The emergence of a competitive group competence in a research group : a process study

F. Bakema

Research output: ThesisPhd Thesis 1 (Research TU/e / Graduation TU/e)

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Abstract

This study focuses on the concept of a core competence. A core competence is a(n) unique competence of an organization, which underlies leadership in a range of products or services, which is non-substitutable and hard to imitate. Honda for example, defines its core competence as "recycling innovations in motor technology in a broad array of products" (like cars, lawn-mowers, generators, and motor-bikes) and Casio defines its core competence as "integrating LCD- and semi-conductor technology" (applied in for example keyboards, calculators, small TV-sets and camcorders) (source: Weggeman, 1997). As a core competence provides a strong competitive advantage related to competitors, it is very attractive for organizations to possess. A core competence is not a stand alone phenomenon, but it is the result of an effective and efficient integration of a number of competences of the organization (i.e. Hamel & Prahalad, 1994). In order to be successful and to achieve a competitive advantage, the integration of competences becomes a key issue for organizations (Grant, 1996a, 1996b, Okhuysen and Eisenhardt, 2002; Kogut and Zander, 1992). What do we know about the development and emergence of a core competence? Literature argues that the emergence of a core competence supposes (1) fit between organisation and environment as the organization has to provide products or services that are highly appreciated by clients; (2) development of competences necessary to provide valuable products or services; (3) development of practices of knowledge integration; and (4) development of practices to maintain fit with the environment (Hamel & Prahalad, 1994; Teece & Pisano, 1998; McGrath, MacMillan & Venkataraman, 1995; Grant, 1996a, 1996b; Nerkar & Roberts, 2004; Haas & Hansen, 2005; Danneels, 2002; Orlikowski, 2002). With this literature argues for the relevance of a number of conditions and practices, but these arguments do not explain how a core competence actually develops and emerges. What happens in organizations, leading to the development and emergence of a core competence? McEvily and Marcus (2005) suggest that the set of organizing processes and principles in an organization underlies the emergence of competitive capabilities. This brings us to the perspective of this study. We have chosen to focus on the process or combination of processes in an organization responsible for the development and emergence of a core competence. A process or combination of processes that provides an explanation for the emergence of this phenomenon. We chose to focus on the development and emergence of a specific kind of core competence, namely one emerging on a group level. We developed a concept that specifically addresses a core competence at group level: a competitive group competence. The "competitive" in this concept refers to the achievement of a competitive advantage. We narrowed our scope by focusing on the development and emergence of a competitive group competence in a research group. Finally, we decided to speak only of the emergence of a competitive group competence. We do so, because the emergence of a competitive group competence also implies development, as a developmental process has to take place before a competitive group competence is able to emerge. Once it emerges, the developmental process does not stop. In short, this thesis reports about the emergence of a competitive group competence. From literature we learned that our knowledge of a process or a combination of processes responsible for the emergence of a competitive group competence is limited. We refer to knowledge of the kind of process or processes, the coherence and interplay between processes in case more processes are involved, how individuals participate and how knowledge integration is organized by this process or these processes. Another aspect of which we have limited knowledge is how the process or processes underlying the emergence of a competitive group competence accommodate dynamics and change. Also our knowledge of the context relevant for the emergence of a competitive group competence is limited. Therefore we formulated our research problem as: Which combination of processes explains the emergence of a competitive group competence and how is the emergence influenced by the context in which the processes operate? Given the limited present knowledge of the emergence of a competitive group competence and the character of our research problem, we chose for an open, exploring and qualitative design, aiming for theory development based on an intensive study of a few cases. Furthermore, we chose for the development of a process theory (Mohr, 1982; Van de Ven and Poole, 1995; Poole et al., 2000) to answer our research problem. In addition to process theory we applied the Grounded Theory Method (Glaser and Strauss, 1967; Glaser, 1992; Strauss and Corbin, 1990) to collect and analyze data. We conducted two field studies in research groups in which a competitive group competence emerged, taking the group as the unit of analysis. Both field studies took place in Wageningen UR. The first field study was the study of the Ecology Group – working in the field of landscape ecology – and part of the research institute Alterra. The second field study was the study of the Postharvest Group – working in the field of post harvest physiology – and part of the research institute ATO. We participated passively in the groups for a period of 17 respectively 22 weeks, in which we interviewed group members, made observations and studied all kinds of documents, parallel to an analysis of these data. We found the coherent operation of four processes underlying the emergence of a competitive group competence: (1) a repeated process of the design, the execution and the ending of projects, executed with process qualities of heedful interrelating and content over management; (2) a process of balancing tensions against a background of established practices of heedful interrelating and content over management; (3) a process of expertise development leading to distinctive competences and (4) a process of envisioning the future that provides a frame of reference to the other three processes. By reflecting on these processes, we interpreted the four processes as tokens of each of the four basic types of processes found by Van de Ven and Poole (1995): a life cycle process, a dialectical process, an evolutionary process and a teleological process. In terms of Van de Ven and Poole (1995) and Poole et al. (2000) the grounded theory we developed is an example of a quad motor theory explaining change in an organization. Poole et al. (2000) developed a taxonomy with examples of logical and possible process theories of organizational change and development. It also presents an example of a quad motor theory: the theory of Riegel (1976) of human development progression. Our theory can replace the theory of Riegel as an example of a quad motor theory in this taxonomy, as the theory of Riegel is not particularly bound to organizations. From all 160 studies (period 1995 up to December 2005) building upon the framework of Van de Ven and Poole (1995) this is – to the best of our knowledge - the first study addressing a quad-motor theory in the field of organization science. In this paragraph we elaborate on the four processes. The first process defines a repeated cycle of the design, the execution and the ending & evaluation of projects (a life cycle process), executed with qualities of heedful interrelating and content over management. In this process knowledge integration takes place. We found 12 social rules underlying the process quality of heedful interrelating and – to some extent – content over management. Furthermore we found that the project life cycle process stresses close alignment with customers (a comprehensive strategy; Ancona & Caldwell, 1992). The second process is a process of balancing tensions. Tensions researchers experience within and between social rules, motives, task constraints and expectations from the environment. This process is executed against a background of established practices of heedful interrelating and content over management. We defined this process as a dialectical process. This processes stresses that the emergence of a competitive group competence is not a static property or stable disposition, but an ongoing accomplishment (Orlikowski, 2002). The third process is a process of co-evolutionary development of expertise, executed with a pattern of variation, selection and retention. This process leads to a deep understanding of the field of research, which emerges in the form of distinctive competences. This process also underlies the renewal of competences. The "co-" in the co-evolutionary character should be understood as a continuous cycle of position creation, affecting ideas and needs of stakeholders and meeting expectations raised by this position. In this process the groups adopted a strategy of enacting the environment (Daft & Weick, 1984), which means that they create their own environment by experimenting, testing, evaluating what works and by stimulating clients. Furthermore they apply external oriented selection mechanisms for the selection of projects and research themes, which supports the selection of projects and themes that fit with the environment and the strategy of the group. We argue that these strategies have prevented the groups to provide products that do not meet needs of the environment (a "lock in" (Burgelman, 2002). The fourth process we found is a process in which a group envisions its future and defines activities to realize this future. We identified this process as a teleological process: a process of setting goals, executing actions, monitoring and evaluating. We argue that this process is fueled by experiences and ideas out of the other three processes and that it fuels the other three processes with objectives that are achieved bottom-up: needs for expertise, products to be delivered, clients to be served, positions to be developed and selection criteria for projects. We address this function by stating that it provides a frame of reference. We also found goals that are accomplished top-down to achieve the envisioned future of the group. Firstly a HRM practice leading to the development of T-shaped profiles (suggesting specialist knowledge in one discipline and some knowledge of adjoining disciplines). Secondly, a practice of organizing the group characterized by "structure follows strategy", formalizing a gradually developed structure afterwards with the aim to strengthen the recognition of the group’s expertise. These four processes are nested, operate in parallel, jointly and coherently on a relatively long time horizon. This time horizon stresses the relevance of maintaining fit with the environment. In explaining why we found each of these processes we argue that the nature of the central subject of each process, its content, explains the features of the process and provides arguments for the form of the process. This provides a content related explanation for the form of a process. Van de Ven and Poole (1995) do not provide such an explanation. The competitive group competence emerges within a very specific context. The groups work on normal science, defined by adherence to general propositions like theories, laws, definitions and concepts; a multitude of commitments to preferred types of instrumentation and to the ways in which accepted instruments may legitimately be employed; convictions regarding the nature of that which physically exists; adherence to scientific norms and no intention of fundamental innovation (Hoyningen-Huene, 1993). The groups conduct application oriented and applied research in a multidisciplinary research area, operate in an environment characterized by a low level of dynamics, depend on clients for the continuation of their research activities, position themselves on more complex problems and have high consensus on social norms and values. Our findings suggest a threefold role for the context to support the emergence of a competitive group competence. Firstly, the context enables the development of distinctive competences as the environment is characterized by a low level of dynamics with regard to the kind of problems clients experience and prioritize. This provides the groups time to develop distinctive competences. Secondly, the context stimulates knowledge integration, especially by a practice of heedful interrelating. A practice of heedful interrelating is stimulated by the multidisciplinary research questions the groups acquire (which need knowledge integration), the specialist expertise profiles of the researchers, and the need to serve clients to their best efforts. Thirdly, the context supports a positioning on more complex problems, as the groups provide additional value on these kinds of problems in particular. A highly formalized work setting is not particularly necessary as our study shows. Our findings suggest that the unique combination of resources which Leonard-Barton (1995) relates to the emergence of a competitive group competence is in fact the expertise in the groups, combined and integrated by a practice of heedful interrelating. Models and equipment can be important and unique, but do not provide additional value by themselves. They support the group members in generating and integrating knowledge. The way the processes accommodate dynamics and change correspond with Van de Ven and Poole (1995) and Poole et al. (2000). They argue that teleological and dialectical processes can accommodate rapid changes well. They also argue that evolutionary and life cycle processes can accommodate gradual changes well. As we found that the relative influence of the co-evolutionary process of expertise development and the repeated project life cycle is larger than the relative influence of the teleological process of envisioning a future and the dialectical process of balancing tensions, the processes can accommodate the gradual changes we found in the field studies very well. We hypothesize that this combination of processes can not accommodate rapid changes very well. We also made some other contributions to literature. Firstly, we provided an example of a fine grained model of the appearance of social rules that guide knowledge integration behavior in a research group. These models are sparse. Secondly, we deepened the concept of heedful interrelating, by identifying social rules that add a new dimension to the definition of this concept. This contribution helps to explains why a group is able to design, execute and end projects with a process quality of heedful interrelating during a longer period of time. Thirdly, our findings with regard to the social rules related to heedful interrelating also expand the theory of distributed cognition, as they provide an explanation why a strong integration of cognitive work is able to emerge in a work setting with a low degree of formalization. The application area of the theory we developed in this study is limited. Firstly, the theory we developed is defined as substantive by Glaser & Strauss (1967), implying that it should not attempt to explain outside of the immediate field of study, as there are no data of situations outside this field of study. The substantive area in which this research is grounded is defined by the context in which the research groups in the field studies operate: they work on normal science, conduct application oriented and applied research in a multidisciplinary research area, operate in an environment characterized by a low level of dynamics, depend on clients for the continuation of their research activities, position themselves on more complex problems and have high consensus on social norms and values. Therefore we limit the application area of this theory to research groups that meet these characteristics. Secondly, Process Theory is a special kind of theory only grounded in "necessary" conditions (Mohr, 1982). Therefore our theory only explains situations in which a competitive group competence emerges. If it emerges, one should also find the four processes with their qualities and under the conditions we found. This theory does not explain the absence of a competitive group competence, including situations in which the four processes are present.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Industrial Engineering and Innovation Sciences
Supervisors/Advisors
  • Weggeman, Mathieu, Promotor
  • Duijsters, Geert, Promotor
  • Berends, Hans, Copromotor
Award date13 Sep 2006
Place of PublicationEindhoven
Publisher
Print ISBNs90-386-0765-2
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2006

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