Skip to main content
Printable page generated Sunday, 26 Jun 2022, 08:30
Use 'Print preview' to check the number of pages and printer settings.
Print functionality varies between browsers.
Printable page generated Sunday, 26 Jun 2022, 08:30

T890: Organisations and institutions

Unit 3: Organisations and institutions

This unit examines different ways in which the institutional framework relevant to innovation can be viewed, and how different organisational configurations influence the way in which innovation processes operate. To a certain extent this area has been introduced already, since it is almost impossible to separate out institutional factors when considering technology policy and innovation processes. Similarly the different team approaches institutionalised in design and innovation activities, ideas about technology shaping and the role of government in promotion and regulation all raise institutional issues in policy making.

Learning outcomes

The aim of this unit is to develop an institutional and organisational perspective on technology policy and innovation. By the end of this unit you should have:

  • Acquired a basic understanding of the institutional context of technology policy and innovation studies

  • Become familiar with some key approaches and debates in this area

  • Developed a good understanding of some institutional structures (such as clusters, networks, communities of practice) and the factors that influence them.

1 The institutional perspective

Giddens (1990) noted that “many ... aspects of social life may be institutionalised: that is, become commonly accepted practices which persist in recognisably similar forms across generations ... institutionalised forms of social conduct refer to modes of belief and behaviour that occur and recur, or....are socially reproduced”. Types of such institutions include: language, family and kinship, economic institutions, political institutions, religious institutions, educational institutions, the media, the monarchy, markets, trade unions, corporations, division of labour (occupational structures). Note that this concept of the term ‘institution’ differs from the way the term is used in everyday language to mean ‘collectivity’ like a prison, hospital, court. It also refers to established ways of doing things, like the institutionalisation of work conflicts through for example rights of workers in the workplace, trade union rights of representation, collective bargaining. Such institutional forms were regarded as arising from major social transformations which have affected all societies, such as industrialisation and urbanisation. Institutions are often different in different societies, although globalisation is creating similarities.

During the late twentieth century and early twenty first century, as society has become more fragmented, pluralistic and dynamically changing, sociologists (including Anthony Giddens) have tended to de-emphasise patterned behaviour over the generations, and emphasise how institutions are reproduced and transformed. Institutions are seen as more pluralistic, and subject to more rapid change. The modes of belief and behaviour that are reproduced are similarly more pluralistic (even fragmented), and subject to change. This has led to a development of institutional theories in economics, politics and sociology (which have similar concerns, but different emphases).

The well-known economist Douglass North sees institutions as establishing the ‘rules of the game’ within which organisations act, collaborate and compete. And taking a broader perspective he writes: “Institutions include any form of constraint that human beings devise to shape human interaction” (North, 1990). He argues that they consist of formal rules, and unwritten codes of conduct, as well as the structures (political/social) for enforcing such rules. Examples of such rule structures include:

  • political and legal definitions of property,
  • contracts,
  • markets (the way different types of markets work),
  • specific types of organisational structures
    • the multi-divisional structure that became typical of large multi-nationals in the second half of the twentieth century,
    • the development of the conglomerate model of corporations,
    • the current lean, de-layered, focused corporate model
    • the venture capital form that predominated in Silicon Valley in the USA
    • at the inter-organisational level: industrial districts (or clusters), legislative and regulatory bodies.

Scott and Meyer (1994) argue: “The visible structures and routines that make up organisations are direct reflections and effects of rules and structures built into (or institutionalised within) wider environments. Organisations reflect patterns or templates established in a wider system., firm or hospital structures reflect standard forms created in the wider environment.”

This emphasis on contextual (institutional) factors should not be seen in any way as deterministic, acting as constraints on agency or the choices made by individuals and organisations.

So as well as structural elements, there are cognitive and ideological dimensions to the institutional framework. For example, the professionalisation of an occupation will influence the preferred options available to an agent (someone or some organisation taking action), the apparent success of Japanese forms of business organisation will help shape the prevailing ideology about work organisation, and thus the choices made by an agent; similarly for the growth of ‘human resource management’ as a set of management theories and practices, transmitted via MBA programmes and professional associations.

Scott and Meyer come up with the following definition: “Institutions are symbolic and behavioral systems containing representational, constitutive, and normative rules together with regulatory mechanisms that define a common meaning system and give rise to distinctive actors and action routines.”

Institutions operate at a variety of levels. Williamson (1985) distinguishes two levels: wider institutional environments and institutional arrangements. In other words at one level more abstract forms of rules and practices like the way markets operate, and at another level more concrete forms such as regulatory bodies.

In the context of technology policy and technology strategy, to adopt the perspective of institutions and organisations means to focus on a wide range of rules and practices as well as institutional bodies. For example when looking at innovation in small firms, it involves not just examining internal factors, but also examining how its institutional context shapes internal operations. This might include examining:

  • how its market operates
  • what role is played by trade bodies
  • how a regional or national system of innovation operates
  • how local and regional governments stimulate and regulate its technologies
  • how professionalisation of certain types of staff influences practices
  • how the educational system develops a skill and knowledge base for the firm’s activities
  • how laws are interpreted
  • how regulatory bodies protect or constrain the firm
  • the influence of industrial production systems like Japanese production systems, etc.

In this unit we take some interesting examples of institutions and examine the different ways they have been researched.

This section is concerned with developing different views of the institutional context for technology policy and innovation by examining the work of Elinor Ostrom which looks at different institutional arrangements for managing common pool resources (such as water) where ‘tragedy of the commons’ outcomes so frequently occur.

Section 2 considers ‘clusters’ – sets of firms within a region that are interlinked directly or indirectly. Clusters have become a major focus of research since they are seen as providing a very effective interorganisational form of innovation and competitiveness, and their effectiveness, as we shall see, is strongly influenced by institutional factors.

Section 3 is concerned with associations, NGOs and networks. Networks are an important interorganisational form, but they vary in their characteristics. For example clusters typically include networks of small and medium sized enterprises.

Section 4 looks at organisations and network structures, such as a relatively recent way of conceptualising internal groups of staff as communities of practice, and how structure can be important for organisational learning. Knowledge management is an important theme throughout the Unit, and communities of practice is a particularly useful way of examining how knowledge is reproduced and managed within organisational and interorganizational networks.

1.1 Introduction to this section

This section is concerned with broad approaches to conceptualising and researching institutions. It unpacks an approach to innovation, termed “Mode 2” in which new forms of knowledge production occur in more detail, while the reading demonstrates the importance of exploring contrasting approaches to a specific issue: common pool resources (such as water, fish resources, etc). These contrasting approaches are typical of distinct institutional theories and different institutional arrangements for managing such problems. These are based on: property rights approaches, governmental regulation, and self-managed frameworks. The reading by Elinor Ostrom is particularly useful for our purposes, because it provides a clear exposition of the research approach adopted.

1.2 Institutions and knowledge production

As the pace of economic change increases, many commentators are noting that innovation in goods and services is increasing at a similar pace, and that this is placing more and more pressure on organisations to develop new ideas, new know-how, expertise, new technologies. This trend has become so significant that people are using the term ‘knowledge economy’ to describe the dominant feature of such economies. Thus knowledge production and knowledge management have become important intellectual themes in technology policy and innovation discourse. The traditional way of producing knowledge is characterised by the Newtonian three phase ideal where, simplistically, basic science precedes applied science, which leads to technological development. Traditionally the knowledge producing institutions are universities, government research departments and laboratories, corporate laboratories, etc. A set of academics talk about these institutions and the institutionalised rules associated with the production of knowledge as “Mode 1” innovation activity. This refers not just to these institutions, but also to what counts as significant problems to be studied, who can practise science, and what constitutes good science. In “Mode 1,” knowledge is science, and knowledge producers are scientists.

Gibbons et al (1994) argue that a new form of knowledge production, “Mode 2,” is emerging alongside “Mode 1.” Science and scientists are no longer the only relevant terms; in “Mode 2” we refer to knowledge and practitioners. “Mode 2” is associated with a “wider temporary and heterogeneous set of practitioners, collaborating on a problem defined in a specific and localised context” (Gibbons et al). Knowledge production is not so tightly bounded by academia. It is widely diffused, and socially distributed in a global web of strategic alliances; collaborative agreements are supported through informal networks and good communication systems. Gibbons et al (1994) work led to the emergence of a new perspective and associated theories that go loosely under the heading of knowledge management. This perspective emphasises the importance of knowledge creation, transfer and use in competitive (and collaborative) organisations, and in particular on innovative processes, and associated aspects of technology policy. In analysing the trends towards new systems of knowledge production, a wide range of institutions are involved, thus giving shape to the institutional level of analysis and a radically different institutional configuration relevant to the new knowledge economy.

In “Mode 1” knowledge production is typically within a single discipline. In “Mode 2,” solving practical problems requires the integration of different skills and knowledge – it is transdisciplinary.Footnote 1 It develops its own evolving framework for solving problems; it develops its own methods, theories, and practices; its knowledge is diffused through practitioner networks, rather than through professional journals and conferences; its knowledge production is closely and dynamically linked with a succession of problem contexts rather than with the building of disciplinary knowledge. It is heterogeneous: there are a wider range of practitioners (knowledge producers) linked together in temporary teams and communication networks, reconfiguring and combining specialist knowledge into useful knowledge.

The generation of knowledge in a context of application leads to greater sensitivity about its effects and impacts i.e. greater reflexivity on the part of practitioners and because of the diversity of players in the knowledge production site, greater calls for social accountability. Quality control in “Mode 1” is based on peer review (e.g. through academic journals) usually within disciplinary boundaries. “Mode 2” quality control is broadly based and multi-dimensional, embracing social as well as technical criteria. The implications for government technology policy are to make traditional research institutions more permeable and collaborative; to support networks and alliances, to broker collaborations and to integrate educational, research and industrial/business polices.

Table 1 summarises the distinctive attributes of each mode.

Table 1

AttributeMode 1Mode 2
Problems set/solvedBy academic communityIn context of application
MotivationIncreased understandingPractical goal – useful
Nature of knowledgeDisciplinaryTransdisciplinary
Hierarchical/stableHeterarchicalFootnote 2/ transient
Quality controlMore socially accountable/reflexive

Activity 16

Begin this activity by reading the following extract from Gibbons et al (1994).

One of the reasons why boundaries have become fuzzy and why institutionalisation is taking new forms is related to the diffusion of Mode 2 knowledge production. In all realms of culture and society, the new mode is developing alongside Mode 1. As more and more aspects of life in society are perceived to involve issues having a techno-scientific dimension science cannot be left to scientists alone. The methods and techniques of knowledge production in Mode 2 have become important ways to investigate societal issues in which many individuals and groups have some stake. Examples of this are numerous: environmental and agricultural matters, diet and health problems, computerised databanks and privacy. Interactions between science and technology, on the one hand, and social issues on the other, have intensified. The issues are essentially public ones, to be debated in hybrid for a in which, there is no entrance ticket in terms of expertise. In such a participatory science, the goal is no longer truth per se, but responsible public decision making based upon understanding of complex situations where many key uncertainties remain to be resolved. New intermediary institutions are required to support this collective learning process, to manage interchanges between groups of interested parties, to analyse them, and to prepare the ground for decisions and to monitor and evaluate their results. These new processes are not under the control of scientific specialists, though the latter remain essential. Now specialists have a double responsibility. They have to be responsive not only to the scientific community but also to public decision makers.

Consider the discussion of “Mode 2” in the Gibbons et al extract, and the discussion of “Mode 1 and 2” in the discussion before and bring your understanding to bear on the issue of xenotransplantation.

One answer to the global shortage of organs for transplant is xenotransplantation. This is where animal organs are used for transplantation into humans. Xenotransplantion, in particular of pig organs to humans, is one answer to the shortage of organs. Robert Sparrow, an academic at the Centre for Human Bioethics, Monash University, Australia, has investigated xenotransplantation. As he says,

Much current research is directed towards the development of genetically modified pigs, designed so that their organs are more compatible for transplant. This is done, for instance, by arranging for their cells to express surface proteins that fool the immune system into decreasing its hostile response to the foreign tissue. The hope is that it will eventually be possible to use this technique to overcome the currently insurmountable problems of tissue rejection following xenotransplantation. Indeed, researchers have already met with some success in this area – at least when it comes to pig to (non-human) primate transplantation’ (2009, pp.120-121).

Question 11

In what ways is xenotransplantation a “Mode 1” issue?


It is a “Mode 1” issue because it is at the cutting edge of science and scientists are trying to overcome the clinical obstacles to rejection of animal organs within humans.

Question 12

In what ways is it a “Mode 2” issue?


It is a “Mode 2” issue because when scientists overcome tissue rejection and xenotransplantation becomes a viable clinical procedure in humans, there are ethical and religious issues that will need to be addressed by society before the practice can become a clinical reality.

Question 13

Make a list of the many fora and/or stakeholders that would need to be consulted about xenotransplanatation under “Mode 2.”


The medical profession, patients groups, government, religious groups particularly Islamic and Jewish groups for whom the pig is an unclean animal, animal welfare groups, livestock farmers, ethics committees etc.

1.3 Institutions and collective action

I now want to examine a different approach to the institutional level of analysis. It is based on a very influential book (reprinted 10 times!). It examines a research study in the important area of managing common pool resources (important for the sustainability of natural resources such as water, fisheries, etc). The author, Elinor Ostrom, develops an approach that is important for issues of sustainability, and also links with issues about developing policies (in this case institutions) that fit with local players and the local rule-based systems they use.

The Reading is based on several short extracts from the book. The reading serves two functions. The first is to talk to this unit’s focus on institutions. The second is to introduce you to the research process and research design issues. A research design describes the process through which research questions are explored that lead to results and conclusions. You will be exploring these issues in more depth in units 4 and 5.

It begins with a 30 year story of intellectual endeavour.

Activity 17

The following PDF contains extracts that you will be referring to over the course of this activity and the four that follow it.

Read pages xiii-xvi. of Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action.

What research design activities can you identify in this account? A research design is the approach developed to find answers to research questions. Don’t worry if you don’t understand some of the research terms mentioned. Many of them will be discussed in Units 4 and 5. For now it is more important to have an overview of how the research and the research process evolved.


I picked out the following examples of research design; note that they operate at different levels i.e. not just within a single piece of work.

  • (a) Ostrom and Weschler’s dissertations were based on parallel studies of different institutional arrangements for similar problems – presumably their supervisor(s) had developed this research design for comparative purposes.
  • (b) Blomquist’s doctoral studies built directly on Ostrom’s dissertation 15 years earlier, leading to a focus on the evolution of institutions.
  • (c) This led to a larger scale study of a set of Californian groundwater basins, exploring evolution, efficiency and equity of institutions.
  • (d) The 1985 Panel Study required a set of field researchers to adopt a common set of research questions derived from theory.
  • (e) A literature search revealed a very rich case study literature from diverse disciplines looking at CPR. The resulting bibliography drew on rural sociology, anthropology, history, economics, political science, forestry, irrigation sociology and covered many different regions.
  • (f) Scholars working in each of these disciplines rarely cited evidence from outside their disciplines. Therefore, there was a large amount of discrete discipline knowledge that had not been synthesised or more widely applied.
  • (g) The review of 1000 empirical cases involved systematic screening, coding and analysis, which allowed the development of qualitative data to a structured database amenable to quantitative analysis. (Theory informed the development of the coding form design).
  • (h) Ostrom makes an important observation about the relationship between theory and empirical evidence. She says,

    ‘It is my conviction that knowledge accrues by the continual process of moving back and forth from empirical observation to serious efforts at theoretical formulation.’

Activity 18

Ostrom develops the basis for her approach by considering the limitations of theory commonly informing policy.

Now quickly read part of Chapter 1 – pp. 1-8, to get the background to Ostrom’s study. Note the 3 main models referred to.

What dangers does Ostrom see in the use of these models in practice?


The three models referred to are ‘the tragedy of the commons,’ ‘the prisoner’s dilemma’ and ‘the logic of collective action.’ Ostrom argues that while metaphors are very powerful in capturing important aspects of a situation, first they may be taken as a model of reality (so they may misrepresent it, indicating constraints that don’t exist), and secondly policy makers may base their policies on such misrepresentations. Later in the same chapter she also argues that the simplifying effect of metaphors can lead to a neglect of detail by policy makers; thus privatisation can take many forms some of which may be disastrous, while others may be successful.

Ostrom goes on to discuss current policy prescriptions. The two main ones are central (state) regulation or privatisation. She uses game theory to examine the limitations of these approaches. Thus the policy debate is polarised:

“One set of advocates presumes that a central authority must assume a continuing responsibility to make unitary decisions for a particular resource. The other assumes a central authority should parcel out ownership rights to the resource and then allow individuals to pursue their own self-interests within a set of well-defined property rights. Both centralisation advocates and privatisation advocates accept as a central tenet that institutional change must come from outside and be imposed on the individuals affected. Despite sharing a faith in the necessity and efficacy of ‘the state’ to change institutions so as to increase efficiency, the institutional changes they recommend could hardly be further apart.”

She also notes that in practice institutions are rarely public or private, (the state or the market), but they are a mix of ‘private-like’ and ‘public like’ institutions. Her own interest is to develop a better theory of collective action that recognises that depending on circumstances individuals can be capable of collectively managing such problems themselves, through some form of self-governing institution. Thus her research question is about exploring this alternative solution – to develop an empirically supported theory of self-organisation and self-governing forms of collective action.

Activity 19

Ostrom provides an empirical example of her alternative solution.

Now read pp. 18-21.

What are the key features of this self-governing arrangement?


There are well defined and agreed rights; these are distributed/allocated in an agreed legitimate way. The monitoring and enforcing of the ‘rules of the game’ are carried out by the fishermen. This has some external support (legitimation) through government support for the co-operative’s role.

Activity 20

Ostrom describes in some detail the research approach that has informed the studies for this book.

Now read pp. 25-28.

  • (a) what does she draw from biologists research approaches?
  • (b) How does she classify her cases, and why?
  • (a) Biologists use a simplifying strategy of studying simple organisms, so she takes a similar approach of identifying and studying simpler CPR cases.
  • (b) Her sample of cases is divided between successful institutions, transforming institutions, and failing institutions; she is then able to draw out the principles behind each category, and so develop her theory.

Activity 21

Later on Ostrom describes how she goes about analysing her cases.

Now read pp. 55-56.

  • (a) what do you think is the basis for her approach, and her series of research questions?
  • (b) finally consider whether there are any lessons you can draw from her overall research approach, for your own research.
  • (a) Ostrom is clearly drawing on theory to abstract from the empirical case and explore the interactions in terms of game theory. She also refers to a previously used method of institutional analysis, which presumably helps her do this.

These short extracts from Ostrom’s book have provided a basis for examining a different approach to institutions. The emphasis has been on getting across the principles of the approach, rather than detail of theory.

This approach to the governance of common pool resources is relevant to issues of environmental sustainability, and the development of policies that work with, rather than against the grain of local arrangements. The emphasis on self-governing institutions as an alternative to privatised (market) or centrally regulated (state) solutions, clearly also has a much wider sphere of policy applications.

The reading has also provided a rich source of material for considering research design issues: about case studies, samples, research questions; as well as about the way an experienced researcher builds a line of research over an extended period of time. It is appropriate that you should begin to think about the research design and research process at this point as these will be considered in the next two units.

1.4 Summary

The small extract from Gibbons et al and the Ostrom reading have been used to develop views of the institutional level of analysis. Gibbons et al provides a view of a new emerging institutional framework for innovation and competitiveness, and a new paradigm that privileges knowledge and its management in the economies of the twenty first century. Ostrom’s approach links with the major themes of sustainability, privatisation, regulation, and self-governance. It has also provided a sound basis for reflecting on research processes and research design in preparation for study of units 4 and 5.

2 Clusters and supply chains

One of the themes developed by Gibbons et al (1994) is that inter-organizational collaboration is increasing and this improves knowledge production and competitiveness. In a chapter entitled ‘Competitiveness, Collaboration, and Globalisation’ they note that “parallel to the diffusion of Mode 2 knowledge production, network firms, R&D alliances, high value-added firms and new interface relations between competition and collaboration emerge.” One of the ways these patterns of collaboration manifest themselves is in the new institutional form called ‘clusters’.

The well-known business strategist, Michael Porter, has done much to promote the term ‘clusters’, through his influential book ‘The Competitive Advantage of Nations’ (1990). He notes the paradox that in an era of globalisation, competitive advantage often rests on local factors such as knowledge and relationships – since good global transportation and communication linkages provide easy access to capital and information and supplies. Where previously location had given advantages of lower input costs (like labour or energy), now competition in many markets is far more dynamic, being based on continual innovation. And while it is important an enterprise is internally innovative, increasingly people are recognising that competitive advantage also derives from the environment of an enterprise – in terms of local institutional factors as well as relations with trading partners. Porter describes clusters as: “geographic concentrations of interconnected companies and institutions in a particular field”. This consists of linkages and complementarities such as: suppliers of goods and services, infrastructural supplies (e.g. transport/communications), customers, manufacturers of complementary products, companies using similar skills, expertise, and technologies; as well as institutions like universities, standard setting bodies, advice, training and education providers, trade associations, and information and research bodies, etc. One of the distinctive and interesting things about these clusters is that they comprise in their supply chains and networks, small and medium enterprises in the main; and thus as an economic model present an interesting challenge to large firms.

Porter (1998) gives several examples of clusters:

  • The California wine cluster – the main players are growers and their vineyards plus wineries and processing facilities. There are educational and research institutions plus trade associations. Suppliers include those for grape stock, fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides, harvesting equipment, irrigation technology. And suppliers at the other end of the production process include those for winemaking, equipment, barrels, corks, etc, labels plus services of PR, advertising, etc) with links to the agricultural sector. The cluster also includes customers like the tourism sector, and is linked to food and restaurants clusters.
  • The Italian leather fashion cluster which comprises a wide range of specialist facilities and factories associated with several chains of linked industries processing leather and producing leather fashion goods such as belts, gloves, clothing, footwear, and leather clothing. At the customer end it includes large retail outlets with famous fashion names like Gucci. And at the supply end it has machinery suppliers, machine tools, moulds, leather processing, etc.
  • The economic map of most countries can be divided up by different business clusters. So in the USA, Boston has biotechnology, software and computer networking clusters, New York has financial services, advertising, and publishing clusters, Detroit has auto equipment and parts, Los Angeles has defence/aerospace and entertainment, Silicon Valley has microelectronics, biotechnology, and venture capital, Minneapolis has cardiovascular equipment and services, and so on.

Although clusters seem like one of the most advanced forms of economic organisation, they were first identified in their traditional form of ‘industrial districts’ by the 19th century economist Marshall, and they apply to most economic contexts where there has been some degree of industrialisation and specialisation. Clusters don’t necessarily fit within traditional regional or national boundaries. The defining concepts of linkage and complementarity lead to different types of clusters, for example on the basis of sharing technologies, or skill bases, or marketing channels.

One paradox of clusters is that they comprise formally autonomous enterprises that compete within a market framework e.g. enterprises directly competing or those indirectly competing in a supply chain, but they also collaborate in some respects for mutual advantage (like in a ‘prisoners dilemma’ game), and the institutional context usually helps establish the trust necessary for this to take place, as well as providing a supportive context for skill development, knowledge bases (universities, government research institutes), and so on. Trust also improves competitive relations by reducing their ‘transaction costs’ – of ensuring that a market contract is properly fulfilled.

Drawing on this collaborative, yet competitive dynamic, clusters achieve productivity, innovation, and entrepreneurship (new enterprises). In fact in the “Mode 2” economy they can be seen as particularly well-suited to meet the need for continual innovation.

However while acknowledging the significance of clusters, it is important to note that there are many forms of collaboration for innovation and competitiveness that can be found within networks, and not all of these are found in clusters. The range of collaborative forms involves large/small firms as wells as a range of institutions, as Freeman (1991) notes in the following list:

  1. Joint ventures and research corporations
  2. Joint R&D agreements
  3. Technology exchange agreements
  4. Direct investment (minority holdings) motivated by technology factors
  5. Licensing and second-sourcing agreements
  6. Sub-contracting, production sharing and supplier networks
  7. Research associations
  8. Government-sponsored joint research programmes
  9. Computerised data banks and value-added networks for technical and scientific interchange
  10. Other networks including informal networks

There are several different schools of thought on clusters, and this has given rise to various critiques of the theories, and various questions – about the extent of linkage. For example, are they local or outside the region? Are clusters more properly described as agglomerations? Is the competitive advantage more from institutional factors rather than direct collaboration between trading partners, and so on? Some of these questions are explored in the following consideration of clusters in the north of Italy.

2.1 The clusters of Northern Italy

In a study by Michael Storper (1995), in which he reviews the different literatures on regional economies (including flexible specialisation, industrial districts, clusters) he notes that a ‘Technology District’ in Northern Italy is rather different from other regional production systems: it has very small firms, and has a very high degree of regional closure i.e. the level of inter-trading within the region is very high. This may have led early theorists (in particular Piore and Sabel (1984)) to idealise the experience.

Similarly, but arising from a different school of thought, there is a risk that some of the business and organisational analysis literature has idealised the network model of production, in a similar way in which the mass production model was an ideal for much of the first two thirds of last century.

Storper (1995) reviews three main ‘schools of thought’: those interested in institutions, those interested in industrial organisation and transactions, and those interested in technological change and learning – each of which has developed different theoretical frameworks and research questions. He notes that the region has become an important level of analysis for many reasons, but argues that regional production systems (or clusters) are very different in regions around the world. Some of these production systems are competitive, but are not vertically disintegrated (i.e. broken down into supply chains of SMEs). They may include large organisations that play important roles e.g. through spin-offs, etc. so there is no optimum regional model of production. The challenge then is to explain how flexibility and specialisation as general characteristics are achieved within production systems at the regional level. And the key to this (or an important part, at the risk of oversimplifying) is a study of the role of institutions for example in reducing transactions costs (in one school of thought) or facilitating adaptation of the network of firms (in another school) or in facilitating a ‘learning economy’ (in the ‘untraded interdependencies’ school). Picking up on the earlier point of regional difference, the following case study considers a cluster in East Africa.

Activity 22

Read the following East African case study on a technology based cluster and answer the following question.

How is technological learning being fostered by the iHub?

iHub: An Information technology park in Kenya.

High speed internet, a comfortable and cool working environment, and a space for events and meetings to take place define iHub. It is run and managed by members of the local technical community. iHub is not just a business. iHUB acts as an Innovation Hub in Nairobi to grow a stronger technology community in Kenya, one where developers, designers, venture capitalists and businesses are connected and can mutually benefit from their respective dynamism and growth.

The key idea behind iHub is bringing under one roof a large group of technical people, especially those with information technology skills facilitating synergies and the fast track of development ideas. It also draws in people with capital and marketing experience to bring new technologies successfully and speedily to the fast changing technology market. iHub means researchers are no longer working in isolation to solve problems which other researchers may have already solved, or pursuing research in areas that have been abandoned by others in favour of alternative approaches, changing from mode one {linear approaches} to “mode 2” { non-linear ways of research}.

The iHub is intended to be a place where;

  • people share technology ideas; not steal them,
  • there is access to legal advice for example around copyright and marketing advice,
  • venture capital and production advice is available,
  • mentoring is available through face to face meetings or through video conferencing with mentoring links established with Silicon Valley in the USA and Bangalore, India.

The young IT inventors/innovators face a range of challenges. These include navigating the local regulatory environment, obtaining venture capital or meeting the specifications of a demanding local customer base. Discussing these issues with fellow inventors and mentors provides the opportunity to leapfrog learning in order to avoid costly mistakes.

iHub’s objective is to nurture talent and facilitate links between people who have a proven track record in techpreneurship. Successful innovators who see their businesses grow are expected to physically move on to provide space and opportunity for new IT inventors/innovators.

While iHub’s success has been realised due to local talent, a wider argument about the use of science parks and clusters is that they develop only if the base of talent can be maintained and grown larger. The Kenyan government now has two new initiatives which build on the success of iHub in different ways. The first is another ICT park called ‘Sameer ICT park’. The larger project is to build a whole new ICT based city just outside Nairobi currently being titled “Malili Technopolis”.


We asked the question, ‘How is technological learning being fostered by the iHub?’ It is fostered by research and collaboration within a cluster as a form of institutional learning for technology innovation.

If you want to find out more about Kenya’s science parks the following URLs have been provided:

3 Associations, NGOs and networks

This unit has been concerned with different organisational and institutional configurations that are relevant to technology policy and innovation. In this section we look at some further examples.

3.1 Associations

Associations represent the interests of a class, or sectoral or professional groups. The associative organisation is based on the idea that interests of members may be negotiated, represented and mediated with those of the state. This corporatist-associative arrangement means that public policy functions are delegated to these private interest self-governing associations in “an attempt to utilize the collective self-interest of social groups to create and maintain a generally acceptable social order” (Streeck and Schmitter, 1985). This operates through a complex bargaining process.

The intermediary associative body plays a self-governing role based on building solidarity and co-operation with its member organisations (or individuals). This has advantages for the state (reduced transaction costs, improved legitimacy, and the possibility of better implementation of regulation), and means that the member organisations of a particular sector are more likely to reach a mediated compromise that involves some adjustment towards the general interest, but that is mutually satisfactory. Typically the functions carried out by associations are regulating quality/standards, managing labour markets, negotiating market protection in exchange for development objectives etc. However this doesn’t work in all sectors, for example in some sectors the state may take a direct regulatory role, while in other sectors it may not be possible to negotiate agreements amongst the interests of members. Associations can help overcome market failures, by for example managing the training and qualifications of a professional or occupational group.

Although associations are reasonably common, they are not always well regarded: economists have viewed associations as inefficient, price-fixing cartels; political scientists have viewed them as corporate devices that undermine democracy through the representation of strong interest groups. Associations include: trade unions co-ordinating and negotiating wages, conditions and services for their members; agricultural co-operatives which might have oligopolistic control of a market of small producers (balancing the power of larger wholesalers, and/or giving some protection to smaller rural producers). Where there is a high degree of state involvement in a sector (for contracting or regulatory purposes) there may be more scope for associations. Thus, for example, in welfare services in many European countries, the state contracts with large corporatist voluntary sector associations which then manage the carrying out of contracts through their member organisations (as in Germany and Holland). And in other areas of the voluntary sector there is often a high degree of self-regulation through national associations.

Associations operate not only at the national sectoral level, but can also operate regionally and locally where for example chambers of commerce or their equivalents perform multi-sectoral functions. Thus associations are an important part of the institutional landscape, and carry out a range of functions: regulatory, market stabilisation, promoting co-operation, and facilitating research collaboration, etc.

3.2 Non-governmental organisations (NGOs)

NGOs are any organisation that is not governmental, but in the literature the term has a narrower conceptualisation, for example: Potter and Taylor (1996) define an NGO as an organisation that is not only non-governmental, but also non-profit, hierarchical, with several full-time staff, a budget and an office. Also, as Thomas et al (2001) notes “Most writers restrict usage … further, excluding political parties and religious congregations and, in some cases, peasants’ organisations and trade unions.” This is still quite broad, but an NGO typology (see table below) helps develop a clearer idea of the range of organisations under consideration.

Table 2 Types of NGO (adapted from Thomas et al, 2001).

Mutual benefitPublic benefitPublic benefit
Membership NGOsCampaigning NGOsCharitable or service providing NGOs
InternationalFederations of local and national membership organisations e.g. International Co-operative AllianceEnvironmental NGOs such as GreenpeaceDevelopment NGOs such as Lutheran World Federation
NationalNational membership organisations or federations of local organisationsConservation NGOs and pressure groupsService providing NGOs
LocalMember-based ‘grassroots organisations’ and local environmental campaignsLocal campaigns for public benefitLocal charities or service providing NGOs

Associations would be a subset of the range of organisations in column 1 (mutual benefit). When considering how associations and NGOs exert influence, it is important to consider their co-ordinative function both internally, managing relations with their constituent groups, and externally, managing relations with the market and/or the state. In the section above on associations we focused on how associations can influence state policies and the institution of the market, largely through a complex corporatist bargaining process.

Both the corporatist bargaining process typical of the association model, and the exertion of influence through political and democratic processes, represent important ways of thinking about how technology policy and institutions are influenced and changed.

3.3 Innovation in institutions: policy and NGOs

As you should recall, the concept of ‘institutions’ has a dual meaning:

  • as ‘complexes of norms and behaviours that serve a collective purpose’ (de Janvry et al, 1993); and
  • as organizations, when they are established (‘institutionalised’) and embody established norms and roles.

All innovation takes place in an institutional setting and must to some extent imply a deliberate attempt to change institutions: either the promotion of change within an institution or the establishment of a new institution. For example, the spread of an innovative use of IT will require organizational change as well as changes to the norms and roles within organizations. A significant change in, say, environmental policy will at least require change in the roles played by existing agencies if not more sweeping organizational changes and changes in underlying values. Hence an important aspect of innovation research is research about deliberate attempts at change in institutions.

It is important to investigate cases where innovations have occurred or at least where there have been clear-cut attempts at innovations. Yet the likelihood, particularly in the early days of an attempted institutional change, is that there are few clear successes and perhaps many more examples of failure or no attempted change at all. This points to the use of case study as the most appropriate method, focusing on whatever successful cases exist, together perhaps with one or two cases where definite attempts failed in a way which promises to be illuminating. This was the approach that Elinor Ostrom followed. Indeed, even with a research question which prioritises cases of success, one can still include other cases in one’s investigations. You may recall in the second Taylor reading ‘The Innovation Process,’ that apparently bright ideas that seemingly have lots of commercial promise are not always successful. Sometimes the market can be resistant to a new technology, product or service. Failure takes many forms. Its diversity is explored in the following East African case study.

Activity 23

Read the following East African case study and answer the following question.

To what extent do you feel the failure of the PlayPump was due to the failure of institutions and to what extent a failure of thorough research into the nature of the problem?

The PlayPump

PlayPump is a water pump that uses a children’s roundabout to draw water which was designed for use in rural parts of developing countries. Currently about 1,000 PlayPumps have been installed, mostly in South Africa where they were originally invented. While children have fun spinning on the PlayPump merry-go-round, clean water is pumped from underground into a tank, standing about seven meters above the ground. A simple tap connected to the tank makes it easy for adults and children to draw water. Excess water is diverted from the storage tank back down into the borehole. The high visibility of the water storage tank provides an opportunity to advertise to surrounding communities and all four sides of the tank are leased as billboards, two sides for consumer advertising and two sides for health and educational messages. It was envisaged that the revenue generated from advertising would pay for pump maintenance.

The design of the PlayPump water system it is argued, makes it highly effective, easy to operate and very economical. Capable of producing up to 1,400 litres of water per hour at 16 rpm from a depth of 40 metres, it is effective up to a depth of 100 metres.

As outlined by Borland (2010) “The first PlayPump was installed in South Africa in 1993, but it didn’t start to receive a great deal of attention until about 2000, when it won an award from the World Bank for “innovative solutions to development problems” (Bloom 2004, p.20). They described how the PlayPump “captured the attention of many” (ibid).” PlayPumps International, the company producing the PlayPumps has been the beneficiary or significant amounts of US aid as well as personal endorsements from George and Laura Bush.

Figure 2 Children using a PlayPump
Figure 2 Children using a PlayPump

What went wrong with this practical innovation?

The failure of PlayPumps offers many interesting lessons that touch on its financing, the role of development agencies and how the problem was initially conceptualised. The advertising did not generate the revenue expected to maintain the pumps. This was because their rural location did not reach large numbers of people with large disposable incomes. Similarly, WaterAid, a large water charity, has criticised the PlayPumps because of their high installation costs and complex pumping mechanism which makes local operation and maintenance difficult (The Guardian, 24 November 2009).

The enthusiasm for the PlayPump by Western aid agencies was in hindsight misguided. There is firstly the thorny question of whether children playing is an appropriate source of energy for drawing water and when this turns from play to child labour. The times of highest demand for water, such as early in the morning and early evening are not necessarily the times children are most likely to want to play on the PlayPump. If demand is too great for the relatively modest capacity of the PlayPump, there is the real threat of exploitation of children, forcing them to keep “playing” in order to pump and meet demand.

But perhaps most significantly, it is argued that the PlayPumps were addressing the wrong problem. PlayPumps could only work in specific situations: where there are large supplies of high-quality groundwater, close to the surface, and where existing infrastructure to extract the water is poor. For example:

‘… the Sphere Project states that the recommended minimum daily water requirement is 15 litres per person which – based on the pump's capabilities – would require children to be "playing" non-stop for 27 hours in every day to meet the 10 million figure. Under more reasonable assumptions, a Playpump could theoretically provide the bare minimum water requirements for about 200 people a day based on two hours' constant "play" every day – considerably less than its claimed potential.


However, in much of Africa the problem is water scarcity and insufficient supply to meet demand. Indeed, some PlayPumps appear to have exhausted their supply and run dry. Moreover, where water is available it is often of poor quality which makes the PlayPump an unviable solution.

Yet, sometimes the PlayPump might be useful and the correct solution. As Daniel Steller wrote in 2010:

“In most situations though, it is imperative to first understand the problem and to design an appropriate, tailored solution. It is also necessary to see the local supply of water within the environmental services system. If there is insufficient supply, no amount of pumping, no matter how playful it may be, will help.”

If you want to find out more about the PlayPump the following URLs and references have been provided:


The PlayPump was a failure of both institutions, in particular of Western donor agencies and PlyaPump itself, and of the conceptualisation of the problem.

The World Bank and Western aid agencies and media were lulled into believing the PlayPump was an appropriate technology for meeting water demand. The attractiveness of the image of children playing and delivering water for their communities blinded them to the rigorous questions that needed to be asked to identify the nature of the water problem. The problem in much of Africa is availability of an adequate supply of potable water rather than the failure of a technology to bring it to the surface. Thus, the PlayPump’s failure was due primarily to a poor conceptualisation of the problem which led to the development of a technology that had utility in very specific and limited contexts but was attractive to donors because it was a metaphor for self-reliance.

You may recall Ostrom argues that while metaphors are very powerful in capturing important aspects of a situation, this can lead to their being taken as a model of reality which may in fact misrepresent reality. She adds that policy makers may base their policies on such misrepresentations. Thus, as she argues, the simplifying effect of metaphors can lead to a neglect of detail by policy makers. For policy makers we need to substitute donor agencies for the PlayPump case study, but Ostrom’s argument has utility for understanding what went wrong.

This Section has looked at associations, NGOs and networks. It has examined how they help shape the institutional and organisational context for innovation and policy making.

4 Organisations and communities of practice

This section is concerned with the organisational level. There are strong links back to the first and second sections of this unit, when the implications of “Mode 2” were being explored, in terms of new systems of knowledge production, and institutional frameworks linking with regional innovation systems of clusters. Here, although the focus is intra-organisational, some of the conceptual approaches are clearly relevant to other levels of analysis. For example, the concept communities of practice is introduced here as an intra-organisational network, but in principle it seems quite likely that it would also be relevant to closely linked players in different organisations within clusters. The concept of ‘community of practice’ and some of the research methods have become particularly popular in Knowledge Management perspectives.

4.1 Communities of practice

This concept has been an important part of the very influential work of Etienne Wenger (1999 & 2000). Wenger (2000) is not just concerned with internal relations between a group or network of people. He argues “that the success of organizations depends on their ability to design themselves as social learning systems and also to participate in broader learning systems such as an industry, a region, or a consortium.” Wenger describes ‘communities of practice’ as “communities that share cultural practices reflecting collective learning”, for example a medieval guild, a group of nurses in a ward, a street gang, a community of engineers interested in a specific design area. In his recent book (Wenger, 2000), Wenger uses a case study of an insurance claims department, and examines how people in the department interact as a community trying to work with a formal computer based system to interpret, classify and process claims. He documents the informal (and formal) interactions which help them make sense of the system, develop their expertise and operate effectively.

He regards these communities as the ‘building units’ of a social learning system or social containers of knowledge. The work and its competencies may be formally defined, but it is the community that determines what this means in practice, and communicates this to its members.

Communities of practice share the following characteristics:

  • they are bound together by and contribute to a joint enterprise
  • they are mutually engaged in the enterprise, with established norms and relationships of mutuality;
  • they are competent in a shared repertoire of language, routines, tools, stories, etc.

The interplay of competence and experience within a mutually engaged community provides the basis for social learning, but within a context where communities of practice operate within larger systems of interrelated communities of practice.

Wenger outlines a theory of the internal operation of these communities of practice, such as how they create a sense of group identity; and he regards it as just as important to balance core activities with important features of interactions across their boundaries, for example brokering, making connections, exchanging knowledge and information. He also argues that these learning systems for the knowledge economy are based on such characteristics as: collegiality, reciprocity, expertise, informal processes, etc, and so challenge traditional organisational characteristics like authority structures. This means that in order to manage social learning systems or communities of practice, organisations need to privilege informal learning processes, facilitate the development of community identities, and design interactive relationships between different communities of practices. Wenger’s well developed theoretical framework for these networks and groups is based on cohesive knowledge-producing communities engaged in similar activities, but this framework also seems to have some parallels with the ways in which clusters and regional networks learn and innovate.

Another important perspective on this area of knowledge production and organisational learning is that of Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995). They examine innovation processes in a number of firms, and develop a framework which links quite strongly with that of Wenger.

They note the significance of tacit and explicit knowledge in helping us think about the difficulties of social and organizational learning. In most situations tacit knowledge (intuitions, personal skills and mental models that are specific to a particular context), complements explicit knowledge (codified/articulated in clear language or written down), which is also easier to communicate and transfer to other contexts. Thus organisational learning is not easy because bringing out the tacit side of knowledge in a particular context is difficult – one technique is to get people to tell stories about how they have acquired and developed their knowledge e.g. by solving problems in the past.

Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) regard tacit and explicit knowledge as mutually complementary. They develop a dynamic theory of knowledge creation, involving 4 different modes of knowledge conversion – see Figure 3, where the outer circuit shows the knowledge processes taking place in each quadrant of the inner circuit.

Figure 3 Nonaka and Takeuchi’s four modes of knowledge conversion
Figure 3 Nonaka and Takeuchi’s four modes of knowledge conversion

Socialisation: involves creating common knowledge through shared experiences, for example technical skills will typically be transferred in the master/apprentice model; while cognitive skills and knowledge might be transferred through informal discussion between trusting colleagues.

Externalisation: involves finding ways of expressing or articulating or codifying tacit knowledge, for example through dialogue often involving metaphors, and models.

Combination: involves developing and combining explicit knowledge in some way; for example specifying a prototype for a new product.

Internalisation: involves converting formal codified knowledge into ‘know-how’ that guides action.

This framework has been derived from studies of highly innovative companies, where the development and transfer of technical know-how has been an important theme; but these ideas are relevant to all forms of knowledge development and transfer. This model helps to show why the transfer of organisational knowledge, and in particular why significant organisational learning needs to be a collaborative enquiry.

Organisational knowledge (e.g. an innovative product or process) is created by moving through a cycle of socialisation, externalisation, combination, and internalisation. So for example, knowledge about consumers’ tacit ‘wants’ may be communicated by socialisation processes, then externalised through an articulated specification, then developed through combination into a product specification, prototype and production process, which then becomes internalised so that effective factory production can take place.

Activity 24

Read the following extract from a reading by Brown and Duguid, ‘Organizational Learning and Communities of Practice: Towards a unified view of working, learning and innovation,’ concentrating on the text from pages 43 to 45 (starting at “b) Noncanonical practice” and ending at “… their very own traditional skills.”

The reading is an important contribution to the communities of practice and knowledge production and management literature (within the Mode 2 tradition). A major theme in their study is the difference between the necessarily formal codified knowledge (canonical) – prescriptions about what is supposed to happen in a workplace- and the much richer and diverse informal (non-canonical) practices and their knowledge base.

Question 14

What are the key features of the diagnostic approach adopted by the service technicians?

Question 15

The narration of stories performs at least 2 functions for the reps, what are these? And how do these relate to the Nonaka and Takeuchi framework?

Question 16

In the extract, which form of knowledge had greatest utility in solving the problem?

Question 14

Testing the appliance and story telling.

Question 15

Helping with diagnosis, and a repository for accumulated wisdom. There appears to be a cycle of creation and internalisation of new knowledge, though the explicit stages seem limited to story telling and test results.

Question 16

The limits of canonical knowledge are very quickly reached, and non-canonical knowledge is relied upon to solve the problem.

In Brown and Duguid’s paper (quoting the work of Orr), stories played an important role – in guiding diagnosis, communicating and producing knowledge (they may also have played a role in reproducing group culture and identities of key figures in the stories). Stories were important in making sense of complex and uncertain problems, and providing heuristics for testing (and eventually repair) strategies. Stories were also compared and contrasted. The value of stories in communicating a lot of information efficiently is seen.


This unit explored the institutional contexts that frame and shape technology policy making and technology innovation. It considers how different organisational configurations influence the way innovation processes operate. Thus, it considers technology policy and institutional factors together in order to understand the resulting organisational configurations. Institutions are seen broadly, as both rules and practices such as the way markets operate, as well as more concrete forms such as regulatory bodies and educational institutions. It has shown that informal institutions that evolve locally can often be more effective at regulating use of CPR than government interventions as demonstrated by the example of Alanya fishers. It considered ‘clusters’ and how they provide a very effective interorganisational form of innovation and competitiveness, which is strongly influenced by institutional factors. Associations, NGOs and networks are important organisational forms that vary in their characteristics but help shape the institutional and organisational context for innovation and policy making. Lastly, communities of practice have become a particularly useful way of examining how knowledge is reproduced and managed within organisational and interorganisational networks. The unit has also engaged increasingly with research design and research tools in preparation for the focus of units 4 and 5.


Bloom, K. (2004) ‘Playing for real’, Mail and Guardian, 26 March – 1 April 2004.
Borland, R. (2010) “The PlayPump: mechanics of a static technology,” presentation at Psi 16 Performing Publics, June 2010, OCAD University, Canada.
Brown, J.S., and Duguid, P., ‘Organisational learning and communities of practice: towards a unified view of working, learning and innovation.’ Organisation Science, vol.2, no.1, pp.40-57.
Chambers, A. ‘Africa’s not-so-magic roundabout.’ The Guardian, 24 Nov 2009.
de Janvry, A., Sadoulet, E. and Thorbecke, E. (1993) ‘State, market and civil organizations: new theories, new practices, and their implications for rural development’, World Development 21, 4: 565-689.
Freeman, C (1991) Networks of innovators: A synthesis of research issues, Research Policy 20, pp499-514.
Michael Gibbons, Camille Limoges, Helga Nowotny, Simon Schwartzman, Peter Scott, Martin Trow (1994) The new production of knowledge, Sage, London.
Giddens, A. 1990 edition, Sociology: a brief but critical introduction, Macmillan, Basingstoke.
Nonaka,I. And Takeuchi, H (1995) Knowledge-based organization. Business Review, 41 (1): pp59-73.
North, D (1990) Institutions, Institutional Change, and Economic Performance, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
Ostrom, Elinor (1990) Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
Porter, M (1990) The Competitive Advantage of Nations, New York: Free Press.
Porter, M (1998) Clusters and The New Economics of Competition, HBR Nov-Dec.
Potter, D. and Taylor, (1996) in Potter, D. (eds) NGOs and Environmental policies: Asia and Africa, London, Frank Cass.
Piore MJ and Sabel CF (1984).The Second Industrial Divide, Basic Books, New York.
Scott WR and Meyer JW (1994) Institutional Environments and Organizations, Sage, Thousand Oaks, California.
Sparrow, R. (2009). Xenotransplantation, consent and international justice. Developing World Bioethics, 9 (3), 119-127. DOI:10.1111/j.1471-8847.2009.00251.x.
Stellar, D (2010) ‘The PlayPump: what went wrong?’ State of the Planet blogs from the Earth Institute, Columbia University, [online], accessed 12 July 2011.
Storper, M (1995) The Resurgence of Regional Economies, Ten Years Later, European of Urban and Regional Studies Vol 2 (3).
Streeck W, and Schmitter PC (1985) Private Interest Government: Beyond Market and State. Sage, London.
Thomas, A., Carr, S., and Humphreys, D. (2001) Environmental Policies and NGO Influence: Land degradation and sustainable resource management in sub-Saharan Africa, London, Routledge.
Etienne Wenger, (1999) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Etienne Wenger, (2000) Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems, Organization, Vol 7 (2). Pp225-246, Sage.
Williamson, OE (1985) The Economic Institutions of Capitalism, Free Press, New York.



Grateful acknowledgement is made to the following sources:


Figure 2 from tag/ play-pump/

  • 1Multidisciplinarity is characterised by the autonomy of the various disciplines and does not lead to changes in the existing disciplinary and theoretical structures. Interdisciplinarity is characterised by the explicit formulation of a uniform, discipline transcending terminology or a common methodology. The form scientific co-operation takes consists in working on different themes, but within a common framework that is shared by the disciplines involved. Transdisciplinarity arises only if research is based upon a common theoretical understanding and must be accompanied by a mutual inter-penetration of disciplinary epistemologies.” (Gibbons et al, 1994).
  • 2 Heterarchical means varied structures (vertical and horizontal) which might include vertical hierarchies