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Knowledge processes within technology-based strategic alliances

Now, more than ever before, firms experience a strong need to expand their organizational boundaries, accessing the resources and knowledge of other firms in order to enhance their internal innovation performance

Situated at the core of such outward-looking strategies are strategic alliances: (in)formal collaborative arrangements between two or more organizations in which resources and capabilities are pooled together in order to achieve particular (mutual) objectives. Especially the number of technology-based alliances, i.e. alliances focused on developing new technologies or improving upon existing technologies, has grown rapidly in recent years. Technology-based alliances, however, do not always yield clear benefits to the firms involved. In some cases, the firm may fail to realize synergies with its partners, due to a mismatch in resources and  capabilities. Even worse, in other cases, the firm’s valuable knowledge may unintendedly spill over to competitors via the alliance network. Thus, we identified a clear need to study the conditions under which technology-based alliances trigger, or actually hinder, firms’ innovation performance and knowledge processes.

Specifically, we have initiated a research trajectory in which we analyse comprehensive hand-collected data on technology-based alliances of firms in the hydrogen and fuel cells industry, spanning over 30 years of data. In this industry, firms possess highly heterogeneous (and often specialized) resource and technology profiles, implying that they typically do not have all the resources available internally to sustain their internal innovation performance. For instance, some of the largest automotive firms in the world, such as Honda, Renault, and General Motors, have formed strategic alliances with key materials and component suppliers (such as 3M) and dedicated fuel cell producers (such as Ballard Power Systems) in order to improve the design and performance of their fuel cell-powered automotive vehicles. It is within this interesting setting that we study various knowledge processes within technology-based alliances.

Current research

Merging the alliance data with comprehensive firm-level patent data, we are currently working on two core research inquiries within this broad theme. In the first project, we examine how the characteristics of the alliance partners’ knowledge elements (i.e. the ‘pieces’ of knowledge that are used to build new innovations, such as knowledge of hydrogen storage) influence the ability of a firm to access and benefit from this knowledge. We are specifically looking into the different ways in which these knowledge elements were previously combined by an alliance partner, arguing that this might influence their level of retrievability. We have already published an article on a similar topic in the Journal of Management, which can be freely accessed here.

In the second project, we study under what conditions the knowledge held by a focal firm is more or less likely to flow to different partners in the alliance network. We argue, for instance, that when a firm’s direct alliance network is ‘older’ (i.e. ongoing partnerships were initiated a long time ago) and, thus, partners have developed strong relational resources (e.g. trust), knowledge is less likely to flow beyond the direct network to indirect partners. These two projects yield important insights that can be used by practitioners to improve the inner workings and design of individual technology-based alliances but also alliance networks as a whole.