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Technovation 19 (1999) 373–381

Using learning networks to help improve manufacturing

John Bessant *, David Francis
Centre for Research in Innovation Management, University of Brighton, Brighton, UK


Innovation which requires the acquisition of new or improved technologies involves a technical and managerial learning process
and it raises the policy question of how best to encourage and enable relevant learning. The absence or lack of experience in this
domain is a particular problem for smaller firms (SMEs) and for enterprises in economies in transition—such as in the countries
of the former Soviet Union or in eastern Europe. Successful technology transfer requires considerable management expertise as
well as the availability of suitable solutions. This paper reports on one experimental approach used on a pilot basis in Romania to
facilitate the absorption of ‘new’ manufacturing practices, which involves the development of ‘learning networks’ as an aid to this
process.  1999 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.

Keywords: Learning; Manufacturing; SMEs; Soviet Union; Technological; Transfer

1. Introduction acquisition of technologies is not the same as implemen-

tation—there have been many cases where the potential
Technological change is essential to the survival and of a technology has not been exploited by a firm.
growth of individual firms and to the development of Few firms generate their own basic technologies. In
national competitiveness. However, organizational most cases technologies are transferred into the firm.
research and accumulated experience demonstrate that Many difficulties arise because technology transfer is not
simply generating new ideas is not the same as making a simple transaction. Among many factors which render
effective use of them—the classical divide between technology transfer complex and difficult to manage are:
‘invention’ and ‘innovation’. This problem of tech-
nology transfer is of considerable relevance to policy- 쐌 Innovation is not an event but an extended process
makers and has led to an extensive range of policy meas- within an extended time line, which involves con-
ures aimed at trying to ‘close the gap’ between avail- sideration of technological knowledge and finance,
ability and actual use of new technology (Dodgson and marketing, human resources, strategic positioning, etc.
Bessant, 1996). 쐌 Transactions in innovation are not always on the basis
Managing technological change presents a series of of one firm to another but often involve many firms
demanding challenges, of which four are particularly and may proceed through intermediaries. In particular
important. Firstly, it is not easy for a management team small/medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) often require
to have sufficient understanding of potential techno- the aid of some form of ‘bridging’ agent or institution
logies to take an informed judgement about which are (Carlsson and Jacobsson, 1993).
likely to be appropriate. Secondly, investment in new or 쐌 Technology is a complex and multi-dimensional
different technologies can be considerable and require ‘commodity’ involving both embodied and intangible
major commitments of resources. Thirdly, there is a need knowledge, much of which may remain in tacit form.
to manage a learning and unlearning process. Lastly, the For example, a new manufacturing process involves
hardware, software and knowledge about how to use
it effectively.
* Corresponding author: E-mail: 쐌 Technologies are dynamic and develop in terms of

0166-4972/99/$ - see front matter  1999 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.
PII: S 0 1 6 6 - 4 9 7 2 ( 9 9 ) 0 0 0 2 5 - 5
374 J. Bessant, D. Francis / Technovation 19 (1999) 373–381

their functionality—often with bewildering speed. It is inappropriate capacity, outdated plant and processes
necessary for frequent re-appraisals of technological and with an orientation towards large-scale mass pro-
progress and trajectory to be undertaken. duction which is out of line with the world market
쐌 Information about innovations and enabling techno- trends towards global standards and micro-market
logies is not freely and widely available, especially for customization with an emphasis on non-price factors.
SMEs who may lack awareness and access to relevant 쐌 There is a very low awareness of the importance of
channels of communication. marketing. The techniques of systematic market
쐌 Users are often unable to articulate their needs or research are almost entirely absent. Moreover, there
define problems rather than symptoms—thus they risk are inadequate funds for developing marketing skills
being unable to specify which technologies they and strategies.
require for transfer, or acquire inappropriate techno- 쐌 The historic separation of R & D into institutes and
logies. away from the operation of individual firms has left
쐌 Traditional models of technology transfer assume that companies without an internal dynamic and an unbal-
cost is the main factor accounting for diffusion. But anced set of firm-level capabilities.
studies of innovation adoption suggest that other fac- 쐌 Manufacturing management is underdeveloped and
tors influence the adoption decision and that the role steeped in a tradition of ‘command and control’,
of subjective perception on the part of the adopter is appropriate for output-oriented mass production. In
important (Rogers, 1984). order to implement some of the ‘new’ manufacturing
쐌 As Voss points out, much of the innovation literature philosophies such as ‘total quality management’,
neglects the question of implementation—yet the ‘just-in-time’ production and cellular manufacturing
transfer of complex new ideas into successful practice there is a need to move towards alternative models of
is often an extended process involving considerable organization based on teamwork and decentralization.
learning and adaptation. (Voss, 1986; Leonard-Bar- In other words, there is a requirement for re-tooling
ton, 1988). not only the physical plant and equipment but also
the mental frameworks which underpin manufacturing
These issues suggest strongly that successful tech-
organization and management.
nology transfer requires considerable management
쐌 The availability of the ‘new’ manufacturing techno-
expertise as well as the availability of suitable solutions.
logies, which include not only physical equipment but
The absence or lack of experience in this domain is a
also such mental models, is limited and largely based
particular problem for SMEs and for enterprises in econ-
on high-cost, short-term external consulting projects.
omies in transition—such as in the countries of the for-
Within Romania, the technology support infrastruc-
mer Soviet Union or in eastern Europe.
ture (research institutes, universities, etc.) is suffering
Innovation which requires the acquisition of new or
from transitional problems of a similar nature and
improved technologies involves a technical and mana-
lacks awareness or knowledge about many of the
gerial learning process and it raises the policy question
‘new’ manufacturing technologies within the context
of how best to encourage and enable relevant learning.
of increasingly globalizing industrial change drivers.
This paper reports on one experimental approach used
on a pilot basis in Romania, which involves the develop-
The implications for Romanian manufacturing indus-
ment of ‘learning networks’ as an aid to this process.
try are that to develop a competitive approach consider-
able learning will be needed along a number of dimen-
sions. Table 1 summarizes some of the key challenges.
2. Context for the project
The prescription for moving to the right hand side of
this table is well known and widely proven. Experiences
It is worth briefly reviewing the context in which this
in Japan, and more recently across the Western world,
project took place. Romania, along with many eastern
have demonstrated the potential of the new approaches
European economies is involved in a difficult transition
to manufacturing. Also, it is now understood that much
process towards adopting market-based economics.
of the change does not necessarily involve high capital
Institutions are in a state of flux, with many being forced
investment (Bessant, 1991; Kaplinsky, 1994; Schon-
to close while others suffer dramatic cuts. For those that
berger, 1995). For example, the ‘lean’ revolution owes
remain, there is a major task of reconfiguration, a process
much more to rethinking production organization and
which involves not only scaling down and decentraliz-
management than investment in new equipment
ation but, also, profound rethinking of the business prin-
(Womack and Jones, 1997).
ciples under which they are organized and operate. Of
For Romania, the challenge is to acquire technologies
particular relevance to our discussion are the following
that are relevant, build on potential areas of strength,
affordable and capable of being implemented. Even if a
쐌 Manufacturing industry is, in general, very weak with technology is available and proven, it will need to be
J. Bessant, D. Francis / Technovation 19 (1999) 373–381 375

Table 1
Emergent challenges in developing manufacturing competitiveness

‘Old’ manufacturing model ‘New’ manufacturing model

Customized, flexible production (with a high degree of intrinsic

Mass production as dominant logic
quality) as dominant logic
Non-price factors—quality, innovation, delivery, variety, design—
Price is key factor
become increasingly important
Demand is homogeneous Demand is fragmented and markets segmented
Scale economy based on large lot production Economies of scope, based on small lot high flexibility production
Hierarchical command and control organization Decentralized, team-based organization
Standard and quota oriented Continuous improvement (CI)
Demand planned—make to stock Customer focused and order driven
Supply chains operate on arms-length and adversarial basis Co-operative networks and high trust relations

absorbed and implemented within a particular context.

This will involve managerial and technological learn-
ing—in acquiring new concepts, in experimenting with
new approaches and in capturing and internalizing the
knowledge gained. The remainder of this paper considers
the underlying challenges behind developing such learn-
ing and how the process might be underpinned by
organized inter-firm learning networks.

3. Learning matters…
Fig. 1. Kolb’s cycle of experiential learning.
Learning of this kind is not a unique problem—it is
a truism that all organizations need to learn and change of the phases. This does not happen by accident—the
if they are to survive. Work by de Gies and others has learning process needs to be managed.
drawn attention to the importance of developing learning Full learning takes place only when the cycle is com-
capabilities and embedding them within the organization pleted—thus much effort and activity in one or more
(de Gies, 1996). Survival is seen less as the adoption of quadrants may not lead to learning that is transform-
one specific solution than a continuing process of match- ational. Commonly, organizations are preoccupied with
ing needs and means by learning. Recognition of this experiment rather than reflection—but a lack of critical
need has led to growing emphasis on the concept of review (reflection) may result in inappropriate and
‘learning organizations’ and on the mechanisms through wasted efforts, or in reinforcing old approaches.
which this capability can be developed (Leonard-Barton, It is also important to recognize that learning is not
1988; Senge, 1990). One aspect is the possibility of gain- automatic—there must be motivation to enter the cycle.
ing traction and support for the learning process through A problem in the Romanian context is the lack of exter-
working with others in what we term ‘learning net- nal stimulus to change—until recently the economy
works’. Before we look at this it is useful to consider functioned in closed fashion and market-led signals
some basic ideas about organizations and how they about the need and direction of change were not
learn. received.
Firms often fail to learn because they are isolated and
lack support for key stages in the process. Evidence sug-
4. How organizations learn gests that learning can be supported by structures, pro-
cedures, etc. to facilitate the operation of the learning
There is much discussion of learning in organizations, cycle—for example, through the use of external facili-
but we can draw out a number of common themes, tation.
including the following. First, learning can be viewed as A particular problem with learning about new techno-
a cyclical process (see Fig. 1), involving a combination logies is that much of the knowledge which needs to be
of experience, reflection, concept formation and exper- absorbed is not available in codified form. Since effec-
imentation (Kolb and Fry, 1975). Acquiring new com- tive learning involves both tacit and formal components
petence in manufacturing will require activity in all four a key task is to capture and codify—to make learning
376 J. Bessant, D. Francis / Technovation 19 (1999) 373–381

explicit (Nonaka, 1991). This process involves the 쐌 Learning is influenced by opinion leaders within an
accumulation and connection of data into information organization (Rogers, 1984). Those responsible for
and knowledge—simply introducing new concepts to formulating policy must support the learning process
firms via know-how exchanges or seminars may not if it is to become an influential factor affecting the
result in learning. firm’s organization development trajectory.
Finally, learning may take place in ‘adaptive’ mode— 쐌 Several mechanisms appear to help with the process
learning to do what we do better—or it may involve re- of sharing and making knowledge explicit, including
framing and radical change (what some writers term a the exchange of perspectives, shared experimentation,
‘paradigm shift’), in which the perception of the prob- display of learning achieved, measurement of learn-
lems to be solved and the potential set of solutions ing, etc. (Garvin, 1993). At their heart, such mech-
change (Senge, 1990; Bessant, 1991) The challenge of anisms represent ways of supporting and developing
a ‘paradigm shift’ is greater because it needs ‘outside a shared learning cycle, as discussed above.
the box’ perspectives and involves high risks, and often
substantial costs; there is also a fear of ‘letting go’ of
old ways of thinking and acting. This is likely to be of
particular significance in the Romanian context, since 6. Problems in learning
such a ‘paradigm shift’ is required.
Learning to learn—meta-learning—is an important Learning is not automatic. There are a number of
aspect of this process and requires the capacity to design points at which learning fails to happen unless a poten-
and operate learning systems (Argyris and Schon, 1970). tial blockage is dealt with. For example, many firms
stumble at the first hurdle by failing to recognize the
need to learn, or else by recognizing the stimulus but
choosing to ignore or discount it. (This phenomenon
5. Learning organizations…
often gives rise to the ‘not invented here’ problem which
is commonly seen in the field of technological change
The basis of most literature on learning is at an indi- (Tidd et al., 1997)). Others may recognize the need for
vidual level, but recent years have seen a strong focus learning but become locked in an incomplete cycle of
on the concept of ‘learning organizations’. There is experiment and experience, but with little or no time or
debate about whether organizations themselves actually space given to reflection or to allow the entry of new
learn or whether it is simply a learning process for the concepts. For others, the difficulty lies in organising and
individuals within them (Hedberg, 1981; Garvin, 1993). mobilizing learning skills, while in other cases the dif-
The following points summarize the key themes in ficulty lies in making use of the rich resource of tacit
this literature: knowledge—things people know about but are unable to
쐌 Individuals engage in a learning processes but the describe or articulate (Polanyi, 1967; Nonaka, 1991).
organization provides the context in which this takes Table 2 summarizes the key blocks to learning.
place—some environments are more conducive than In the Romanian context it is clear that many of these
others to enabling aligned learning. blocks and barriers are present. The relative insulation
쐌 Individuals interact and share knowledge, and this can from the development of market awareness, the over-
become part of the organizational culture—the pattern reliance on old mental models about production organi-
of shared concepts, values, beliefs, etc. (Schein, zation, the emphasis on working to plan rather than to
1984). This culture is an artifact of the organization order, etc. all conspire to create ‘non-learning’ organiza-
and, where strong, can survive the departure of indi- tions and militate against the transfer of new concepts.
viduals and the entry of new individuals who become
socialized into it. Thus we can speak of an organiza-
tion learning and having some form of memory where 7. Intra- and inter-organizational learning—can
its learning accumulates and which guides its sub- networks help?
sequent behaviour.
쐌 Much of the influence of culture lies in the informal Most of the literature related to learning organizations
and tacit realm, but it can be captured and formalized relates to intra-organizational processes, but there is a
as knowledge and routines. For example, formal pro- strand concerned with inter-organizational learning—
grammes of directed experiment and reflection (R and learning with or from others. The advantages of this
D) can lead to increased codified and tacit knowl- approach are similar to those which relate to group/inter-
edge—the technological competence of the firm. Equ- personal learning and can, at least partly, address the
ally, programmes which attempt to capture tacit problems identified above.
knowledge in exemplified procedures also contribute The potential benefits of shared learning include the
to making tacit knowledge explicit—e.g. in ISO 9000. following:
J. Bessant, D. Francis / Technovation 19 (1999) 373–381 377

Table 2
Key blocks to learning

Learning blocker… Underlying problem

Lack of entry to the learning cycle The motivation problem

Incomplete learning cycle The completion problem—understanding and support for all phases
People don’t know how to learn The learning skills problem
Learning is tacit, hidden, informal The elicitation problem
Search for new solutions is too localized The parochial/not invented here problem
Reflection is undemanding The challenge problem
Learning is infrequent, sporadic The reinforcement/reward problem
Learning is not shared but localized The sharing problem
Learning is not sustained The motivation problem…

쐌 In shared learning there is a high potential for chal- purpose of the network. We would like to differentiate
lenge and structured critical reflection from different these from a specific type of network which we are term-
perspectives. ing ‘learning networks’, where the primary purpose is
쐌 Different perspectives can introduce new concepts or to enable some kind of learning to take place. For
old concepts but new to the learner. example, a ‘best practice’ club in which firms from dif-
쐌 Shared experimentation can reduce risks and maxim- ferent sectors gather together to share experiences and
ize opportunities for trying new things out. to study new concepts would be a learning network.
쐌 Shared experiences can be supportive and confir- This concept of a ‘learning network’ can be
mational—strengthening the individual. expressed as:
쐌 Shared learning helps explicate the system’s prin-
ciples, seeing the patterns—separating ‘the wood from a network formally set up for the primary purpose of
the trees’. increasing knowledge, expressed as increased
쐌 Shared learning provides an environment for surfac- capacity to do something
ing assumptions and exploring mental models outside
of the normal experience of individual organiza- This definition implies a number of features:
tions—this helps reduce the ‘not invented here’
쐌 Formal setting up, rather than informal evolution;
쐌 A primary learning target—this defines what
It is thus possible to argue that there may be value in learning/knowledge is the network intended to enable;
designing and building networks which offer some form 쐌 A structure for operation, with boundaries about who
of additional and complementary support for the learning is in and who is outside;
processes that go on in individual firms. 쐌 Processes which can be mapped on to the learning
A relevant concept here is that of ‘action learning’, cycle;
pioneered by Reg Revans (Revans, 1980). Action learn- 쐌 The measurement of learning outcomes which feeds
ing stresses the value of experiential learning and the back to operation of the network and which eventually
benefits which can come from gaining different forms enables a decision to be taken as to whether or not to
of support from others in moving around the learning continue with the arrangement.
cycle. Part of Revans’ vision involved the idea of ‘com-
These features may be weakly or strongly developed
rades in adversity’, working together to tackle complex
in different kinds of learning network, but they represent
and open-ended problems (Pedler et al., 1991). This
structure and process aspects which could be explored
approach effectively builds upon some of the principles
further1. A growing number of such ‘learning networks’
outlined above and provides a framework for designing
have been established, and there is some evidence that
and operating what we term ‘learning networks’.
they can assist in the transfer of new concepts such as
continuous improvement (Bessant, 1995). Their rel-
evance is particularly in situations where there is a need
8. Learning networks vs. networks that learn

Formal networks (such as those set up to enable sup- 1

ply or technological collaboration) offer many opport- The exploration of the concept of learning networks and how they
might be designed and operated is the subject of a major research
unities for learning to take place—by sharing ideas, try- programme involving the Universities of Bath, Brighton and Cam-
ing out experiments, etc. But such learning, important bridge. Details can be found in (Harland, 1995) or from the Project
though it is, is essentially a ‘by-product’ of the main ION website at
378 J. Bessant, D. Francis / Technovation 19 (1999) 373–381

to increase the level of capability across a broad sector siderable learning. It became necessary to run a two-step
or group—for example, in mastering new concepts like development process where the first stage allowed learn-
‘total quality management’ or ‘world class manufactur- ing among the participants about ‘new manufacturing’
ing’. Although such learning can and does take place in before the second stage, which involved the development
informal networks and clusters, there is growing evi- of particular facilitator skills for designing and running
dence that purposive structures and mechanisms built learning networks.
around formal learning networks can accelerate the pro- The purposes of the CENTRIM team’s intervention
cess (Kaplinsky et al., 1999). However, one problem in were clear but broad. We were to install a process wher-
this mode of learning appears to be maintenance in the eby firms in Romania could acquire influential con-
long term, particularly when initial sources of funding structs, paradigms and methodologies that had rendered
(to support network operations, provision of facilitation, the average firm in the West relatively efficient and
etc.) come to an end. It appears that such networks sur- effective. In other words, our task was to facilitate a kind
vive only when there is sufficient ‘ownership’ among of technology transfer, but the technology to be trans-
members to take over their operation and development. ferred was more of a craft than a hard science: we were
A second issue—again, the subject of further transferring a ‘management capability’.
research—is the type of technology which is the subject As change agents we focused on three dimensions:
of the learning network. Examples exist of a wide variety
of technologies whose evolution and diffusion have been 쐌 our size target was SMEs;
assisted through learning networks—from ‘hard’ sys- 쐌 our technology emphasis was manufacturing;
tems (such as robots, rapid prototyping and electronics 쐌 our population target was production managers.
assembly equipment) through to ‘soft’ technologies such This strategic focus provided an embryonic method-
as ‘just-in-time’, quality management and supply chain ology for the initial ‘tuning-in’ trip to Romania. Looking
management. A major advantage offered by learning net- at the overall situation as a force field (Lewin, 1947) it
works is in dealing with ‘configurational technologies’, was easy to list hindering forces but helping forces were
which require adaptation and modification in the light less easily identified—they included ‘soft’ issues like
of user experience (Fleck, 1988). This suggests that this motivation, pride, education, commitment, and ‘harder’
approach will be most suited to technologies which are factors such as a very low cost of skilled labour and a
emerging rather than fully defined. range of exploitable assets and resources.
If we return to the Romanian case it can be argued Discussions following this visit led to the design of a
that there might be scope for setting up some form of number of prototype learning networks which would
learning network as an explicit venture to enable learn- have regional facilitators (drawn largely from the RTO
ing to take place around the theme of new manufacturing (Research & Technology Organization) infrastructure)
and the transfer of appropriate technologies. and which would particularly focus on trying to help
develop new manufacturing concepts within the emerg-
ing private sector. Firms represented included elec-
9. Using learning networks in Romania tronics, ceramics and instrumentation. This design was
largely opportunistic, building on links with key RTOs
The approach described below formed the basis of a and following guidance from relevant government
pilot project, funded under the European Union’s departments.
PHARE programme, to facilitate industrial restructuring It was with this background that the intervention was
in Romania. It had two main strands: designed. Three main principles were adopted:
쐌 working with a selected group of organizations in sev-
1. We would provide educational input. There was a
eral regions to build pilot learning networks for sup-
general lack of understanding of the current global
porting improved manufacturing capabilities;
manufacturing paradigm. We felt that Romanian
쐌 working with a selected group of people, drawn from
managers could not invent this—we needed to pro-
institutes within the science and technology support
vide structured coaching and learning.
infrastructure (research institutes, etc.) to develop
2. We would work through facilitators using the ‘bare-
their skills as co-ordinators and facilitators for such
foot doctor’ notion developed in China more than 30
learning networks.
years ago. Respected people from a community can
This second strand raises an important issue; research make a huge impact—if given basic training in facili-
on learning networks suggests that brokers/facilitators tation and key techniques.
play a key role in determining success or otherwise 3. We would seek to establish learning networks of
(Bessant and Tsekouras, 1997). But, as we have already company representatives to provide support, shared
noted, the change needs for Romanian technology insti- experience and a higher expectation level on each
tutes and similar bodies is also one which requires con- participant.
J. Bessant, D. Francis / Technovation 19 (1999) 373–381 379

CENTRIM staff developed the educational input. It that the problem of technology transfer is one of learn-
consisted of five structured workshops, each lasting a ing, and also that learning is not an automatic activity
day, at which production managers (the targets for the within most enterprises. Learning to learn, and policies
intervention) would join together to learn specific tech- which support this, is a relatively new theme but one
niques for reviewing the performance of their compa- which is likely to be of considerable relevance in the
nies. After each workshop they were expected to apply future. Although much of the early literature on learning
the ideas in their own firms and report back next time. in organizations was largely prescriptive, or else it was
That way ideas were tested immediately—a kind of JIT assumed that investments in individual training and
(just-in-time) learning process following the principles development would lead to improvements in learning,
of action learning (Revans, 1983; French and Bell, this is giving way to more detailed accounts of particular
1995). approaches to the development of learning (Garvin,
The topics for the workshop were chosen for their rel- 1993).
evance and accessibility. One was on waste, another on While much of this literature is concerned with intra-
quality, a third on continuous improvement (CI), a fourth firm learning, there is growing interest in inter-firm
on human factors and the last on operations strategies. learning and there is a valuable convergence with studies
Taken together, these represented key basic areas of being carried out of networking and clustering as an
knowledge needed by a manufacturing organization. alternative mode of economic development. For some
It was envisaged that there would be six to eight parti- time it has been recognized that particular configurations
cipants to each group, each from a different company. of firms in particular regions have been able to achieve
However, we wanted firms to have broadly similar pro- what Schmitz calls ‘collective efficiency’—that is, that
duction management processes to ease the learning pro- together a group of small firms can overcome the tra-
cess. ditional economic barriers to development (Schmitz,
A highlight of the intervention was the training of six 1997). Examples abound, but include the ‘industrial dis-
facilitators in the UK. A detailed manual was prepared tricts’ of Italy, Spain and other European countries, and
and each facilitator had the opportunity to develop skills the significant clustering observed in Brazil and Pakistan
in delivering the content and management of the work- around particular regions but also concentrated on parti-
shop process. The response was excellent and the cular sectors or product groups (Piore and Sabel, 1982;
materials were translated. Armed with a mission, a meth- Schmitz, 1995).
odology and key skills CENTRIM staff participated in These models have become a focus of interest among
the launch before withdrawing. By 1997 there were six policy-makers, and efforts to stimulate the clustering and
learning groups operating—evolving their own way of networking of firms are underway in a variety of coun-
working on the foundation of the CENTRIM method- tries. One element of such clustering is that the process
ology. of learning and capability-building is enhanced and sup-
ported—arguably through ‘action learning’/experience
sharing principles of the kind we discussed earlier. For
10. Next steps… example, in the case of the textile industry cluster in
Italy one outcome of the networking was the setting up
The project described above was a pilot activity and of shared R and D (learning) among the many small
one which ran over a short time scale. Six networks were firms. This led, over many years, to the formal establish-
formally identified and initial meetings were held, and ment of a shared technology institute (CITER) and to
it is significant that these extended outside the capital the development of a rich and robust learning network,
and into other regions of the country. It is, however, the result of which is a technologically strong and highly
difficult to evaluate the programme, not least because competitive export-oriented industry (Murray, 1993).
of the rapid changes and the resource constraints which The work described here also highlights a number of
continue to obtain in Romania. However, at the level of potential sites for failure in building and operating learn-
developing a network of facilitators it does appear that ing networks. There is a real risk that, without external
considerable personal and collective learning did take pressures on firms to enter a learning cycle, and in the
place and this laid the early foundations for further work. absence of active facilitation, such experimental net-
On the basis of this experience we would suggest that works will atrophy. A number of policy programmes
the model is worth pursuing further, and that it offers have tried to establish learning networks—for example,
an important addition to the policy armoury for enabling ‘best practice clubs’—and have supported these with
technology transfer. ‘pump-priming’ resources (Semlinger, 1995). However,
In particular it addresses some of the issues described many of these quickly fall into dis-use once the initial
in the early part of this paper—especially the complex support is withdrawn (Danish Technological Institute,
and intangible nature of much of the technology which 1991). There is a need for further work on the design of
needs to be transferred. There is growing recognition such programmes to provide effective long-term support,
380 J. Bessant, D. Francis / Technovation 19 (1999) 373–381

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ing SME competitiveness in a global economy. Danish Technologi- David Louis Francis is Senior Research Fellow in Agile Manufacturing
cal Institute. and leader of the Innovation Consulting Group at the Centre for Research
de Gies, A., 1996. The living company. Harvard Business School in Innovation Management at the University of Brighton. He is a behav-
Press, Boston, MA. ioural scientist specializing in competitive strategy, human resource devel-
Dodgson, M., Bessant, J., 1996. Effective Innovation Policy. Thomson opment and innovation management. He has worked with many organiza-
tions in Europe, the Far East and the USA. Dave has written or co-authored
Business Press, London.
27 books, including Teambuilding Strategy, Top Team Building, Manag-
Fleck, J., 1988. Innofusion or diffusation? University of Edinburgh, ing Your Own Career, Effective Problem Solving, Unblocking Organiza-
Department of Business Studies. tional Communication and Step-by-Step Competitive Strategy. During
French, W., Bell, C., 1995. Organisational development: behavioural 1996 Dave led the ‘Partnership with People’ research team. The project
science interventions for organisation improvement, 4th ed. Pren- was established by the Department of Trade and Industry and exhaustively
tice–Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ. studied how successful companies manage people in the mid-1990s.
J. Bessant, D. Francis / Technovation 19 (1999) 373–381 381

John Bessant is currently Professor of Technology Management and Head with particular emphasis on the problems of smaller firms. He is the author
of the Centre for Research in Innovation Management at the University of over 50 articles and nine books, including Managing Innovation (John
of Brighton. He is also a Professor at the Science Policy Research Unit Wiley and Sons, 1997) and Effective Innovation Policy (International
at the University of Sussex. His research and consultancy activities centre Thomson Business Press, 1996).
on organizational and infrastructure development to support innovation,