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Absorbing the Concept of Absorptive Capacity - How To Realize Its Potential in the Organization Field

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The purpose of this Perspective Paper is to advance understanding of absorptive capacity, its underlyingdimensions, its multi-level antecedents, its impact on firm performance and the contextual factors thataffect absorptive capacity. Nineteen years after the Cohen and Levinthal 1990 paper, the field ischaracterized by a wide array of theoretical perspectives and a wealth of empirical evidence. In thispaper, we first review these underlying theories and empirical studies of absorptive capacity. Given thesize and diversity of the absorptive capacity literature, we subsequently map the existing terrain ofresearch through a bibliometric analysis. The resulting bibliometric cartography shows the majordiscrepancies in the organization field, namely that (1) most attention so far has been focused on thetangible outcomes of absorptive capacity; (2) organizational design and individual level antecedentshave been relatively neglected in the absorptive capacity literature; and (3) the emergence of absorptivecapacity from the actions and interactions of individual, organizational and inter-organizationalantecedents remains unclear. Building on the bibliometric analysis, we develop an integrative modelthat identifies the multi-level antecedents, process dimensions, and outcomes of absorptive capacity aswell as the contextual factors that affect absorptive capacity. We argue that realizing the potential of theabsorptive capacity concept requires more research that shows how “micro antecedents” and “macroantecedents”influence future outcomes such as competitive advantage, innovation, and firmperformance. In particular, we identify conceptual gaps that may guide future research to fully exploitthe absorptive capacity concept in the organization field and to explore future fruitful extensions of theconcept.

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Henk W. Volberda, Nicolai J. Foss, Marjorie A. Lyles

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