Absorptive Capacity - Part 2

We have recently identified absorptive capacity—the ability of organizations to recognize the value of new information, assimilate it, and exploit it to their benefit—as a value to be achieved from an organization’s professional development program investments. Now we explore the implications of absorptive capacity for the design of the program.

First, to develop absorptive capacity, it is not enough just to be exposed to new knowledge. The intensity of the learning experience is also important. Therefore, in the professional development program we designed for our CIO client, we recommended supplemental activities that could intensify the new learning experience for OCIO staff. For instance, running small internal projects that explore emerging platform-as-a-service technologies in use can reinforce new learning about PaaS. 

Next, absorptive capacity includes the ability to exploit the new knowledge. But the knowledge may sit in one place in the organization (in someone in OCIO, for instance) while the opportunity for exploiting it sits someplace else (in a program area, perhaps). Unless one meets the other, the knowledge may go unused. To this end, our design for the CIO’s program comprised chances for individuals—through formal presentations, technology fairs, brown bag sessions, and so on—to share their learning across the enterprise so that the new knowledge can be matched to the new opportunity. 

Finally, some fraction of new knowledge “must be fairly diverse…to permit effective, creative utilization of the new knowledge.” Staff trained in pertinent subjects, such as an advanced course in a software program they use every day, may be more productive on their teams, but training in the “as is” does not immediately translate into higher absorptive capacity. Courses that study diverse, emerging technologies may contribute even more to OCIO’s ability to respond effectively to innovative opportunities than classes with direct application in the current environment. 

To foster this element of diversity in the program, we designed a quick individual self-assessment for staff to help them think beyond the as-is when preparing their individual development plans (IDPs). And the instructions we prepared for supervisors encourage them to foster and approve a more diverse array of subjects for their employees to study.
Technical training is only one of the ways Cohen and Levinthal say an organization can build its absorptive capacity. In a future post, we will explore some other ways of raising your organization’s ability to identify, absorb, and exploit new knowledge.