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Insemination capacity: a complementary perspective on absorptive capacity and innovation.

frPublié en ligne le 08 avril 2015

Par Guillaume Imbert


La capacité d’absorption des connaissances est un déterminant clé de la performance d’innovation. La capacité des entreprises à absorber les connaissances externes est d’autant plus importante dans un contexte d’ouverture des processus d’innovation et de développement croissant des sociétés de conseil. Pourtant, la littérature a négligé le rôle de ces dernières dans la capacité d’absorption des entreprises. Cette recherche postule que ces entreprises peuvent impacter le processus d’absorption des connaissances de leurs clients. Nous introduisons le concept de capacité d’insémination, soit la capacité d’une société de conseil à déclencher et développer une séquence d’absorption des connaissances chez son client. Bien que le développement de la capacité d’absorption du client ne soit pas l’objectif de la société de conseil, la capacité d’insémination du prestataire peut agir en ce sens. En nous basant sur des études empiriques antérieures, cette recherche suggère que la capacité d’insémination s’appuie sur quatre dimensions : l’adoption, la sélection, la contextualisation et la préservation des connaissances. Elle offre de nouveaux éléments pour comprendre la performance d’innovation des contrats associant un client à son prestataire.


Absorptive capacity helps determine innovation performance. The ability of firms to absorb external knowledge is furthermore critical in a context of open innovation and development of

consulting firms. However, extant literature continues to ignore the influence of services on the absorptive capacity of firms. That is, external organizations may advance the knowledge absorption process of their clients. To address this gap, this study introduces the concept of insemination capacity, or a consulting firm’s ability to initiate and perpetuate a knowledge absorption sequence. Although knowledge-intensive business services might not explicitly seek to strengthen a client’s absorptive capacity, the consulting firm’s insemination capacity may do so anyway. On the basis of prior empirical research, this study suggests that insemination capacity consists of four dimensions: adoption, selection, contextualization, preservation. This proposed framework offers new insights into supplier–client innovation performance.


1Organizations rely on innovation and knowledge management to face major environment transitions, such as market, technological, or institutional changes. Yet, more and more innovation-related activities are conducted outside organizational boundaries as “a solution to one’s problem can usually be found in someone else’s toolbox” (Gassman et al., 2011: 457). To meet this challenge of innovative companies, some firms have focused their areas of expertise on finding innovation solutions in different fields for their clients. These innovation intermediaries (Gassman et al., 2011) have grown quickly since the 1980s. As management, engineering and strategy consulting firms, they are part of the large KIBS’ category (Knowledge Intensive Business Services), which are firms performing services encompassing a high intellectual added value for other firms (Muller and Zenker’s, 2001: 2). KIBS play a key role in the client’s innovation performance (Den Hertog, 2000; Bettencourt et al., 2002) and rely on knowledge creation, accumulation and dissemination activities (Bettencourt et al., 2002).

2However, clients are not always able to benefit from the KIBS expertize. They are used to face issues using external knowledge when they lack of absorptive capacity, i.e. when they are not able to recognize, assimilate and apply the value of knowledge (Cohen and Levinthal, 1990). Absorptive capacity (ACAP) is a key determinant of innovation capabilities and performance (Cohen et Levinthal, 1990 ; Tsai, 2001).

3Yet, firms may have difficulty developing effective absorptive capacity on their own (Lane and Lubatkin, 1998). Absorption performance demands a collaborative effort depending on the absorption performance of the recipient, but also very much on the sender’s attitudes and behavior (Minbaeva and Michaelova, 2004). Though the literature has largely investigated this concept, prior work consider absorptive capacity as the result of internal efforts.

4With this research, we suggest KIBS affect their client’absorptive capacity and thus, their innovation performance. To this end, we seek an unconventional point of view on absorptive capacity, namely, that of the consulting firms.

Research question

5This research contributes to the burgeoning literatures on absorptive capacity and innovation intermediaries by identifying the roles of knowledge-intensive business services on their client’s absorptive capacity. Thus, we investigate absorptive capacity in an extended way as prior work consider absorptive capacity as the result of internal efforts. Our research question is “How do KIBS may affect their client’ absorptive capacity? We thus complement absorptive capacity literature by examining the effect of KIBS on clients’ absorptive capacity. We begin by introducing our research setting, namely, the consultant–client relationship in an innovation context. After we outline the ACAP concept as a critical organizational capacity for achieving innovation performance, we introduce insemination capacity, or the capacity of consulting firms to initiate and perpetuate a knowledge absorption sequence by the client firm. We define this concept, explore its dimensions, and stress its connection with absorptive capacity. Finally, we discuss the findings of this theoretical study and suggest further research on this concept.


6This section introduces the theoretical background on the consulting-client relationship in innovation contexts and absorptive capacity. It aims at identifying prior work limits and uncovering the research gap we address in this research.

The consulting-client relationship in innovation contexts

7To detail the framework of the relational context of this research, we consider the consulting–client relationship, acknowledge the specific implications of innovation contracts, and note the impact of service coproduction on the relationship.

Contractual consulting-client contexts

8Whereas the concept of open innovation is relatively new, collaborations between firms and service providers have long sought to attain innovation outcomes. Research on innovative activity in the service sector still tends to be relatively recent (Gallouj and Weinstein, 1997; Den Hertog, 2000) and cites mainly management, strategy, and innovation consulting. Consulting implies a contractual relationship, unlike alliances or strategic partnerships, which entail some direct competition between firms. Thus supplier–client relationships, like the consulting relationship, can avoid some relationship issues, such as conflicting motivations (Cohen and Levinthal, 1990; Szulanski, 1996), in that the consulting firm and the client are entirely focused on the latter’s performance, through their engagement in a classic, simple form of contract. The success of their collaborative relationship depends largely on the quality and strength of their interaction.

9Prior research also offers several typologies of consultancy services, based on consultation orientations (Lippit, 1959), consultant profiles (Greiner and Nees, 1989), or learning intensity (Simonet et al., 2003). The latter element appears particularly relevant for our study, for three main reasons: the importance of knowledge for innovation, the support that a strong relational context offers for learning, and its dynamic characteristics. With these critical elements, the consultant–client relationship should result in value creation, in accordance with recent research that has reconsidered the role, nature, and practices of innovation consulting. In this sense, consultancy firms are not pure suppliers but rather innovation partners (Bettencourt et al., 2002), whose activity is based on their knowledge. As Knowledge-Intensive Business Services (KIBS), management, strategy, and innovation consultants enable a knowledge-based economy (Muller and Zenker, 2001). These innovation intermediaries (Gassman et al., 2011) have grown quickly since the 1980s. This role of knowledge intermediary received most attention in the vast literature devoted to knowledge brockers (Davenport and Prusak, 1998; Hargadon, 1998). Exploring knowledge brocker firms in the context of KIBS (consultancy companies and product design firms), Hargadon (1998: 214) defined them as “organizations that profit by transferring from where they are known to where they represent innovative new possibilities. They transfer these ideas in the forms of new products or processes to industries that had little or no previous knowledge of them”. It leads us to the innovation role of KIBS. We adopt Muller and Zenker’s (2001: 2) definition of KIBS as “firms performing, mainly for other firms, services encompassing a high intellectual added value” and thereby highlight the consulting firm’s dissemination role of valuable knowledge.

Innovation context

10To focus on innovation-related consulting services, we first need to clarify some terms to avoid any misunderstanding due to the problematic homonymy between services and service (Hatchuel, 1994). That is, “services” refer to companies from the service sector, or KIBS. The final outputs of such services include innovative product and service offerings. Innovation thus is a key conceptual dimension of KIBS (Muller and Doloreux, 2007). Den Hertog (2000: 508) investigates the roles of KIBS providers as facilitators, carriers, and sources of innovation, such that they play “a major role in initiating and developing innovations in client firms.” This comment reflects the growing awareness of the importance of innovative activities in the service sector.

11In turn, the client–supplier relationship is changing. Three main characteristics reflect this evolution in a product innovation context (Wognum et al., 2002: 342): increasing value added by suppliers, persistence in collaborative relationships, and greater mutual dependency as “the client has become more dependent on the knowledge, continuity, and care of the selected suppliers”. These changes suggest a shift from a subordination to a partnership logic, such that the innovation-focused consulting relationship relies not on static or basic knowledge transfers but rather on dynamic synergies (Capello, 1999) that support the transfer of intangible, tacit knowledge assets (Szulanski and Jensen, 2004) that often are sticky (Von Hippel, 1994 ; Szulanski, 1996).

12The KIBS consulting firm supports innovation through strong interactions with customers that determine the performance of the innovation project (Meeus et al., 2001). Because the effectiveness of consultancy firms depends on their knowledge accumulation, creation, and dissemination abilities (Bettencourt et al., 2002), their contract performance relies on the client’s ability to deal with external knowledge. Yet clients may have difficulties absorbing this knowledge, mainly due to knowledge transfer challenges.

Coproduction of service and relationships

13Despite relatively little attention paid to the dissemination capacity of knowledge sources (Minbaeva and Michailova, 2004), this ability is critical in KIBS context, for which outward knowledge transfer is a core activity. We focus on the specifics of knowledge transfer in this context, to highlight the role of supplier behavior as a key determinant. In turn, a conventional view of knowledge sources and recipients is less relevant for our study context. The production of services results from a joint effort by the supplier and client (Den Hertog, 2000), which is likely a coproduction mechanism rather than a one-way process.

14According to Bettencourt et al. (2002: 102), knowledge management “becomes a source of firm competence that serves as a competitive advantage for KIBS firms that are able to truly manage their customers effectively as co-producers of the service solution.” Clients also are key actors (Todorova and Durisin, 2007), and the interaction of a supplier and a client determines the success of a consultancy contract (Schön, 1983), in accordance with the service-dominant logic (SDL; Vargo and Lusch, 2004). Although the SDL provides a more dynamic view of innovation consulting, we still recognize potential barriers for customers, such as a lack of time, skills, or motivation to meet value co-creation demands.

15Considering this challenge, we conceive of the client coproduction level as a continuum, whose extremes reflect two kinds of interactions between the client and consultant. First, if the client does not participate in the project, the KIBS delivers “turnkey” service, which implies relatively poor performance in our innovation context. Open innovation projects rely on intensive interactions (Meeus et al., 2001), but on this end of the continuum, the client considers consulting firms only as suppliers, in a narrow sense of the term, and looks for operational outcomes from the KIBS. Second, the client may participate fully in service creation, through strong interactions and long-term partnerships that lead to organizational learning for both partners and provide organizational learning benefits for the client (Barlow, 2000). In addition to these extreme cases, we need to consider intermediate levels and connections.

16Innovative firms may engage consulting firms to gain access to valuable knowledge that is distant from their own knowledge base. Intellectual and valuable knowledge (Miles et al., 1995) also may be embedded in a particular context. However, even high-quality, appropriate external knowledge cannot guarantee clients’ innovation performance. Rather, the exploitation of such external knowledge demands suitable integration mechanisms (Zahra and George, 2002), especially in connection with KIBS activities that “result in the creation, accumulation or dissemination of knowledge” (Miles et al., 1995: 18).

17Because KIBS knowledge is tacit (Nonaka and Takeuchi, 1995) and sticky (Szulanski, 1996), the client may have trouble absorbing it, though “the difficulty experienced in the process of knowledge transfer has received little systematic attention” (Szulanski, 2000: 10). Moreover, KIBS can drive development (Miles, 2005), so consulting firms seemingly should implement measures to enhance their knowledge dissemination or teaching abilities: “Although knowledge transfer involves both teaching activities by the source organization and learning efforts by the receiving organization, the literature on teaching is nearly absent in the management field, particularly when compared to the large body of literature on learning” (Zhao and Anand, 2009: 963).

18We suggest that consulting firms knowingly and strategically use this ability to enhance client performance. As Koch and Strotmann (2008: 512) argue, “there is little systematical knowledge about what determines innovative activities in this new economic sector.” Therefore, in light of prior research on knowledge dissemination by consulting firms and their interactions with clients, we argue the contract success depends on knowledge absorption performance, which moderates innovative activity levels (Veugelers, 1997). Therefore, we consider absorptive capacity (Cohen and Levinthal, 1990), to explore the determinants of innovation performance arising from a consulting contract.

Absorptive capacity

19Absorptive capacity (ACAP) affects performance in the form of technological transfers (Lin et al., 2002; Lichtenthaler and Lichtenthaler, 2009), innovation (Cohen and Levinthal, 1990; Tsai, 2001), transfers of best practices (Szulanski, 1996), and interorganizational learning (Lane and Lubatkin, 1998). We accordingly present existing definitions of ACAP, review some of its antecedents, and explore the role of external knowledge sources for its development. In response to some identified research gaps, we also suggest an integrative model of ACAP in a contractual relationship context.

Models and definitions

20Cohen and Levinthal (1990: 128) define absorptive capacity as “the ability of a firm to recognize the value of new, external information, assimilate it, and apply it to commercial ends.” A broad consensus has developed around this definition, despite some major ACAP developments in the past two decades. Several reconceptualizations (Zahra and George, 2002; Todorova and Durisin, 2007), reifications (Lane et al., 2006), and operationalizations, including ACAP scale measures (Chauvet, 2003; Flatten et al., 2011), also have enriched understanding of the concept. For example, Zahra and George (2002) consider ACAP as a four-dimensional dynamic capacity, such that a firm acquires, assimilates, transforms, and exploits external knowledge, as we summarize in Table 1.

Table 1. ACAP dimensions: components and themes (Download)

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21Acquisition entails the identification and acquisition of external knowledge; assimilation refers to the analysis and understanding of external knowledge. Knowledge transformation combines newly acquired knowledge with the organization’s knowledge base. Finally, exploitation transforms knowledge into operations, such as new products and service development. In our study context, in which KIBS represent sources of innovation with substantial impacts on clients, this dynamic conceptualization is particularly relevant, because “it facilitates analysis of ACAP by enabling researchers to explore its different antecedents and consequences” (Zahra and George, 2002: 185). Moreover, these authors suggest that ACAP comprises two subsets, namely, potential (PACAP) and realized (RACAP) absorptive capacities, respectively focused on acquisition-assimilation and transformation-exploitation. In our view, RACAP stresses the firm’s ability to leverage external knowledge, which is critical for open innovation projects, particularly those emerging from contractual relations.

22Another theoretical development of ACAP concept comes from Todorova and Durisin (2007), who reintroduce Cohen and Levinthal’s (1990) idea of recognizing value as a component of acquisition dimension. They argue that though Zahra and George (2002) consider ACAP a dynamic capability, their also omitted some dynamics aspects. Therefore, Todorova and Durisin (2007) introduce dynamic loops across ACAP dimensions, especially to reflect the complex relationship between assimilation and transformation, which is so dynamic that both dimensions can occur simultaneously or may be substitutable. Although we do not consider assimilation and transformation substitutable, we follow Todorova and Durisin’s (2007) dynamic model and stress the feedback loops across dimensions, such that each of the four dimensions can affect the others, and they do not necessary occur linearly.

23In addition to the need to adopt a dynamic view of ACAP in the context of innovation contracts and consulting relationships, we need more literature focused on ACAP antecedents, and specifically interorganizational antecedents (Volberda et al., 2010), including the active impact of KIBS on clients’ innovation performance.

ACAP antecedents

24Two main streams of prior research investigate ACAP antecedents (Van den Bosch et al., 2003): one focused on prior related knowledge (e.g., contiguous knowledge levels, knowledge base similarities) and another pertaining to organizational mechanisms, routines (Lane and Lubatkin, 1998), or coordination capacities (Jansen et al., 2005) such as digital capabilities (Roberts et al., 2012). Across these streams though, most ACAP research remains static and assumes the capacity is internally generated (Cohen and Levinthal, 1990; Zahra and George, 2002; Todorova and Durisin, 2007).

25External organisations (knowledge sources) appear as simple ACAP antecedents, due to their knowledge base, motivation, or level of prior related knowledge. Volberda et al. (2010: 27) thus call for research “to build on prior work addressing the nature of AC […] and inter-organizational antecedents so that there is an accumulation of knowledge about AC.” This interorganizational nature of ACAP is a key dimension of the ACAP concept, related to the absorption of external knowledge. We seek to clarify the role of external sources in the development of absorptive capacity.

External organisations

26Although the gain of external knowledge and learning from partners are major components of inter-organizational antecedents of ACAP, the four ACAP processes (acquisition, assimilation, transformation and exploitation) and how they change over time has not been investigating in detail (Volberda et al., 2010). We stressed the need to consider the role of external organisations in the ACAP processes as efficient knowledge sharing depends on the absorptive capacity of the recipient (Cohen and Levinthal, 1990) but also “very much on the knowledge sender’s attitudes and behaviour” (Minbaeva and Michailova, 2004: 666). As absorptive capacity is affected by the knowledge sender’s charactestics (Cohen and Levinthal, 1990), ACAP should be studied at the inter-firm level of analysis too (Volberda et al., 2010). However, little research considers interorganizational contexts (Dyer and Singh, 1998; Lane and Lubatkin, 1998; Easterby-Smith et al., 2008). From an empirical investigation of collective research centers, Spithoven (2010) determines that the actors organize their absorptive capacity collectively. Lichtenthtaler and Lichtenthaler (2010: 158) propose the concept of desorptive capacity, or the “ability to identify technology transfer opportunities based on a firm’s outward technology transfer strategy and to facilitate the technology’s application at the recipient.” According to this perspective, firms affect one another’s ACAP, though Lichtenthaler and Lichtenthaler (2009) focus on the exploitation dimension, neglecting the other ACAP dimensions. Yet, prior work negleted the question of how this dyanamic capacity arises (Volberda et al., 2010). Furthermore, “the majority of the studies on AC have remained at a conceptual level and the scarce empirical studies have been mainly quantitative, not providing insight into the connection between the different learning processes” (Knoppen et al., 2011).

27In the light of these developments, two main gaps of the literature deserve to be highlighted:

281. The role of external organisations on ACAP has been neglected.

29Despite the substantial literature on ACAP, most ACAP research assume the capacity is internally generated (Cohen and Levinthal, 1990; Zahra and George, 2002; Todorova and Durisin, 2007). It seems to forget ACAP is an organizational learning capacity and « that a firm has an equal capacity to learn from all other organizations » (Lane and Lubatkin, 1998: 461). Thus, we stress the need to consider the active role of external organisations on absorptive capacity.

302. ACAP literature has neglected the client-provider relationship

31Most of prior research focuses on strategic alliances (Easterby-Smith et al., 2008), partnerships, and multinational corporations, at the expense of “traditional,” contractual client– supplier relationship like de consulting relationship. However, we have already underlined the critical importance of absorptive capacity in this context of innovation intermediaries, and more specifically, in exploration activities.

32Considering their key role for innovation (Den Hertog, 2000), their “knowledge bridge” functions (Miles et al., 1995), and their intensive interactions with clients (Bettencourt et al., 2002), we posit that KIBS exert a critical influence on absorptive capacity, through which they enhance contract performance by helping the client overcome its potential lack of absorptive capacity during the knowledge transfer (Szulanski, 2000). Unlike prior literature that presents knowledge sources as static ACAP antecedents, we acknowledge the active role of consulting firms in innovation contracts and argue that KIBS constitutes a critical support of the absorption process, such that it can initiate and perpetuate a knowledge absorption sequence.

Insemination capacity: a new concept to better understand absorptive capacity

33To stress the need for an extended, dynamic view of ACAP, we present a theoretical contribution here, rooted in empirical research conducted during the past two decades in the fields of KIBS, consulting, innovation management, knowledge transfers, and absorptive capacity. Building on related prior research though, we consider the role of consulting firms to initiate and perpetuate knowledge absorption sequences by the client, which we argue constitutes a dynamic capability of the consulting firm that we call “insemination capacity” (ICAP).

Definition and dimensions of insemination capacity

34Both knowledge transfer from the consulting firm and absorption by the client are critical. To explore the concept of absorptive capacity further, we focus on the consulting firm, or supplier, and propose an extended view of ACAP as ICAP. We argue that suppliers engaged in innovation contracts can act on their clients’ knowledge absorption sequence, to enhance contract performance and the motivation of both firms.

35We define ICAP as a dynamic organizational capability developed by consulting firms through four dimensions : knowledge adoption, selection, contextualization, and preservation (Imbert and Chauvet, 2012).

36Building on Imbert and Chauvet (2012), we propose four dimensions of insemination capacity: adoption, selection, contextualization, and preservation. We derive these notions from empirical research into KIBS, consulting, innovation management, knowledge transfer, and absorptive capacity.

37Knowledge adoption refers to the consulting firm’s ability to recognize, pull, and adapt knowledge from clients. This mechanism aims to reduce the gap between the respective knowledge bases of both firms, by identifying valuable knowledge and drawing in external knowledge. In a sense, the supplier ACAP that Newey (2010) explores is part of this process, because the service provider absorbs knowledge from the client. Client collaboration is essential and determines the final outcome. Empirical research based on formal cooperation contracts also confirms that “access to knowledge from clients … has a significant impact on the probability to innovate” (Koch and Strotmann, 2008: 511).

38Knowledge selection refers to the consulting firm’s ability to select valuable knowledge for the client. Through interactive exchanges, providers build an estimation of the ACAP client to determine which knowledge to transfer, because it can be assimilated by the client. The main challenge for the provider is initiation stickiness (Szulanski, 2000: 13), that is, “the difficulty in recognizing opportunities to transfer and in acting upon them.” Knowledge selection also implies KIBS retain some knowledge, such as sticky (Szulanski, 1996) or tacit (Nonaka and Takeushi, 1995) forms, which may affect knowledge absorption effectiveness.

39Knowledge contextualization refers to the consulting firm’s ability to adapt the knowledge to the context of the client organization. Knowledge stickiness remains a key issue (Szulanski, 1996). Therefore, consulting firms seek to make the knowledge as explicit as possible, to avoid assimilation issues. They also may adapt and internalize knowledge from the client organization, which strengthens their bond (Hansen, 1999).

40Finally, knowledge preservation refers to the ability of the consulting firm to preserve the created value from threats created by the client as the knowledge transfer unfolds. Indeed, clients may go astray (e.g., from the initial goals of the contract) as they transform and exploit external knowledge. For example, the consulting firm worked with one of his client’s research team for a few months to create new concepts of products. The client involved a new team to develop technically theses concepts, but this development team did not have enough time to acquire, assimilate or transform related knowledge. Consequently, they identified technical solutions which were not adequate: the value of the innovative concepts was not preserved. Basically, the KIBS provided a perspective from outside during the downstream phases of the project to as to recover the up-front value of the concepts. Also, personal turnover affects knowledge as managers retire with valuable knowledge. In this respect, KIBS may act as an external knowledge base of the innovative firm. This preservation role likely is complicated for the consulting firm, because it occurs when the transfer unfolds. Indeed, the client may want to exploit knowledge by himself: “once the recipient has obtained satisfactory results, it progressively needs fewer interactions with the source” (Szulanski, 2000: 13).

41By increasing their ICAP, KIBS can better invest their knowledge into the knowledge bases of their clients, such that they effectively teach clients how to exploit the available knowledge. In turn, we discuss two main outputs of ICAP.

42First, it facilitates the initiation and perpetuation of a knowledge absorption sequence. That is, ICAP increases the client’s ability to absorb knowledge through interactions with its supplier during the realization of the contract. We thus predict temporal developments of ACAP (Lane and Lubatkin, 1998), which are contextual, dependent on the service contract, and limited in the time.

43Second, ICAP may support the client’s organizational learning, especially if strong interactions occur between the partners. Even if the KIBS does not aim to strengthen the client’s absorptive capacity, which is not its responsibility, this development represents a positive externality that occurs due to the intensive interactions between actors, such as when clients support service co-creation. Increasing client ACAP due to the supplier’s ICAP likely affects innovation performance, because “firms with higher levels of ACAP are more effective in new product development” (Sun and Anderson, 2010: 140). In this case, ICAP refers not just to contract performance but also new service contracts with innovative firms that have improved their ability to absorb external knowledge.

44Ultimately, we argue that the ICAP dimensions comprise four complementary capacities. Following Eisenhardt and Martin (2000) and Zahra and George (2002), we suggest that these dimensions are idiosyncratic to the specific ways firms pursue, develop, and employ them. Our model also differs from most ACAP research, which assumes a linear, sequential process that ignores time-based effects (Van den Bosch et al., 1999; Todorova and Durisin 2007). By viewing ICAP as a dynamic capability, we frame our model accordingly and include feedback loops, which provide a better model of knowledge insemination in organizations.

45Through our introduction of these four dimensions of ICAP in an integrative model, we also seek to clarify some key elements. First, we reject the idea of a sequential absorption process, as suggested by mainstream literature. Rather, both ACAP and ICAP represent discontinuous processes involving multiple iterations. Second, we recognize the close bonds between insemination and absorption capacities and their dimensions. Third, we acknowledge two main dimensions that are inseparable from ICAP, though not core dimensions. That is, knowledge co-creation mechanisms are critical, because clients are always involved in the service (Den Hertog, 2000; Bettencourt et al., 2002). Also, knowledge transfer is a primary ICAP tool, in that it helps establish bonds between the ICAP dimensions and the four stages of the knowledge transfer process, as suggested by Szulanski (1996): initiation, implementation, ramp-up, and integration.

Connexions between ICAP and ACAP

46Because ICAP is based in ACAP literature, such that it represents a complementary, conceptual extension of the original concept, we clarify their connections, which suggest links on several levels. In particular, KIBS rely on their own ACAP to inseminate knowledge in their clients. Furthermore, the alignment of ICAP and ACAP dimensions depends on the nature of the relationship, such that the KIBS can adjust the level of ICAP, contingent on the client’s absorptive capacity. Here we advance a table that connects insemination capacity and absorptive capacity (Table 2). We develop these connexions in the following sections.

Table 2. ICAP and ACAP correspondences (Download)

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47ICAP is partly based on the supplier’s absorptive capacity.

48The insemination capacity of the KIBS depends partly on external knowledge. Even if service coproduction takes place at a lower level, the KIBS must absorb primary contextual knowledge, such as contract specifications. This point attests to the relevance of consulting firm’s absorptive capacity, as introduced by Newey (2010). We argue that KIBS cannot develop their own ICAP if they are unable to absorb external knowledge from their customers. In particular, KIBS absorptive capacity is critical for the knowledge adoption and contextualization dimensions of ICAP: Adoption aims to recognize, derive, and adapt knowledge from customers, while contextualization encourages knowledge transfers from both firms. Therefore, the absorptive capacity of KIBS is a key antecedent of ICAP; it could even represent a proactive absorption capacity.

49Insertion of ICAP into ACAP dimensions.

50We suggest that KIBS do not mobilize ICAP dimensions or affect clients’ ACAP dimensions similarly; rather, these effects depend on whether they are engaged in contracts in which the customer is slightly or fully engaged in the co-creation process. In the former case, KIBS influence the ACAP of their clients directly, through the gateway of the exploitation dimension. The customer does not take part in the co-creation process but instead seeks turnkey knowledge, ready to exploit. We argue knowledge preservation is not relevant in this case, because such knowledge is unlikely to deteriorate. In the case of strong co-development contracts, KIBS take full part in the early dimensions of ACAP. The customer is more likely to affect the value of knowledge, because it must recognize, assimilate, and transform external knowledge from the KIBS. The preservation dimension of ICAP makes far more sense in this case.

51Adjusting ICAP to the customer’s ACAP level.

52Various factors drive up the level of ICAP, as developed by the KIBS through contracts. The level of the client’s ACAP should be particularly critical, so KIBS should account for the client’s ACAP in adjusting their own level of ICAP. Extant literature offers controversy, such that some researchers argue that a lack of absorptive capacity limits performance (Szulanski, 1996) while others posit that “optimum absorptive capacity is never equal to maximum absorptive capacity” (Volberda et al., 2010: 26). Overall though, KIBS must seek some kind of balance. If the ICAP level developed by the KIBS is too low, the client cannot absorb the knowledge. Even when developing the client’s ACAP is not a primary goal of the KIBS, it recognizes that too much ICAP may limit organizational learning and “weaken” the client’s ACAP, which can affect contract performance across both firms.

53Correspondences between ICAP and ACAP dimensions.

54The ICAP model might be misleading if taken at face value: Its four dimensions do not automatically coincide with the four dimensions of the ACAP model. Rather, it is difficult to identify precise correspondences between the ACAP and ICAP dimensions. The ACAP process remains unclear, and progress in identifying the various influences on ACAP has been less than sufficient (Van den Bosch et al., 2003). Correspondingly, the ICAP process also demands further empirical investigation. In particular, even if the logical process seemingly would move from the individual to organizational level, we suggest that a single dimension likely influence several others, without necessarily occurring linearly. However, Building on ICAP components and literature related themes (Table 2), we address theoretical links between ICAP and ACAP dimensions.

55We advance an integrative model that connects insemination capacity and absorptive capacity (Figure 1). This highlights KIBS as key actors of absorption process in our relationship context.

Figure 1. Integrative model (Download)

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Conclusion and perspectives

56The growing importance of knowledge-intensive business services as innovation co-producers emphasizes the influence of absorptive capacity on service performance. In response, we chose to explore ACAP from the original perspective of the consulting firms. We have proposed the concept of knowledge insemination capacity, which refers to the consulting firm’s ability to initiate and perpetuate a knowledge absorption sequence for its client. Although it is not the aim of the KIBS and depends on various elements of the innovative company that will carry out the project (e.g., degree of co-creation, intensity of knowledge transfer, motivational factors), ICAP can increase the client’s level of absorptive capacity, as a positive externality.

57With this theorization, this research illustrates the importance of considering KIBS as key elements of ACAP, in the sense that the insemination performance of the supplier affects the knowledge absorption performance of the client. We also argue that knowledge absorption effectiveness constitutes a kind of complementarity between the insemination and absorption capabilities of suppliers and clients. Both elements may help explain successful, as well as failed, innovation contracts.

58Further research should seek to expand and deepen the ICAP concept, across multiple views and perspectives. First, further empirical research should investigate the backgrounds in which the insemination capacity is particularly relevant. Various items such as the kind of relationship, the history of the relationship and the level of confidence between the KIBS and their clients could precise the most relevant contexts. Particularly relevant in the context of KIBS, insemination capacity could, however, be investigated in a longer-term perspective in various interorganizational contexts such as strategic alliances to explore its existence and if so, to what extend.

59Then, empirical research might investigate the processes that consulting firms use to prompt the start of a knowledge absorption sequence. Because the interaction between the service firm and its client represents a key element of knowledge absorption process and open innovation contracts, we suggest further research that adopts a dynamic view, to deepen our understanding of the interdependencies across the respective ICAP and ACAP dimensions.

60Finally, in reference to the outcomes of insemination capacity for organizational learning, two perspectives are suggested. We suggest further research should investigate in greater depth the mirroring relationship between organizational teaching and organizational learning. We finally argue that KIBS, despite their primary goals, actually help clients develop their own absorption routines, which implies that they provide services beyond the contract. Further research might develop scales to measure the precise ACAP evolution of the client firm.


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Guillaume Imbert (2015). "Insemination capacity: a complementary perspective on absorptive capacity and innovation.". - innovatiO | Numéro 3 - Les Doctorales 2013-2015 de l'innovation.

[En ligne] Publié en ligne le 08 avril 2015.

URL : http://innovacs-innovatio.upmf-grenoble.fr/index.php?id=297

Consulté le 11/12/2018.

A propos des auteurs

Guillaume Imbert

Doctorant, Laboratoire IREGE, Université de Savoie


Guillaume Imbert is Ph.D. student in strategic management at the IREGE laboratory, University of Savoie. His research interests are broadly concerned with understanding co-innovation process management and knowledge-based activities into organisational learning perspective. Specifically, his work focuses on how Knowledge Intensive Business Services affect innovative firms’ absorptive capacity.



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