire the sophisticated users who are constantly inducing the emergence of newer and greater technologies, I believe that the real change we need is in getting better at creating responsive institutions that lower the costs for suppliers and buyers to try new things. This is where we can overcome many of the costs that slow down the absorption or dissemination of new technologies.


A resource for leaders trying to unlock knowledge

This is one of my favourite topics to write, read and talk about. How knowledge can be leveraged to enable innovation in organisations. Even if it is tacit, or people don’t even know they posses valuable knowledge, leaders can create an environment where these ideas can be surfaced, explored and leveraged.

The pdf here contains three revised blog posts that I wrote on my ‘thinking out loud‘ blog site over the last two years. I’ve had the text edited and have made some improvements. Take a look and let me know if you find this useful.

Unlocking knowledge in organisations to unlock innovation

In 2016 I wrote an article for the University of Stellenbosch Business Schools Thought Thursdays newsletter about how leaders can unlock knowledge intheir organisations to enable innovation. This article has lead to many
interesting presentations, speeches and conversations. I also wrote several follow on articles on the that can all be accessed from this link.

In the USB article I wrote that leaders must incentivise and encourage staff to accumulate knowledge through deduction and experimentation, as well as reaching beyond their organisation. This would require that staff are encouraged to invest time in reading, exploring and trying out new ideas.  Learning by doing should be encouraged, and tacit knowledge should be actively sought out and leveraged.

For the readers of this blog I think that article is a good starting point to reflect on the culture of acknowledging and encouraging knowledge creation in your organisation. It is not so important to try and formalise all knowledge as it is to actively encourage employees to actively seek out what they know and to experiment with how this knowledge can be used, recombined and leveraged.