Management learning in business networks: The process and the effectsby R. Liu

Management Learning



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Management Learning 2015, Vol. 46(3) 337 –360 © The Author(s) 2014

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DOI: 10.1177/1350507614537019

Management learning in business networks: The process and the effects

Rebecca Liu

University of Sussex, UK


This article studies the process of firm learning in business networks and its impact on new product development. It argues that prior work offers little insight into how learning actually takes place in network collaboration, and so poses the open question of whether learning through business networks does accelerate new product development. The article begins by clarifying important learning concepts. It then documents how these concepts evolve across organisational boundaries and projects and also over time. It also shows how companies apply the skills of dialogue, articulation and experience for knowledge transfer and how they engage in articulation and pollination for knowledge cross-transformation. However, despite being able to document these processes, this study is unable to unequivocally link knowledge transfer with new product development efficiency and conclude that the latter is enhanced by knowledge cross-transformation. This article contributes to a theoretical inter-organisational learning model in business networks and suggests improved ways for management learning.


Business networks, collaboration, firm learning, knowledge cross-transformation, knowledge transfer


There is widespread agreement that management learning is a complex social process (Antonacopoulou and Chiva, 2007) and that this complexity increases when it takes place, not simply within a single firm, but when the firm learns through networking with other enterprises.

Prior research on management learning in network contexts (Enberg et al., 2006; Kogut, 2000;

Miettinen et al., 2008; Owen-Smith and Powell, 2004; Walter et al., 2007) has produced diverse, even contradictory results, often raising more questions than it answers. Most notably, while it is clear that the impact of network collaboration on the success of projects varies considerably, the reasons for this are somewhat opaque (Knudsen and Mortensen, 2011; Van de Vrande et al., 2009).

Corresponding author:

Rebecca Liu, University of Sussex, Jubilee Building 213, Brighton BN1 9SL, UK.

Email: 537019 MLQ0010.1177/1350507614537019Management LearningLiu research-article2014

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This article argues that this opacity is, at least partly, attributable to the outcomes from learning being either too diverse or imperfectly specified. The article addresses this by focussing upon a single outcome – the speed of new product development (NPD). Prior work (Van de Vrande et al., 2009) has shown that firm learning in an open environment helps to shorten the project time taken in completing complex tasks such as NPD. However, Miettinen et al. (2008), Kogut (2000),

Mansfield (1995) and Clark et al. (1987) all point to the links between the effects of NPD speed and firm learning in network collaboration being less consistent. It suggests this ambiguity may reflect our imperfect understanding of the underlying processes of management learning within networks of enterprises. To address these issues, two questions are posed. First, how is firm learning processed in network collaboration? Second, what skills do companies apply in this process?

To address the questions, this study used a mixed-methods research approach to first develop, and then to test, the elements of a conceptual network-learning model.

The article contributes to knowledge along four dimensions. First, it uses a robust research approach by providing a theoretical model, through a multiple-case study, that links closely with existing literature seeking to explain a complex multidimensional network-learning process; it then tests that model using large-scale survey research. Second, it responds to the many calls for an improved understanding of the concept of ‘co-evolution’ that underlies much of the study of management learning in business network collaboration. Third, by investigating NPD speed, the article provides insights into the causes of the inconsistent results on the effect of network learning that have been found in prior work. Finally, it offers practical guidance for mangers seeking to learn in a context of network collaboration.

Theoretical background

Firm learning within business networks

Within the single-firm model, scholars (e.g. Daft and Weick, 1984; DiBella et al., 1996) suggest that evidence of firm learning is reflected in the ability of the enterprise to cope successfully with business environmental change. Experiential improvement and interaction with, and response to, the environment have been emphasised as important contexts for firm learning (Antonacopoulou, 2006; Argyris and Schön, 1978). Asking the right questions at the right time, absorbing the answers, sharing understanding of their implications and acting decisively provides a framework for addressing the process of learning (Cyert and March, 1963). This firm-learning process has become well established and developed into the mechanism of knowledge acquisition or recognition (asking right questions), transmission or assimilation (sharing understanding), and application (acting based on the understanding) (Daft and Weick, 1984; Day, 2002; Huber, 1991;

Sinkula, 1994).

However, understanding the process of firm learning becomes more complex in a multi-firm context. The organisational learning literature suggests that inter-firm learning can be viewed as the collective acquisition of knowledge and skills (Halme, 2001; Ingram, 2002; Knoppen et al., 2011).

It differs from learning at the individual firm level because it also incorporates the synergies derived from the interaction between firms (Larsson et al., 1998). Inter-firm learning can therefore be viewed as the joint outcome of a firm’s intent and its ability to turn learning objects (e.g. knowledge) into a form that is transparent and receptive to its learning partner (Hamel, 1991; Inkpen, 1996; Larsson et al., 1998). This has led researchers to develop, and then study the concepts of dialogue and articulation (Huber, 1991; Larsson et al., 1998; Nonaka, 1994). They show dialogue helps to transmit a firm’s intent of learning, and articulation (i.e. turning tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge) helps to enhance a firm’s ability to learn (Hedlund, 1994; Zollo and Winter, 2002). at UNIV PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND on August 14, 2015mlq.sagepub.comDownloaded from