A lot of research on MNC knowledge flows has concentrated on the organizational conditions that promote learning outcomes through a more efficient reuse of existing knowledge (cf. Gupta and Govindarajan 2000). Departing from this predominant research stream and recognising the increasingly important role of middle managers in large, distributed organizations, we investigated how subsidiary middle managers actually search for knowledge when dealing with non-routine problems and evaluated the solution outcomes in terms of generating organizational adaptation. By doing so, we contribute to several calls for more micro-level research of organizational learning processes (Felin and Foss 2005, 2009, Felin and Hesterly 2007, Friedman 2001) and shed light on the black-box of knowledge inflows.
Three interpretative case-studies of ICT subsidiaries, and resulting 33 knowledge search processes were chosen for in-depth analysis. Triangulating data from archival sources, interviews with middle managers and senior managers revealed their actual knowledge searching activities.
We uncovered the constituting activities of the knowledge search process and aggregated these into three phases: preparing for search, establishing the link, and accessing knowledge, and a fourth set of activities – modes for accessing knowledge - that characterised each knowledge source targeted. Further, we link the different knowledge searching activities to the heterogeneity in the level of organizational adaptation generated by the knowledge search processes.
Our study suggests that the activity ‘using own experience’ and withdrawal from knowledge searching challenges, reflected in the activities ‘accepting longer learning process’ and ‘siloed problem-solving’, impede broad searching and integration of different knowledge sources. In contrast, other activities signified more intense and repeated searching despite the challenges imposed by the geographic dispersion of knowledge. While previous research has shown that geographic distance impedes knowledge inflows (Ambos and Ambos 2009, Hansen and Løvås 2004, Monteiro et al. 2008), portraying the subsidiary as an entity that accepts passively geographic dispersion, our findings suggest that individuals’ active responses to this challenge can remedy potentially negative effects.
Further, if middle managers searched for knowledge ingredients and mastered the solution development process, then they become solution creators. These searching activities – ‘via discussing’ are more flexible to an accessing mode ‘via asking’ - because in a bi-directional conversation to search for knowledge, the context of the non-routine problem as well as the context of the knowledge searched remain present. Knowledge is adapted and dynamically integrated to suit the specific, novel context, often creating new solutions that became part of the organizational memory.
Above all, the findings suggest the contribution that middle managers’ knowledge searching activities and solutions developed can make to achieving subsidiary learning. Our results emphasize individuals’ searching engagements over MNC structure implications, representing a novel way of studying the black box of subsidiary knowledge inflows.