To engage in international collaborations multi-national corporations need ‘boundary spanning’ to overcome the challenges of geography and the cultural gap between home and host countries in terms of institutions, languages and business practices.
Boundary spanning is defined as brokering information by facilitating and managing knowledge inflows and outflows between two organisations. The Chinese have a unique approach to boundary spanning, researchers Coris, Fu and Külzer-Sacilotto found in their analysis of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
BRI is a strategy initiated by the People’s Republic of China to connect Asia with Africa and Europe via land and sea. It aims to improve regional integration, increase trade and stimulate economic growth.
The BRI is the subject of an R&D Management Special Issue The New Silk Road: R&D Networks, Knowledge Diffusions, and Open Innovation which looks at the knowledge flows facilitated by the initiative and the role of R&D in commercialising the ideas:
Here we review one of the papers in the special issue – “Boundary spanning roles in cross-border university-industry collaboration: the case of Chinese multinational corporations” – Simone Corsi, Xiaolan Fu, and Cintia Külzer-Sacilotto.
Accessing regional specialisation from a far
University and industry collaborations often flourish where there is a regional specialisation, with clusters developing around an academic institute – examples include Silicon Valley in the US, FoodValley in the Netherlands, and the Cambridge Cluster in the UK.
To engage in international collaborations multi-national corporations need to overcome the challenges of geography and the cultural gap between home and host countries in terms of institutions, languages and business practices.
This process is known as ‘boundary spanning’ and is often facilitated by the Innovation Collaboration Manager (ICM) who has a key role in mitigating the impact of national culture on R&D internationalisation.
The researchers reviewed two Chinese multinational organisations (MNCs) that have operations in eight countries and reviewed how they managed university collaborations within the host country.
The aim was to address the identified research gaps by answering the following research questions:
- 1. How do Chinese MNCs organise for international university-industry (U-I) collaboration?
- 2. What organisational roles do their open innovation (OI) platforms and ICMs play in their cross-border innovation collaboration?
- 3. Are their boundary spanners’ roles different from that reported in the literature in the context of universities?
The two organisations were:
Yangshuo Co. Ltd – an electronics technology company that was founded in the late 1980s and now has 16 R&D Centres worldwide. By 2016 the company had facilitated collaborations with more than 200 universities in 29 countries. It has consistently ranked as one of the world’s top R&D investors.
Island Co. Ltd – a consumer electronics company that was also established in the late 1980s, which has succeeded in creating more than 1,000 collaborative innovation projects.
Through interviews with collaboration managers, senior staff and external partners, the researchers made some interesting observations.
Chinese multi-nationals create new ‘boundary spanning’ roles
The role of Innovation Collaboration Manager is vital for Chinese multi-nationals and both the companies studied had created the position of ICM in order to foster international research collaborations and ecosystems.
However, the researchers also identified two new roles pivotal to university-industry collaborations – these are named ‘Dual Cultural Bridger’ and ‘International Network Enhancer’:
- – Dual Cultural Bridger – researchers found that ICMs rely on their dual embeddedness in order to prevent and solve problems occurring while interacting with foreign universities.
- – International Network Enhancer – responsible for enhancing the network with local partners in a specific geographic area. Their responsibilities mainly consist of building trust through inter-personal interactions locally and their knowledge of and reputation in the local innovation system
The researchers conclude that the study provides empirical evidence of how these roles can help multi-national organisations reduce cultural distances between themselves and the local university partners by the establishment of ad hoc roles. It also presents a case for the importance of network relationships with local universities for the internationalisation of MNCs’ R&D.
To read the paper “Boundary spanning roles in cross-border university-industry collaboration: the case of Chinese multinational corporations” – Simone Corsi, Xiaolan Fu, and Cintia Külzer-Sacilotto.