Innovation and Organizational Learning: the Case of Computer‐Aided Production Management

Publication Date01 December 1993
AuthorJohn Bessant,Joanna Buckingham
Date01 December 1993
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8551.1993.tb00060.x
British Journal
of
Management,
Vol.
4,219-234 (1993)
Innovation and Organizational Learning: the Case
of
Computer-Aided Production Management
John Bessant and Joanna Buckingham
Centre for Business Research, Brighton Business School,
UK
SUMMARY Recent experience of unsuccessful implementation of integrated advanced manufacturing
technology suggests that much of the problem
is
due to a lack
of
innovation in organiza-
tional in parallel with the technological dimension. Discussion of this issue argues the
need for some kind of ‘organizational learning’ to obtain the full benefits of AMT.
This paper reviews the topic of organizational learning in technology and explores
its relevance to the problem of AMT implementation through the case example of
computer-aided production management systems.
Introduction
The potential offered by advanced manufacturing
technology
(AMT)
for dealing with the strategic
challenges facing manufacturers is considerable.
Unlike earlier generations
of
computer-based tech-
nology which mainly offered improvements in
efficiency, current generations offer radically
enhanced opportunities for carrying out totally
new activities or for tackling old tasks in new ways.
They contribute not just to the improvement of
efficiency at a local level within the factory but also
to the overall strategic performance of the firm in
dealing with its environment (Miles
et al.,
1988;
Bessant, 1991).
For example, computer-aided draughting can
improve the speed and accuracy with which draw-
ings are produced in the design area, whereas inte-
grated computer-aided design and manufacturing
affects the entire organization, changing the way
in which the entire product development process
operates. Benefits include dramatically shorter
response times, better customer service, materials
savings, improved design and quality and the
opportunity to introduce new products more fre-
quently. Such improvements in the overall
efecti-
veness
of manufacturing arise primarily through the
use of computer-based technologies in
integrated
mode, taking advantage of the standard digital
form in which different control systems operate and
of network technology which allows the communi-
cation and sharing of such information.
Whilst evidence from early adopters of such tech-
nological configurations indicates that a high
degree of competitive advantage can be gained,
there is a disturbingly high level of dissatisfaction
and failure associated with the implementation of
CIM and its derivatives. For example, based on
a survey of some
1200
users of computer-integrated
technologies in 1988, the consultants
A.
T. Kearney
(1989) estimated that the UK was spending, as a
whole, around &2bn or
20
per cent of its total manu-
facturing investment on such technologies.
Depressingly, their report concluded that:
‘benefits
on
the
whole
have
been
disappointing
with
an
achievement
of
70
per
cent
of
planned
gains
. . .
CIM
has
not
resolved
the
problems
of
quality and performance
to
schedules as
antici-
pated..
.’.
A
variety of other studies confirm this pattern, from
which it is clear that simply investing in
AMT
is
no guarantee of its successful operation (Burnes,
1988; Ettlie, 1988). In a few cases the problems
are
so
serious that the firm is forced to abandon
their investment altogether, but for the majority
of users it is more likely
to
be
a
case of failing
1045-3172/93/040219-16$13.00
0
1993
by
John
Wiley
&
Sons, Ltd.
Received
I7
October
1991
Revised
5
February
1993
220
J.
Bessant and
J.
Buckingham
to exploit the full potential offered by the techno-
Not surprisingly, growing attention is being paid
to identifying the underlying causes of this problem
-
and to discovering what successful firms do in
order to profit from their investments in AMT.
Although studies suggest that some of this problem
relates
to
technical difficulties, most of the concern
is with failures in the strategic planning of such
investments and with the failure of organizational
adaptation (Ettlie, 1988; Boer and Hill, 1988). As
Voss
(1988) points out, adoption is not enough;
beyond the decision to invest in the technology
there is a need for active intervention and change
management throughout the implementation pro-
cess. Organizations need to learn to operate in new
ways (via new structures and processes) if they are
to exploit successfully the benefits offered by AMT.
Some firms are clearly more successful than others
in this process and this suggests that the ways in
which they approach learning to use new techno-
logy, especially in its more integrated forms, may
also be an important and underestimated organiza-
tional capability. This paper explores the theme of
technology implementation as learning through the
example of integrated computer-aided production
management systems. It concludes with a discus-
sion of different approaches to learning and the
strategic implications this may have for successful
management of innovation.
logy.
Technological Learning
The metaphor of learning as a way to describe the
complex processes through which organizations
acquire knowledge and experience in support of
their continuing growth and development is used
with increasing frequency in the literature (Argyris
and Schon, 1970; Pedler
et
al.,
1991; Senge, 1990).
Whether it is organizations themselves or simply
the individuals within them which learn is a com-
plex question. At one level it could be argued that
it is the individuals which matter
-
as Hedberg
(1981) and others suggest, the organization simply
provides the stage on which the individuals act and
respond to stimuli. But there is also an aspect of
organizational behaviour associated with what
might be called its memory, the dominant culture
and mythology which it carries forward over time
and which, whilst created by the actions and beliefs
of individuals, is to some extent independent of
them. For our purposes we will consider organiza-
tional learning in terms of the second argument
-
that the way in which learning takes place is
through individuals but that their individual beliefs
and actions shape a broader organizational world
view which gives rise to a particular way of acting.
One area in which the concept of organizational
learning appears to provide useful insights is tech-
nological innovation. In particular, the ‘evolution-
ary economics’ school (Nelson and Winter, 1982;
Rosenberg, 1982; Dosi
et
al.,
1989) sees the growth
of the firm in biological terms, analogous with orga-
nisms struggling and competing to survive in a hos-
tile environment. Innovation is an essential part
of this survival process and learning describes the
ways in which firms develop through building on
their experiences of success and failure. In this
model, individual
-
firm specific- patterns of behav-
iour become the focus for attention; what a firm
learns and how it learns it become critical points
for explaining differences in performance between
firms and within sectors and other populations.
Dodgson (1991) identifies three useful concepts in
this connection; the knowledge base of the firm,
firm-specific competencies and routines. The idea
of a knowledge base as a receptacle for the various
kinds of learning and experience which a firm
acquires and which gives it a particular pattern of
competitive advantage has been discussed by Tiler
and Gibbons (1991) who see its management as
a critical strategic issue. In similar vein several auth-
ors (for example, Teece 1987; Pavitt, 1991; Praha-
lad and Hamel, 1990) discuss the notion of
organizing firm-specific knowledge and experience
to provide a platform for development of particular
strategic competence. Nelson and Winter (1982) use
the concept of ‘routines’ to describe how firms oper-
ate in structural, processual and cultural terms to
organize and maintain their knowledge base.
Dodgson (1990) brings together several of the
main strands in research into organizational learn-
ing which have relevance for the question of tech-
nological innovation. Learning is seen as a critical
issue, both within the between firms in areas includ-
ing new product development (Maidique and
Zirger, 1985; Hayes
et al.,
1988),
R
and
D
strategy
and management (Rosenberg, 1982) and inter-firm
collaboration. (Dodgson, 1991
;
Lamming, 1992).
It is seen as the route along which firms acquire
and enhance their ‘core competences’, with the
implication that much of what confers competitive
advantage may not be embodied in products or

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT