This project was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, Swinding, UK. Grant reference number R000235178
Research on innovation diffusion has emphasised the importance of a variety of inter-organisational networks (e.g. technology suppliers, R&D institutions) for encouraging firms to learn about new technologies. This project, completed in mid-1997, involved a European comparison of the networks through which knowledge about new technologies diffused, focusing on the roles of professional associations (PA's) in the diffusion of computer-aided production management (CAPM) technologies. Members of PA's in UK, France, Netherlands and Sweden were surveyed (N=1846) and interviews were conducted with PA organisers, practitioner members, technology suppliers (consultants and software suppliers) and academics.
The results showed that PA's were seen as one of the most useful networks for diffusing ideas relating to technological innovation. Moreover activities oriented towards informal discussion rather than formal presentations were more important in this respect, with involvement in informal PA activities predicting the development of CAPM technologies and networking with other PA members predicting perceived success. However, it was also clear that ideas spread through processes of 'fashion-setting'. A particular design of CAPM (known as MRP2) was diffused widely as the definitive 'best practice'. The PA networks played a role in this fashion setting, being used actively by technology suppliers as a way of selling ideas to practitioners. This was more evident in some countries (UK and Netherlands) than others (France and Sweden).
The research also found country differences in the design of technologies. For example, standardised 'best practice' MRP2 packages had diffused more rapidly in the UK than in Sweden. That said, even firms claiming to use 'MRP2' designed these technologies in many different ways, suggesting that the notion of a fixed 'best practice' is problematic. Firms in Sweden were more likely to have developed customised CAPM systems in-house which were tailored to the organisation and rated as more successful than the standardised packages used in the UK. This highlighted the need to address tensions between supplier-interests in standard solutions, which can be diffused widely and upgraded more easily, and users' needs for context specific solutions. Theoretical frameworks drawing on societal effects, neo-contingency and neo-institutional perspectives have been developed to address these relationships between inter-organisational networking, the roles of PA's, and innovation design.
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