The role of knowledge sharing and organizational learning in
alliances between competitors
Paavo Ritala; Miia Kosonen
Lappeenranta University of Technology, email@example.com
Lappeenranta University of Technology, firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
Knowledge sharing, learning, alliance, coopetition, trust, risk, control
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
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;
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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,
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.
Perceived risk: high
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
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
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,
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
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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