Absorptive Capacity, Knowledge Management and Innovation

Source : Haas Leadership Initiative

Let’s start with some defining statements. Innovation is totally dependent on becoming aware of external ideas and the knowledge that is needed and then translated for it to become new innovation.

We can ‘fall over these ideas’ or we can find ideas or concepts through explicit search. Then to translate these and turn them into something new and different we need to have established some sort of diffusion and dissemination processes.

Having this established as a sustaining system provides an essential source to building organizations capabilities and competencies.

The more we work external knowledge the more we potentially enhance and multiply its value from a single idea into the potentials for multiple innovations. Having a systematic framework can be dramatic for generating new knowledge and gathering ideas for new innovation potential.

Throughout this post I’ll link into previous posts that you might like to explore but this is not necessary.

The issue is how we set about adopting and adapting new knowledge.

Each organization we work within collects its knowledge in different ways. Each has special characteristics, systems and ways to set about doing this. Often finding the knowledge is highly random. Many cases the knowledge we are searching for already resides in the organization, sometimes when we go outside we find one of the paths of this knowledge actually leads back inside our own organization. When this happens it leaves us puzzled on how and why this happens.

A long time back two researcher, Cohen and Levinthal (1990) pioneered the concept of absorptive capacity, further defined as the ability of an organization to identify, value, assimilate, and apply new knowledge. Since their 1990 publication, the concept has been further developed and given rise to many thousands of published papers around this subject.

Adoptive Capoacity Steps 1 The value of absorptive capacity is that when organizations have some prior knowledge they are more receptive to adding new understandings and new ideas.

Organizations that encourage and set about learning consciously set about the search for new ideas and by having this already established ‘learning’ are far better at recognizing new ideas that might lead to innovation.

These organizations develop deeper understanding of integrating and experimenting this new knowledge and set about placing it in a new setting, concept or hypothesis, to push this knowledge forward into new innovation. They are consciously advancing learning.

This gaining of continuous knowledge encourages constant learning and this has a positive feedback cycle as it builds the capacities and capabilities for future innovation activity. Absorptive capacity, once recognized and established as a system promotes the search for new knowledge that greatly increases the capacity to make the necessary new connections for new innovation to happen.

For this to happen, it does need continuous focus. If organizations take the alternative route of wanting to squeeze every last drop out of the existing innovation activity or research department, organizations over time develop as bad learners, they begin to ignore, to assume they have the knowledge and get fixed in their mind sets. They fail to absorb, they tend to reject and take on increasingly that “not invented here” syndrome. That can only last for a limited time before ‘innovation decay’ sets in, people leave and the knowledge often goes with them also.

The problem also can lie in too much knowledge

The other vital part of understanding absorptive capacity is its terrific benefits for diffusion and dissemination of ideas. As the knowledge we glean from outside comes inside it can confront, it can challenge the “what we know”. It is at these times we must stop the initial reaction of “let’s reject this” and allow time for a deeper evaluation, making sense from this different perspective. Looking through alternative lenses helps here.

Organizations are always in a hurry. They design innovation pipelines to get narrower and narrower. They want to quickly dismiss ideas that don’t fit in their norm, the system is poorly equipped to handle different, more challenging thinking, yet this is the very place radical, breakthrough and disruptive innovation ‘sits’. Organizations must find better ways to resist allowing knowledge pathways to become narrower before the knowledge, insights and potential connections have been well absorbed.

Allowing a greater access to new sources of knowledge, discussing emerging innovation concepts by diffusing the understanding does allows for increasing those ‘real’ connections where something really different beyond the existing can be shared as emerging.

It is allowing the absorptive capacities to fully work through the knowledge gained, to improve your capacities. Providing innovation and your ideas and concepts extended time, you can provide for different connection points for exploiting innovation impact even more. If you allow for this additional time to explore and discuss specifically in the search for those more radical connections and outcomes, you have the potential for far more.

We do need to allow knowledge inside our organizations to flow more openly

Allowing innovation inWe need to stop the ‘cognitive blinders’ that constraints the diversity of opinion by allowing concepts or knowledge to be more broadly seen and worked upon, shared more openly. Make innovation far more open inside the organization as well as outside. Practice a more ‘holistic’ open innovation is highly valuable for pushing beyond the current incremental approaches, simply because knowledge is only residing with a few chosen people. We do need to avoid all the cognitive traps around.

Let’s really adopt open innovation, internally as well as externally. It is allowing not just new knowledge in but to allow this new knowledge to flow and be absorbed and then can be better translated into new application or worth. There are significant roadblocks within open innovation today that need resolution.

The art of harnessing knowledge lies in our intellectual capital

When we are chasing after new growth we do need to employ all our capitals. Today the dominant capital is financial, it rules the others and that stifles knowledge, innovation and the potential for being different. Financial capital tends to be based on past numbers or immediate concerns, it struggles with the future. It wants to reduce time, risk, inefficiencies and replace this with always improving the rate of return on the financial capital.

We need to think about a better way to judge ‘rate of return’ and that should be on recognizing the critical importance of the other capitals, those that make up the intellectual capitals. Broadly these fall into human, structural and relationships. They are the capitals that make up the value and provide the new generating value that are embedded in the personnel, organizational routines, and network relationships. They provide fresh capital through innovation and strategic renewal.

There is an incredible set of connections between all the parts of intellectual capital, absorptive capacity and knowledge that make for new innovation and give us the real chance of value creation. I’ll discuss this set of connections further in a subsequent post.

Thankfully some organizations are becoming enlightened

Knowledge and Innovation are engaged at the ‘hip’, they are inseparable. To separate them both would die, one feeds the other. It is through the application of approaching them through a system like absorptive capacity you can generate the flows needed to keep our search for new ideas stimulated, our innovations pushing forward and allowing others to benefit and build on this knowledge further.

If you have not considered the place for absorptive capacity and its value, it is high time you did. It might be your missing link.

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22 thoughts on “Absorptive Capacity, Knowledge Management and Innovation

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  3. Enjoyed this, Paul. Much of what you describe around learned behaviour has a cultural dimension and that’s where the challenge lies. Changing culture with rational and logical solutions is very difficult…you need to get to the qualitative, irrational and highly emotional context to do that.

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  7. Great piece of information. Do you have or can you refer me to measuring metrics of absorptive capacity?

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