Firms' innovation capability-building paths and the nature of changes in learning mechanisms: Multiple case-study evidence from an emerging economy

Paulo N. Figueiredo, Marcela Cohen & Saulo Gomes


Although much has been written about organizational-level learning, there is a dearth of empirical studies that explore the role of changes in the nature of firm-centred learning mechanisms in affecting inter-firm differences and similarities in the accumulation of innovation capabilities, especially among firms from emerging economies, known as latecomers. By examining the relationships between these issues based on fieldwork evidence from 13 natural resource-processing firms in Brazil (1950-2000s), this study found that: (1) firms that combined the use of external and internal learning mechanisms with increased intensity and quality achieved higher innovation capability levels than firms that used these learning mechanisms with limited frequency and unchanged quality over time; (2) the relative importance of both external and internal learning mechanisms changed as firms' capabilities approached world-leading levels; (3) some combinations of external and internal learning mechanisms were associated with the attainment of particular innovation capability levels. Therefore, if latecomer firms expend limited efforts in using and deliberately changing the intensity and, mainly, the quality of both external and internal learning mechanisms over time, they will deepen their innovation capabilities slowly and will remain innovation 'followers' rather than becoming world-leading innovators. Using a novel approach that explores the relationship between latecomer firms' innovation capability-building and the extent of changes in the underlying learning mechanisms, this paper furthers our understanding of the nature and dynamics of learning and its role as a primary source of firms' international innovation performance. It also challenges recent approaches that seem to over emphasize open learning processes and post-Chandlerian forms of learning as the leading sources of firms' innovation capabilities.

Key words: Innovation capability building; learning mechanisms; latecomer firms; natural resources; multiple case-study; Brazil.

JEL classification: O12, O32, O33, M10, Q2