The key impediment factors impacting inter-organizational knowledge transfers
: Developing a typology of transfer types

  • Priscilla Hong

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    In the extant literature, difficulties encountered in capturing or articulating knowledge during technical knowledge transfers are often described as either 'knowledge stickiness‘ factors (Szulanski, 1993, 1996) or 'knowledge transfer barriers‘ (Disterer, 2001; McDermott & O'Dell, 2001; Sheng, Chang, Teo et al., 2013). These impediments are used to explain why apparent willingness and motivation to transfer knowledge within, and between, organizations are not enough to ensure intra- and inter-organizational transfers (Leal-Rodríguez, 2013; Noll, Beecham & Richardson, 2010; Szulanski, 1993, 1996a). However, to date such explanations have failed to provide satisfactory solutions to ongoing knowledge transfer challenges. This thesis presents research that investigates individual and governance factors affecting knowledge transfer, and how their interplay affects inter-organizational technical knowledge transfer in the materials science industry.

    This study found different types of motivational intentions in inter-organizational transfers: individual voluntarism, affable intentions, imposed transfers and management systems. It identified eight major determining characteristics that differentiated simple knowledge transfers (that is, only benefiting the receiving party) from the more complex collaborative transfer types (that is, constituting the mutual benefit of all the parties sharing knowledge). These characteristics were seen to have more impact in the complex and inter-organizational collaboration transfer type, being multi-faceted, multi-directional transfers of knowledge involving more parties.

    Using multiple, embedded cases, this research examined the social, cultural, technical and governance-related aspects of two distinctive types of knowledge transfers: simple knowledge transfer and complex collaborative transfer. It was found that, despite evidence of motivation there were insurmountable factors: the challenges attributed to impediments linked to cultural (belief, distance and language) (Gill, 2013; Hofstede, 1985; Hsu, 2014; Simonin, 1999), social (interactions and network ties) (Granovetter, 1973; Hansen, 1999; Reagans & McEvily, 2003), technical (relatedness and competencies) (Lorenz & Stephan, 2014) and governance (leadership, policies and regulations) (Fukuyama, 2013; Girdauskienė & Savanevičienė, 2012; UNCTAD, 2014).

    In this thesis, impediments found at different stages of the knowledge transfer process were differentiated from one another in terms of their nature, source and stage of transfer at occurrence, into 'knowledge transfer barriers‘ and ‗knowledge stickiness‘. 'Knowledge stickiness‘ was characterized as the procedural impediments encountered during the process of transferring knowledge between two knowledge agents. 'Knowledge transfer barriers‘ were viewed as the structural impediments at the start and end points of transfer, particularly elements at the source end that challenges the transfer potential, or issues at the recipient end that prevent the transfers from being absorbed or applied successfully. This perspective differs from that used in the extant literature as it concentrates on the actors in transfer only. This distinction matters as through knowing its different characteristics and the stage of transfer process at its occurrence the impediment source can be attributed. Applying these refined definitions of 'knowledge transfer barrier‘ and 'knowledge stickiness‘ to the analysis of inter-organizational transfers enabled the clarification of two key determinants of contributors to these impediments – individual and governance.

    Analysis of the interplay between the governance and individual factors in knowledge transfer decisions revealed four combinations affecting the likely form of inter-organizational knowledge transfer: governance restricted, that is, the organization has disapproved the transfer of knowledge as intellectual property protection; or governance approved, that is, the organization has made it clear that sharing, a policy position, has to take place; participant restricted sharing may occur when an individual has determined not to transfer knowledge either due to resistance to sharing, or perceived shortcomings by an individual or in an organizational context, for example, in knowledge-hiding (or turf protection); and finally, participant approved, that is, the individual may be willing to share and may be transferring knowledge, but is hampered by the individual, or by factors in the transfer context. These may be language barriers, differing perspectives, or transfer methods.

    From these findings a new typology has been developed of four overarching types of inter-organizational transfers: unconstrained transfers, constrained transfers, unauthorized transfers and no transfers. These transfer types explain the basis for transfer outcomes, based upon various combinations of root causes that lead to differing 'knowledge stickiness‘ or 'knowledge transfer barrier‘ factors. The determinant combinations are namely: (i) Individual non-conduciveness, (ii) Individual partial unwillingness or governance non-conduciveness, (iii) Governance disapproval but individual willing, and (iv) Governance disapproval. The thesis concludes that these more nuanced understandings of ‗barriers‘ and ‗stickiness‘ will enable researchers and practitioners to better plan, predict, manage and research knowledge transfer impediments.

    This thesis contributes to theory through providing an improved understanding of how to better overcome transfer barriers and knowledge stickiness in inter-organizational transfers. The realignment of the definitions of 'knowledge transfer barriers‘ and 'stickiness‘ enables a systematic analysis of their interactions. This led to the discovery of core factors and determinants of impediments, and the individual and governance factors at play. In doing so, this study has made a contribution to practice and enabled understanding regarding how to overcome transfer barriers and knowledge stickiness in inter-organizational transfers. This study provides implications for both theory and practice. Three areas of originality and innovativeness are offered by this study: (1) it provides clear definitions of knowledge transfer barriers and knowledge stickiness, including the origin and characteristics of each; (2) it highlights the interactive effect of individual and governance factors; and (3) it develops a typology of knowledge transfer types.
    Date of Award2018
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorDeborah Blackman (Supervisor) & Fiona Buick (Supervisor)

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