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From Absorptive Capacity in International Business to Strategic Flexibility of Multinational Corporations  

Carine Peeters

Both the absorptive capacity (AC) and international business (IB) literatures are interested in knowledge processes and learning in organizations. Although originating from different streams of research, AC and IB were thus meant to meet and reinforce each other. Fundamentally, the role of AC in IB is to condition the performance outcome of firms’ internationalization efforts. Firms benefit from their IB activities conditional on being able to absorb new knowledge and learn. In other words, multinational corporations (MNCs) need to have the necessary AC to overcome their liabilities of foreignness and outsidership. Short of AC, the costs and challenges of entering foreign markets and operating across countries are likely to outweigh potential performance gains. Moreover, AC plays a role in the technological upgrade and economic development of nations, as it helps firms in emerging economies to benefit from spillovers of foreign direct investments by MNCs from more economically advanced economies. And national governments can play an important role to facilitate this effect by developing appropriate economic and innovation policies that support knowledge creation and learning. Firms can also proactively develop AC. For instance, MNCs can nurture a broad knowledge base that can be leveraged in different contexts and opt for a decentralized structure with mechanisms that help subsidiaries access the knowledge base of the parent organization. They can also practice specific routines to identify and access relevant knowledge from their external environment, transfer that knowledge in their organization, and assimilate it in their own knowledge creation processes. Moreover, MNCs can adopt human resources management practices that help raise the capacity and motivation of their employees to acquire and exploit new knowledge. Ultimately, the most important contribution of AC in IB might be to help MNCs develop the strategic flexibility that enables them to thrive in dynamic environments. High-AC MNCs may indeed be in a better position than other firms to (a) build diverse options to prepare for uncertain evolutions in the market, (b) access flexible resources to allocate to new courses of actions, and (c) redeploy resources across options over time. Unpacking the exact mechanisms as well as boundary conditions for the role of AC in building strategic flexibility offers ample opportunities for future research on a highly relevant topic for MNCs.