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Knowledge sharing in coopetitive alliances

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  • 1. The role of knowledge sharing and organizational learning in alliances between competitors Paavo Ritala; Miia Kosonen Lappeenranta University of Technology, paavo.ritala@lut.fi Lappeenranta University of Technology, miia.kosonen@lut.fi Abstract The increasing tendency of firms to operate in networks has given rise to the phenomenon of alliances between competitors (i.e. coopetition). Despite some evidence on the beneficial effects of coopetition, there is a fundamental paradox involved: knowledge used in cooperation can also be used in competition. Thus, it is essential to understand what kind of knowledge is shared and learned by firms in coopetition in order to understand the risks and possibilities involved. To shed light on this problem, we focus on three types of alliance-related knowledge, which all have distinct differences in the context of coopetition: first, alliance-specific knowledge can create potential value to all the participants of a specific alliance; second, alliance-generic knowledge can help firms to improve operations in all alliances; and third, alliance-external knowledge can be used in firms’ own operations, which can also be strictly competitive against the partner. To further contribute to our theoretical field, we analyze how the types of knowledge imply different levels of risk, trust and control in alliances between competitors. Keywords Knowledge sharing, learning, alliance, coopetition, trust, risk, control Introduction According to Harbison and Pekar (1998), over 50 per cent of new alliances are formed between competing firms. This phenomenon of simultaneous competition and cooperation has been named coopetition (Brandenburger and Nalebuff, 1995; 1996). It has been noted that coopetition can enhance innovativeness (Quintana-García and Benavides-Velasco, 2004) and performance (Luo et al., 2007) with respect to cooperation between non-competitors. This can be explained in many ways, including the fact that competing firms are able to learn from each other very effectively (see e.g. Dussauge et al., 2000). There is, however, a fundamental paradox concerning the role of knowledge sharing in coopetition. According to several authors (Bengtsson and Kock, 2000; Loebbecke et al., 1998), knowledge can be used for the purpose of both cooperation and competition, which makes its role problematic. The nature of coopetition makes the issue of “what to share with whom, when, and under what conditions paramount in a firm’s effort to achieve a sustainable competitive
  • 2. advantage” (Loebbecke et al., 1998, p. 218). Hence, in order to create value in alliances between competitors, knowledge sharing between firms must be carefully managed. Especially when competing firms are concerned, there is always a risk of unintended knowledge spillover which might hamper the efforts of knowledge sharing and learning, and furthermore mutual value creation. However, learning in alliances is not always straightforward, because firms are able to learn many types of knowledge which all have different purposes (see e.g. Das and Kumar, 2007; Inkpen, 2000). Several studies have tried to explain how alliances between competitors should be managed in order to solve the dilemmas of knowledge sharing. These studies have mainly focused on governance issues or firm-level strategizing (Loebbecke et al., 1998; McGill, 2007; Oxley and Sampson, 2004). Some studies recognize the risks and motivations that are connected to sharing and learning knowledge between competitors (e.g. Hamel, 1991; Soekijad and Andriessen, 2003). However, none of these studies have explicitly analyzed how different types of knowledge and learning affect the management of coopetitive relationship. Thus, we focus on the question: what is the role of different types of alliance-related knowledge in coopetitive relationships? Methodologically, our study is a theoretical literature review, which contributes to the coopetition literature (and to alliance literature in general) by explicating the role of different types of alliance-related knowledge, and the conditions for knowledge sharing in terms of risk, trust and control. The level of analysis is an interfirm relationship between competing firms. Key concepts For the purposes of this study, we first need to define what we mean by the key terms coopetition, knowledge sharing and organizational learning. Coopetition, by definition, is simultaneous competition and cooperation between firms. By cooperation we refer to an alliance or a business relationship that is more than an arm’s length relationship (for a review on different alliance structures, see e.g. Contractor and Lorange, 2002). In part, competition can be characterized in Burt’s (1988, p. 358) words: “to the extent that producers of one commodity and the producers of another have identical suppliers and identical consumers, they are competitors in the same market.” By taking these definitions of cooperation and competition together, our conceptual definition for coopetition in this paper can be laid down as a strategic cooperative relationship between firms that are competitors in the same end product and strategic resource markets. The above definition has some important implications for the context of our study. First, because the relationship between the participants is strategically important, it is likely to include many features such as relationship-specific assets and knowledge sharing practices or routines (Dyer and Hatch, 2006; Dyer and Singh, 1998; Heiman and Nickerson, 2004), which enable effective knowledge sharing. Second, because the participants in this relationship are actual competitors, they can benefit from knowledge that they might obtain from the other party, and use it in their own operations. Indeed, according to Dussauge et al. (2000) competing firms are likely to have increased relative absorptive capacity (see e.g. Lane and Lubatkin, 1998), which makes commercialization of the acquired knowledge fast and easier with respect to the situation where
  • 3. cooperation occurs between non-competitors. Thus, both the benefits and risks are highlighted in this kind of a relationship. Knowledge has been identified as the most important asset for value creation (Grant, 1996). Knowledge sharing provides the actual link between individuals and the level of the organization, where knowledge and expertise attain their economic and competitive value. It is therefore important to realize what knowledge is shared, with whom, and under which conditions. In general, knowledge sharing presumes a two-way relation between at least two parties (i.e. knowing subjects), of which one communicates knowledge either consciously or not, and the other should be able to perceive knowledge expressions and make sense of them (Hendriks, 1999). Sharing is performed on a regular basis, via formal and informal channels, and even spontaneously. Knowledge, as opposed to information, cannot be disseminated as such without some shared practices or frames (Brown and Duguid, 2001). As we have noted in the above definitions, knowledge carries a tacit, less transferable dimension; hence, individuals are likely to be the key players in knowledge sharing processes also in coopetitive relationships. Sharing is most inherent for inter-personal groups (such as project teams, job groups, networks of expertise, design groups or communities of practice) which form the actual context in which most knowledge processes are likely to take place. Such groups may provide the link between the individual and organizational levels of knowledge sharing. (Soekijad and Andriessen, 2003) Organizational learning has been defined in numerous ways. One debate has been under the question of “who learns”. The first answer is that the individuals in the organization learn and the organization’s learning is the sum of its individuals’ learning experiences (e.g. Senge, 1990). The second answer is that organizations themselves are capable of learning as social entities (e.g. Walsh and Ungson, 1991). In this study, we adopt a view that organizations are capable of learning in both ways, as the individuals’ sum of learning and as organizations themselves. Similarity, proximity, quality, and the longetivity of the relationships, among others, affect how organizations learn from knowledge being shared (Argote, 2000; Zollo et al., 2002). Knowledge sharing and learning in coopetition Accessing or acquiring the partner’s knowledge – technology, individual know-how, and organizational capabilities – is often the primary objective and motivation for firms to form alliances (Grant and Baden-Fuller, 2004; Ireland et al., 2002). Furthermore, it should be noted that in the context of coopetition, firms tend to have increased absorptive capacity with respect to each other. This is possible because they have, to some extent, a common knowledge base and understanding because of their position in similar markets (Cohen and Levinthal, 1990; Dussauge et al., 2000; Lane and Lubatkin, 1998). This means that they can quickly commercialize the knowledge that they have acquired. Indeed, it has been noted that alliance members that are competitors sometimes compete on who can learn more from the alliance (Hamel, 1991). With regard to coopetition, this can lead to success or failure from the single firm’s viewpoint.
  • 4. Sometimes alliances between competitors end up in transfer of knowledge and resources to the other party (Dussauge et al., 2000), or failure (Park and Russo, 1996). Thus, firms have been noted, for example, to restrict the scope of the alliance in order to manage threats of coopetition (Oxley and Sampson, 2004). Hence, it is important to recognize that firms can have diverse learning motives in alliances between competitors. According to Argote (2000), learning from competitors significantly contributes to the focal firm’s productivity, even if firms in general do not learn as much from their competitors as from their own experience. In addition, von Krogh et al. (2001, 433) state that alliances with competitors might provide new knowledge about their strategies, technologies and personnel resources, thereby enhancing the internal capability to predict their future strategies. In general, learning in alliances can be defined either competitive or cooperative. Some authors claim that alliances are often formed in order to learn from them, and thus firms sometimes try to outlearn their partners (e.g. Hamel, 1991; Ireland et al., 2002). On the other hand, some authors underline the meaning of cooperative, reciprocal learning which is aimed at mutual knowledge creation and development (Dyer and Hatch, 2006; Dyer and Singh, 1998; Lubatkin et al., 2001). With respect to the discussion above, it is evident that coopetition entails risks of losing firm- specific knowledge to a competitor. Thus, firms might create barriers to knowledge sharing because of fear of opportunistic use of acquired knowledge. In such a context, it is fundamental to create trust between the individuals and organizations (see e.g. Soekijad and Andriessen, 2003). Collaboration in an alliance between competitors can be accomplished when people engage in social activities together and the situation involves affective trust. On the organizational level, each organization in the alliance must be willing and able to share knowledge (motivations to learn, transparency, and receptivity). The relationship through which knowledge sharing takes place also provides an important set of facilitating conditions such as trust, strength of ties, positive former experiences about co-operation in alliances, and a favorable climate. (Soekijad and Andriessen, 2003; Panteli and Sockalingam, 2005) In prior research, especially trust has been identified as a catalyst for knowledge sharing (eg. Davenport and Prusak, 1998; Miles et al., 2000; Blomqvist, 2002). Based on the above discussion, we note the importance of trust on both individual and organizational levels. Hence, we now discuss the role of trust and the related issue of risk in more detail in the next chapter. Trust, control and risk in knowledge sharing According to Blau (1964), two factors initially account for the basis of trust: relationships have a repetitive character, and achievements increase in importance in the course of time. In addition, there has to be dependency on the other party, meaning that the interests of one party are furthered only by reliance upon the other one (Mayer et al., 1995). This implies the importance of trust for knowledge sharing in cooperative relationships. In economic terms, trust here means “a particular level of the subjective probability with which an agent assesses that another agent or group of agents will perform a particular action, both before he can monitor such action (or
  • 5. independently of his capacity ever to be able to monitor it) and in a context in which it affects his own action” (Gambetta, 1988, p. 217). Psychology, in turn, assesses trust in terms of internal cognitions and affected by personal attributes, thus seeing trust as a general expectancy held by an individual or a group that the other party involved can be relied upon (cf. Rotter, 1967). Finally, many authors stress the social view on trust, being embedded in relationships among people or institutions (Granovetter, 1985; Coleman, 1990; Mayer et al., 1995). In business contexts, trust can be defined as “an actor’s expectation of the other party’s competence and goodwill” (Blomqvist, 1997, p. 282). The definition implies the two underlying dimensions of trust, competence (capabilities, skills and know-how) and goodwill, which represents the more abstract bases (moral responsibility and positive intentions) of making trust decisions. Accordingly, two types of trust can be identified: Calculus-based trust is based on a rational choice and relies on credible information regarding the other party’s intentions and competence, whereas relational trust derives from repeated interactions, and the relationship itself forms the basis of making trust decisions (Rousseau et al., 1998). This type of trust is also referred to as identity-based trust or affective trust (Coleman, 1990; McAllister, 1995). Risk and trust exist simultaneously. Trust is not needed if there is complete certainty about the results of actions: it is a solution to specific problems of risk (Coleman, 1990; Luhmann, 1988; Lewis and Weigert, 1985). Risk suggests a future-oriented, unwelcome and threatening state of the world; it is impossible to prevent, at least to some extent, and involves consequences that result from human decisions. It is thus activated by our actions. Placing trust means suspending the risk, acting as if it were non-existent (Luhmann, 1979; Sztompka, 1999). Trust also has its counterpart, control. According to Mayer et al. (1995), control mechanisms may lead to cooperation even if trust is absent, such as when sanctioning systems are in place to punish those who default. In alliances, risks can be considered as relational risks (non-satisfactory cooperation) and performance risks (alliance objectives are not achieved). There are two separate but intertwined routes to reduce risk: trust and control, which determine the total perceived risk in the alliance, yet neither of them can fully ensure a positive outcome (Das and Teng, 1998, 2001). Control can be viewed as a process of regulation and monitoring in order to achieve organizational goals; according to Leifer and Mills (1996, p. 117, ref. in Das and Teng, 2001), control refers to “a regulatory process by which the elements of a system are made more predictable through the establishment of standards in the pursuit of some desired objective or state.” In alliances, three types of control have been identified: behavior control focuses on the processes, output control is related to alliance performance, and social control involves the establishment of common culture and values. Control can be achieved e.g. through governance structures, contractual specifications and managerial arrangements. (Ibid.) Generally, control comes into play in situations where adequate levels of trust are not present (Rousseau et al., 1998). Thus it can be stated that when there are risks in the relationship, certain proportions of trust or control are needed to facilitate knowledge sharing. For instance, two-sided communication between individuals involved in a risky situation may be hindered when there is no trust in others’ goodwill and competence. Furthermore, the existence of the norm of reciprocity in knowledge sharing has relevance only in case one party is justified to believe that
  • 6. the other will adapt to it (Castelfranchi and Tan, 2002), meaning that trust lubricates norm enforcement. Consequently, without trust on the organizational level, knowledge sharing and learning are decreased if a risk such as using knowledge to competitive purposes is perceived by any party involved. Some controversies from prior research on trust and risk in alliances should be highlighted at this point. First, Das and Teng (2001) consider trust and control as mere substitutes; consequently, they conclude that trust is not a necessary condition for successful cooperation in an alliance. However, it should be noted that reciprocal learning is a deliberate and uncontrolled process, which particularly calls for interpersonal and interorganizational trust as facilitating conditions. Hence, we argue that the role of trust and control is significantly affected by the type of knowledge being shared and learned. Secondly, Das and Teng (2001, p. 254) consider control as “a more proactive approach” than trust, leading to lower risks due to directly affecting the behavior of the partner and not passively relying on a positive expectation. This, however, seems to be more an issue of approaching trust from calculative and cognitive bases, than a question of trust itself. For instance, Lahno (2002) notes that trust does not only have rational expectations grounded in given information, but about how such information is evaluated. Hence, the expectations are more like a consequence of trusting than having a cognitive state beforehand. Hence, trust inherently involves a two-way affective relationship: knowing that one is being trusted affects both the motivations and behavior of the trustee. (Lahno, 2002) All in all, knowledge sharing in alliances requires a balance between trust and control, and mutual understanding of the alliance member firms’ motivations and goals. The actual processes of knowledge sharing also intertwine interpersonal and inter-organizational characteristics and interactions. This is challenging in coopetitive relationships, because there is a need to incorporate such processes into the strategic goals of the alliance. It is therefore fundamental to understand what kind of knowledge is shared between alliance members, how sharing is affected by and how it affects risk, trust, and control. A framework of alliance-related knowledge in coopetition So far, we have discussed the role of trust, control and risk with respect to knowledge sharing in alliances. They are, however, strictly interconnected with the type of knowledge that is shared and learned. Sometimes, competitors acquire knowledge from each other in order to outlearn each other and maximize their own benefits. However, this is certainly not always the case. This means that in order to understand the challenges that exist in the situation of knowledge sharing between competitors in an alliance, the motives of learning in this kind of alliances should be carefully assessed. According to the earlier literature (Das and Kumar, 2007; Inkpen, 2000; Soekijad and Andriessen, 2003), the learning motivations of alliances can be classified in three broad categories. First,
  • 7. firms can acquire knowledge straightly related to the alliance activities of a particular alliance; second, firms can learn knowledge used to improve the design and management of other alliances; and third, firms can acquire knowledge unrelated to alliance activities, and which they can apply outside the alliance in their own operations. For the purposes of this study, we formulate a distinction of three types of knowledge that are related to the learning motives mentioned above. First, firms can acquire knowledge of how to operate and create value in a specific alliance. We label this kind of knowledge alliance-specific, which implies that it is useful in a given context with a given partner/partners. Consequently, we call the second type of knowledge alliance-generic, which describes knowledge that can be applied to alliances in general. Finally, we call the third type of knowledge alliance-external, which describes knowledge that can be used for the benefit of a focal firm, external to the alliance. Thus, we focus on three types of alliance-related knowledge, which all have distinct differences in the context of coopetition. Figure 1 illustrates the framework of the types of learning in alliances and the related challenges in coopetition. Figure 1. Types of alliance-related knowledge As Figure 1 shows, organizational learning can be divided into three distinct motivations that differ in their nature with respect to the roles of risk, trust and control, and the level of reciprocity. In the following sub-chapters, we discuss each of the motives more closely. Organizational learning Alliance-specific Alliance-generic Alliance-external Perceived risk: low -Goodwill trust -Competence trust Perceived risk: low -Social control Perceived risk: high -Behaviour control -Output control -Competence trust
  • 8. Alliance-specific knowledge Knowledge used to improve the operations of the on-going relationship is a motive that can be considered as a prospect for the success of an alliance. Learning this type of knowledge can consist of learning of both how individual and organizational aspects operate between alliance members, and how they can be developed to create more value. When knowledge cumulates about these kinds of operations, they can be called inter-organizational routines, which mainly develop in the course of time (Zollo et al., 2002). This type of learning can also be reciprocal, which can be more fruitful than one-sided learning (Lubatkin et al., 2001). In a situation, where mutual learning accumulates over the course of an alliance, trust between parties grows higher. In such a relationship, goodwill trust is often based on experiences about the other party. In a similar vein, the perceived competencies of the alliance partner reduce the perceived risk (Das and Teng, 2001). Learning by one party improves the results of another because the learning that is alliance-specific will enhance overall alliance performance and flexibility. In addition, this type of learning does not include risk of unintended knowledge spill- over; on the contrary, knowledge sharing is preferred to boost mutual learning. Thus, there is an opportunity to gain relational rents (Dyer and Singh, 1998), because parties trust each other and are therefore more efficient in governing the whole relationship and creating knowledge sharing routines. Alliance-generic knowledge Alliance-generic knowledge can be described a “neutral zone” as a subject of learning motivation. This type of learning consists of both individual and organizational experiences, practices, and skills of how to operate with another organization in order to pursue individual and mutual goals. Alliance-generic knowledge could thus be understood as part of a larger meta- capability to collaborate (Miles et al., 2000). Indeed, this type of knowledge is useful to a given firm in the long run and helps it to outperform other firms that are not as good in alliance management and practices (see e.g. Dyer and Hatch, 2006; Ritter et al., 2002). Learning this type of knowledge cannot be harmful to another firm in a distinct alliance, and therefore this type of learning does not create conflicts in a coopetitive relationship. Due to reduced levels of risk, relatively low levels of trust and control are characteristic of this type of knowledge. In the long run, alliance capability, i.e. the capability to learn in alliances in general, will relate positively to alliance performance (Kale and Singh, 2007). Thus, firms will benefit from the improved ability of their partners’ alliance capabilities in the long run, if the relationship continues. Alliance-external knowledge From the perspective of coopetition, there is an evident risk that learning unrelated to alliance activities takes place and is used in competitive operations (Bengtsson and Kock, 2000; Hamel, 1991). If this kind of learning is a motive for one party, it can be said that learning is asymmetric, and one party might exit as a winner. If all the parties that are competitors focus on learning alliance-external knowledge, the relationship might end up being a “learning race” (Hamel,
  • 9. 1991), which can deteriorate the benefits of the relationship, because parties become overprotective of their knowledge. Indeed, there is evidence that firms in coopetitive relationships narrow the scope and scale of the relationship in order to avoid risks (Oxley and Sampson, 2004). Thus, if this kind of learning takes place – as it eventually does to some extent – it is critical to balance between trust and control among parties if the functioning of the relationship needs to be secured in the long run. In the case of coopetition, it is evident that alliance-external knowledge can be used in competitive operation against the alliance partner. Therefore it is extremely difficult to accumulate trust between parties, and create opportunities for mutual value creation, if learning of alliance-external knowledge takes place. There are basically two solutions in this situation: decrease the scope and scale of alliance in order to prevent sharing knowledge from critical areas (types of control) or accept the fact that some knowledge is transferred and utilized by a competitor (calculative bases of trust, i.e. willingness to be vulnerable and carry the perceived risk despite the lack of good intentions). It must be noted that sometimes firms enter alliances in order to learn, and it is a desired outcome which all parties agree on. If the possibility of learning alliance-external knowledge exists in coopetition, a firm faces a strategic decision: if the benefits of the alliance outweigh the possible negative consequences, it is rational to share knowledge even if the risk exists. This kind of situation could be in the case where markets are just emerging and the possible benefits are very high. For example, in the ICT sector competing firms cooperate intensively in the market creation phase because of large network externalities (Fjelstad et al., 2004). Hence, we note that the bases of making trust decisions are rational in nature. Discussion and conclusions Knowledge sharing and learning in alliances between competitors (i.e. coopetition) can be challenging and risky, because knowledge can be used in either cooperation or competition. However, there are many kinds of knowledge firms can learn from alliances, which all have different implications for coopetition. For this reason, we formulated a typology of specific types of alliance-related knowledge that are all subject to different learning motives. First, alliance-specific knowledge is tied to the context of a distinct alliance, and thus this kind of knowledge increases the possibility to create value in an alliance and is therefore beneficial for all the parties. It is quite evident that when there are benefits to all the parties, knowledge sharing is increased and a possibility of reciprocal learning exists. Second, alliance-generic knowledge can be used in management of all alliances, and is therefore vital for the long-term competitiveness of a single firm. Third, alliance-external knowledge gives a single firm an opportunity to improve its own operations outside the alliance context. Learning this kind of knowledge creates a risk for the other party in coopetition, if the knowledge is used opportunistically. Thus, trust and control are both fundamentally important in order to enable the functioning of the alliance if this kind of knowledge is present. In addition, it should be noted that alliance-external knowledge can also be
  • 10. used for non-competitive purposes and thus increase the value a single firm acquires from the alliance without hurting the counterpart. Theoretically, our study makes an argument about the types of alliance-related knowledge and their implications in coopetition, and alliances in general. Our main contribution to the existing literature is the explicit recognition of each type of alliance-related knowledge by introducing the three concepts of alliance-specific, alliance-generic and alliance-external knowledge, and identifying the role of risk, trust and control with respect to them. We also highlight the importance of intertwining the individual and organizational level issues on knowledge sharing and learning in coopetitive alliances. The managerial implications of our study draw attention to recognizing that alliance members have different motivations and possibilities of benefiting from alliance-related knowledge. Especially in coopetition, the knowledge shared and learned is in a major role when risks and benefits of the relationship are assessed. Our paper is theoretical in nature and thus only a first step in assessing how firms’ learning motivations affect alliances between competitors. It should be useful, therefore, to examine empirically how learning of different types of knowledge affect the knowledge sharing and learning, management and structures of coopetitive relationships. Further research could also incorporate discussion about how trust and control evolve over time in coopetitive relationships. Finally, our theoretical ideas could be expanded onto the field to consider the different types of alliances between competitors.
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