Constructing Inter-firm Networks: - an experiential learning approach
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This thesis explores the process of constructing an inter-firm network among eight electronics firms. Based on an experiential learning approach, I explore the social dynamics that help construct an inter-firm network with a capacity to support innovation in firms. Based on a sixyear endeavour of constructing and maintaining a network, I set out to answer the main research question: What are the characteristics of experiential learning processes that facilitate network construction and development? In the first part of the thesis I give an overview of what I regard as the most relevant literature about network construction processes. I reveal the knowledge gap concerning the social dynamics that underpin network construction processes. Studies on inter-firm networks tend to build on descriptive analyses of networking processes in which the researcher observes or evaluates existing networks in retrospect. These studies deal inadequately with the practical aspects of creating connectivity among different actors, activities and resources. In response to the identified gap in the networking literature, I develop a theoretical framework for network construction that builds on actor network theory and a conversational approach to experiential learning. In building this conceptual framework, I have argued that social construction processes develop in discontinuous patterns characterised by alternating phases of stability and transformation. The co-generative approach undertaken in this study signifies two separate albeit interconnected processes to knowledge production and change. First, in collaboration with the practitioners, I have played an active role in initiating and maintaining the networking activities outlined in this study. Second, the networking processes and the outcomes of these activities have been subjected to analysis and reflections among co-researchers. The interplay between reflections in action with the practitioners and the research community’s analysis of these reflections was significant for producing the process models outlined in this study. Through this interlinked process my understanding of the relation between experiential learning and the practice of constructing and maintaining networks developed gradually. The second part of the thesis contains the case descriptions. This part outlines the activities and the social processes that take place in what I have labelled the foundation phase, the expansion phase and the stabilising phase. This part illustrates how the network configuration, the patterns of interaction and the networking members’ orientation change according to the nature of the identified development phases. The foundation phase demonstrates the challenges of completing the experiential learning cycle. I argue that these problems mainly relate to the problems of facilitating a dialogical context that allows for free speech and for uncovering the participants’ needs. Therefore, important questions to address during this phase include how to minimise barriers to open communication and how to avoid decision-making procedures that may lead the group to solve the wrong problems. The expansion phase displays the process of building external support that enables the network to transform its ideas into project activities and beneficial outcomes. I emphasise the need for identifying relevant stakeholders and for using procedures that help enrol actors located in the external environment into the networking configuration. Processes of enrolment require a coordinating function that allows different actors to obtain shared and coordinated meanings. The stabilising phase describes a period of reconciliation. After a period of radical transformation, there is a need to re-establish the personal relations and the networks’ boundaries. In this phase, the ladder of inference proved a powerful tool for facilitating dialogical inquiries of professional practice and hence for strengthening the network’s bonds. This process allowed for explicit inferences to be made and for ideas and practice to be tested. During this phase, the network progressed towards what I have labelled a “community of sharing”. In the third part I try to answer the research question by linking the empirical findings to the theory and to conceptualise a more elaborate understanding of how to make experiential learning facilitate network construction processes. Applying an experiential learning approach to network construction requires, I argue, that the networking members are able to adapt the steps in the experiential learning cycle to the patterns of interaction that characterise the different network development phases. I present an experiential learning model that helps link to the distinct network development phases. The model composes a workable methodological framework for processing inter-firm networks. I conclude by arguing for network construction as continuous processes of constructing and reconstructing shared meanings. Finally, I recommend action for network construction and indicate potential areas for future research.