Decomposing Technological Change at the Twilight of the Twentieth Century: Evidence and Lessons from the World's Largest Innovating Firms

Article excerpt

SUMMARY

The present-day economy, characterised by a pattern of steady technological and organisational change, has its roots in the so-called information revolution of the late twentieth century. As this unique period of recent history recedes, the benefits of hindsight make it possible to deliver new perspectives on what really happened across industries facing rapidly mutating global competitive settings. This paper provides an analysis of the transformations that occurred in a collection of technological capabilities nurtured by industrial sectors as represented by nearly 500 of the world's largest industrial corporations during the 1980s and 1990s. Using structural decomposition analysis it shows how industries adapted under the strain of radical shifts in the technological context with varying degrees of success.

Received 14 March 2007 Accepted 9 October 2007

KEY WORDS

structural decomposition analysis; patent indicator; manufacturing sectors

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1. INTRODUCTION

The last decades of the twentieth century were turbulent for the capitalist economic system. These dramatic, hectic times were characterised by the twin phenomena of global competition and technological revolution. How industries reacted to, adapted to, and took advantage of these intertwined and unfolding transformation processes remains a poorly understood question.

This paper attempts to exploit the advantages of fresh hindsight to shed some light on the knowledge dynamics of broadly defined industries as characterised by the world's largest innovative companies over the course of the 1980s and 1990s. As time moves on and we gain distance from this defining period of recent history it becomes pertinent to uncover new insights into what really happened across industries in dynamic markets in the wake of rapidly mutating knowledge bases. To this end, we mobilise data pertaining to over half a million patents by 463 globally oriented and technologically active US, European and Japanese firms. To this raw material we apply a well known technique traditionally applied in the field of empirical international economics, but still largely under-utilised in the context of neo-Schumpeterian analysis of technological capabilities: structural decomposition analysis.

What we observe is evidence of a strongly stylised fact of contemporary industrial change that has been captured in a number of other investigations (e.g. Granstrand et al., 1997; Cantwell et al., 2004): the knowledge base of large manufacturing companies across industries has become more complex over time (Cantwell and Fai, 1999) and the management of innovation itself has become more complex. The sources of this complexity are attributed to the ever-increasing levels of technical sophistication in products (Brusoni et al., 2001) processes and the need to coordinate transnational networks of highly heterogeneous and dynamic component suppliers (Mendonça, 2005). Notwithstanding, what we begin to unveil are industry specific patterns of response to the new technological challenges. Using structural decomposition analysis (SDA) we are able to identify information and communication technologies (ICTs), New Materials, and Pharmaceutical & Biotechnology as the most subversive technologies to challenge the a priori industrial knowledge profiles. We are also able to assess the extent to which different industries facing this shifting technological landscape responded by internally nurturing those disruptive new technologies.

The next section sets the basic theoretical underpinnings upon which this research rests. Section 3 describes the data, section 4 the methodology, and section 5 discusses the results. The novelty of paper consists in the application on the SDA method to unpacking the technology diversification phenomenon (subsection 5.1), and in the specific application of the method to the technology fields (subsection 5. …