How do professionals tackle collaborative innovation projects?

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Masaya Onuma
Yokohama National University

This paper explored the mechanism behind how professionals proceed with innovative activities, with special attention to collaboration processes between professionals and firms. Several studies in the innovation literature discuss innovative professionals, such as scientists and doctors, who apply specialised knowledge to new artefacts (e.g. von Hippel, 2005) and professionals who are faculty members in universities, playing important roles in industrial innovations (e.g. Lee, 1996). In addition, recent studies highlight the importance of external knowledge created by professionals for corporate innovation (Chatterji and Fabrizio, 2014). However, the detailed processes regarding professionals’ collaboration with firms to push innovation or firms’ mobilisation of professional knowledge to realise innovation are not apparent because the mechanisms of success and failure of these activities have not been clarified by previous studies. Therefore, we examined these processes using case studies on research and development projects of medical devices and explored the obstacles to innovation processes and the mechanisms of collaborative innovation.

2.Research design
This research employed a multiple-case, inductive and exploratory research design because of the limited theory and evidence regarding these phenomena (Eisenhardt, 1989). We focused on the healthcare industry because it represents a typical case wherein professionals cooperate with firms to conduct innovative activities.
The data collection and analysis were divided into two phases. In the first phase, on the basis of pre-determined criteria, we selected 28 development projects of medical devices and analysed the managerial problems in the innovative processes in order to identify the primary factors that obstruct professionals. Data were collected from interviews and archives. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with professionals who were university faculty members, such as doctors, bioengineering researchers and corporate managers and engineers (49 individuals in total). Data were retrieved from several archives such as public reports, newspaper articles, professional journals, medical papers, company press releases and relevant patent records. We performed qualitative analysis by cross-checking data and distilling emergent theoretical insights. In this process, we arranged information on organisational problems caused by collaboration between professionals and firms and discussed how both overcame these barriers. We then clarified the key factors for proceeding smoothly in these activities.
In the second phase, we closely examined four particular cases (Projects A, B, C and D). In the former phase, the data implied key concepts to understand the collaborative activity. Therefore, to observe their impact in detail and to build and expand the theoretical model, we used theoretical sampling to identify four medical device projects for an in-depth analysis.

On the basis of the methods mentioned earlier, we clarified the relationships between the variables of innovative projects undertaken by professionals. This is summarised in two points. Firstly, we can understand that innovative activities undertaken through a learning process are affected by the factors of cognitive gap and power asymmetry and that these are the main process obstacles. In some cases, project members had faced difficulties arising from cognitive problems with each other given their different cognitive lenses and schemas. Generally, the gap has a negative influence on organisational learning in several contexts (Bhagat et al., 2002); we observed similar situations. With respect to the power issue, several scholars discuss power asymmetry as being negatively associated with learning outputs (Casciaro and Piskorski, 2005). Similarly, in some cases, this arises when project members depend on expert knowledge that is provided by professionals and perceive a medical professional as having a higher status than themselves.
Secondly, we clarified that whether or not project members can overcome these obstacles is dependent on the problem-solving approach within the collaborative team. How problems are solved is affected by ‘identity’ among professionals (type of entrepreneur or professional) and the degree of accumulation of ‘problem-solving knowledge’ in collaborative projects.
On the basis of this result, in the second phase, we examined four cases in more detail and clarified four mechanism types: (1) trial and error, (2) knowledge integration, (3) boundary spanning and (4) pursuit of expertise. The type of mechanism that occurs in the organisation is dependent on the problem solving approach adopted. In other words, the mechanism is determined by the combination of two elements: the identity of professionals and the degree of accumulation of problem-solving knowledge.

This study makes two primary contributions. Firstly, we clarify a mechanism for the innovation processes of professionals who have a faculty appointment. This issue, which closely relates to research on innovation management and overlaps with the field of organisational theory regarding professionals, has not been sufficiently examined in the literature. Secondly, this research contributes to the study of collaboration between university and industry in terms of clarifying how professionals who are university faculty members proceed with innovative activities.
This study has practical implications for decision making with respect to the selection of a suitable professional with whom to collaborate for an innovative project. Even when professionals have innovative ideas, firms must avoid organisational issues that arise from collaboration if they are to realise a successful outcome. In terms of ease of overcoming issues, our results suggest that a firm may consider two elements: the identity of professional and the degree of accumulation of problem-solving knowledge.