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Technology and infrastructures policy in the knowledge-based economy - Access to knowledge and co-evolution of emittive and absorptive capacities: Technology transfer revisited

The case study of Lissoni comes to the following conclusions: The results of the empirical research are relevant for outlining policy measures directed at sustaining the innovation capabilities of SMEs, both in the mechanical field and in a few traditional sectors, especially when located in local clusters. In particular, some rethinking of recent trends in technology transfer policies may be pushed up to the top of policy-makers’ agenda.

The case study when placed within the conceptual framework derived from Steinmueller (2000) and Cowan, David and Foray (2000), goes against the typical description of (Italian) clusters of SMEs (especially industrial districts) as homogeneous cultural settings, wherein technological findings are quasi-public goods. Rather than flowing freely within the cluster boundaries, knowledge about those findings is shown to circulate within a few smaller “epistemic communities”, each of them centred around the machinery producers which the research chose to investigate, but often spanning outside the cluster geographical boundaries.

We then observe that:
- Those communities are better seen as made of people, linked together by personal ties of trust and reputation, rather than of inter-firm arrangements, although they arise from successful commercial partnerships and deals, and respect firms’ appropriation strategies.

- The localisation of members of the epistemic communities is affected by the frequency of contacts required for transmitting information effectively, as well as bt the size of the members’ companies.

- Public labs and universities seem almost totally absent from those communities.

From these observations it follows that epistemic communities can be a better policy target than either firms or specific geographical units, which require specific policy actions: New firms may arise from community members seizing some technological opportunity, as it had happened when many SME clusters were born. Allowing community members to access knowledge from other sectors or from academic research may help, although policy measures in this direction may be in contrast with the appropriability measures and staff management practices of the employees of the epistemic community members. It should be noted that many technology transfer actions, which currently target existing SMEs as potential innovators, could be instead directed at giving some members of local epistemic communities the chance to found their own start-up.

More generally, technology transfer policies, which focus on specific sectors and locations, but do not arise from an agreement with local members of the existing epistemic communities, are very likely to end up offering very generic, and possibly irrelevant services (as many assessment of technology transfer policies actually show). Since knowledge circulates within a number of relatively close networks, policy initiatives have to focus on access to knowledge and inter-personal networks, the degree of geographical dispersion of the relevant epistemic community, and the extent to which knowledge can be considered as ‘public’ (i.e. shared by different communities) or ‘semipublic’ (i.e. circulating only within one community). Some of the links between SMEs and larger firms, which many technology transfer policies try to set in motion, are already in place within the existing epistemic communities, as long as they include personnel from large suppliers of standardised (esp. electronic) components and materials.

The study by Amesse/Cohendet views the process of technological transfer as a process that depends on the ways firms and other institutions deal with knowledge. On the one hand they underline the role of absorptive capacities as essentially active along the perspective suggested by Cohen and Levinthal. They show that the more groups, teams and communities within the firm are receptive to new ideas the higher are the chances of an efficient absorption of technologies from outside.

On the other hand the quality of the process of technology transfer is also fundamentally dependent on the firm’s capabilities to emit knowledge outside its frontier. When firms provide significant assistance to their strategic partners, through multiplying functional interfaces and investment in knowledge sharing routines for instance, they in fact deliberately contribute to enhancing the absorptive and emittive capacities of their key suppliers. The authors also show, when negotiating the rights of access to complementary forms of knowledge that they need within networks, they carefully, and permanently assess the absorptive and emitting capacities of the other members of the network. In other words, the management of the technology transfer process is essentially bi-directional. What matters is more the co-evolution of the mutual absorptive and emitting capacities between partners, than the mere observation of the technology flow between an emitter and a receiver.

Similar conclusions can be drawn in the case of university/industry linkages (see 3.4) and in the case of the dense interactions between knowledge intensive services and their customers (see Muller, Zenker and Creplet et al.). The study of D’Adderio on software development demonstrates that standardized, ‘coded’ procedures and models are of little use unless they are locally appropriated and effectively transformed into actional routines and prototypes. Diffusion of standardized practices, models and methodologies run the risk of seriously miss-stating the organisational costs and productivity effects of software adoption processes. As a consequence the study shows that software producers need to build greater flexibility and customization potential into their systems in order to facilitate the process of adaptation of generic systems to local, context specific, circumstances and requirements. These emittive and absorptive capabilities lead to specific requirements, to dynamic learning, translation routines etc. All these cases demonstrate that policy has to go far beyond R & D and to focus more on competencies.

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University Louis Pasteur
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Evaluation - Policies