The doctoral dissertations of the former Helsinki University of Technology (TKK) and Aalto University Schools of Technology (CHEM, ELEC, ENG, SCI) published in electronic format are available in the electronic publications archive of Aalto University - Aaltodoc.

Essays on Process Learning in R&D Alliances

Jan Feller

Dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Science in Technology to be presented with due permission of the Department of Industrial Engineering and Management for public examination and debate in Auditorium TU2 at Helsinki University of Technology (Espoo, Finland) on the 18th of December, 2004, at 12 o'clock noon.

Dissertation in PDF format (ISBN 951-22-7433-7)   [1235 KB]
Dissertation is also available in print (ISBN 951-22-7432-9)


This dissertation contributes to research around the question of how companies may improve their R&D processes through collaborative R&D activities. The growing need to gain access to new technologies, the need to share risks and costs associated with the development of new products, and the shortening of market opportunity windows in the ICT industry leads to a rising number of R&D Alliances formed every year. In an industry where the ruling imperative of "innovate or die" has been replaced with "collaborate or die" (Chesbrough 2003, Bruce et al. 1995), improving an organization's collaborative capability is a necessity for survival in the marketplace.

By combining qualitative – a multiple action research case study – and quantitative – an international survey – research methods, the dissertation at hand sheds light on the question of how companies can improve their collaboration capability through inter-partner process learning in R&D Alliances. The theoretical waters that this dissertation navigates spring from the research on inter-organizational learning in R&D alliances on one hand, and on process innovation on the other. Within the many inter-organizational learning theories, the Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) framework of knowledge sharing and creation became the guiding lighthouse for this research.

The dissertation includes four essays. In the first essay, a set of measures for process learning is developed based on a two-case action research study with three Finnish companies from the telecommunications industry. The cases reveal a set of distinct improvements of collaborative R&D processes: the establishment of joint project planning and evaluation meetings, improved prototyping, improved release management, the establishment of joint milestones, the clear division of tasks and responsibilities, and increased inter-departmental and cross-functional interaction. These findings provide practitioners with a benchmark for improvements in collaborative R&D processes. A subset of these learning results is successfully used to measure process learning in the following three essays. These remaining essays are all based on an international survey amongst 105 companies in the telecommunications industry.

The second essay looks into the process of process learning, by investigating how four knowledge creation mechanisms – socialization, externalization, combination and internalization – function in process learning. To my knowledge the study is the first to test the Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) model of knowledge creation empirically in the context of inter-organizational learning. The results give strong support to their theory and provide the practitioner with insight into the optimal mix of knowledge transfer mechanisms used for communication in collaborative R&D. The process learning measure developed in the first essay is rated by two independent members of each organization, and validated through inter-rater correlation analysis.

The third essay reports on a descriptive study exploring different approaches to process knowledge creation in R&D alliances. The results show that the alliances developing radical as opposed to incremental innovations differ from each other in terms of various partner-specific and alliance-specific characteristics as well as their process learning outcomes. The group of companies that focused on developing incrementally-improved products were more experienced collaborators, utilized various knowledge transfer mechanisms more often, and also scored higher in all three areas of process learning measured than companies developing new, more radical technologies and products, or companies that did not focus on one kind of innovation, but engaged in developing both incremental and radical innovations.

The fourth essay investigates how the competitive situation, the overlap of organizational knowledge bases and the existence of trust in the collaboration relationship influence the effectiveness of meetings, written documents and transfer of people as means for knowledge transfer. The results suggest that competition positively influences the effect of all three types of knowledge transfer mechanisms on learning. The complementarity of the partner organizations' knowledge bases promotes the effectiveness of Meetings and Documents, and the existence of behavioral trust increases the effectiveness of transfer of people as knowledge transfer mechanisms for process learning.

This research is the first to test the widespread organizational learning model of Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) empirically, in an inter-organizational setting. The findings support the model, and verify that it can be applied to inter-organizational process learning. Additionally, the study contributes to research by specifically mapping knowledge transfer mechanisms to each phase of the socialization-externalization-combination-internalization process (SECI) developed by Nonaka and Takeuchi. The study also develops and empirically verifies a measure for process learning in R&D Alliances. Previous research often tries to measure knowledge transfer success based on proxies such as improved productivity (e.g. Argote 1999, Arrow 1962), number of new products introduced (Tsai 2001), reduced lead-time and waste (Kalling 2003) or increased share price (Anand & Khanna, 2000). Since these proxies are also influenced by a number of other factors than successful knowledge transfer or learning, this study develops a more direct approach: Process learning is measured through specific improvements in the collaborative R&D process that are acquired and implemented through collaboration with a partner company. For the interested manager, the study provides insight into how the knowledge transfer between two partnering companies can be managed in order to enable successful inter-partner process learning. The dissertation also provides a benchmark for process improvements for collaborative R&D processes.

Keywords: process learning, R&D alliances, R&D collaboration, process innovation, Nonaka

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© 2004 Helsinki University of Technology

Last update 2011-05-26