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Measuring absorptive capacity

by Stephanie Schmidt
Proceedings of the International Conference on Intellectual Capital, Knowledge Management & Organizational Learning ()

Abstract

The concept of absorptive capacity was introduced by Cohen and Levinthal in 1989. Since then it has been enhanced through reconceptualizations and extended by various empirical studies. Despite the growing interest in absorptive capacity it is unclear what this large stream of papers has collectively accomplished. The used definitions, antecedents, components and outcomes of the construct are extremely heterogeneous. Due to this heterogeneity, the empirical study of the construct remains difficult. There is no standard measure and no standard method of measurement, which can be used in empirical research. To bring more clarity into this research area, this paper provides a critical review of previous empirical treatments of absorptive capacity. For this purpose, different methods of measurement are classified in the following way: within quantitative methods proxy indicators and perceptive instruments are differentiated. Proxy indicators use single firm-level data for measuring absorptive capacity and can be input-oriented (R&D efforts, R&D human capital) or output-oriented (R&D patents, R&D publications). Perceptive instruments imply that researchers develop single questions or a set of questions, which reflect absorptive capacity or parts of it at the operational level. The main weakness of both proxy indicators and perceptive instruments is that they don't meet the complexity and emergence of the construct. Only few qualitative studies have started to adopt a new perspective, recognizing the process and practice-based character of absorptive capacity. In summary, the critical review prints out the necessity of advancing research in this area. For this reason, we set out to develop an alternative approach to capture absorptive capacity. It is a practice-oriented approach that allows studying actual absorptive practices in real world situations and enables researchers to capture the complex, embedded, and context-dependent patterns of acting.

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