Incremental and Radical Innovation in Coopetition—The Role of Absorptive Capacity and Appropriability


  • Paavo Ritala,

  • Pia Hurmelinna-Laukkanen

Address correspondence to: Paavo Ritala, Lappeenranta University of Technology, School of Business, P.O. Box 20, FI-53851, Lappeenranta, Finland. E-mail: Tel. +35-850-571-3146.


This study examines why some firms are better able than others to reap benefits from collaborating with their competitors in innovation. Whereas on the general level, collaborative innovation has been studied widely, and firm-specific success factors in collaboration between competitors (i.e., coopetition) have not been exhaustively addressed. Earlier literature describes coopetition as a risky but potentially rewarding relationship in which sharing, learning, and protection of knowledge are recognized as the key issues determining the possible benefits and hazards. This study provides evidence of factors related to this, suggesting that the firm's ability to acquire knowledge from external sources (potential absorptive capacity) and to protect its innovations and core knowledge against imitation (appropriability regime) are relevant in increasing the innovation outcomes of collaborating with its competitors. This study also distinguishes between incremental and radical innovations as an outcome of coopetition, and provides differing implications for the two innovation types. The empirical evidence for the study was gathered from a cross-industry survey conducted on Finnish markets. The data are analyzed with multivariate multiple regression analysis. The results of the analysis suggest that (1) potential absorptive capacity and appropriability regime of the firm both have a positive effect in the pursuit of incremental innovations in coopetition, and (2) in the case of radical innovations, appropriability regime has a positive effect, while the effect of absorptive capacity is not statistically significant. However, the results also indicate that there is a moderating relationship between these variables, in that the potential absorptive capacity is positively associated with creation of radical innovations within high levels of appropriability regime. These results yield important theoretical and managerial implications. As a whole, the results presented in this study provide new evidence on which types of firms can reap success in the challenging task of collaborative innovation with rivals. In the case of incremental innovation, a firm-level emphasis on knowledge sharing and learning will positively affect the results of coopetition, as will an emphasis on knowledge protection. Thus, when incremental developments are pursued in coopetition, firms should not only seek to exchange knowledge to create value but also remember to secure the firm-specific core knowledge within the firm's borders to stay competitive. On the other hand, when the firm is pursuing radical innovation with its rivals, the heaviest emphasis should be on protecting its existing core knowledge and also emerging novel innovations and market opportunities. Capabilities in knowledge acquisition are also beneficial in these cases, but the full benefits of knowledge exchange realize only when the firm's knowledge protection mechanisms are sufficiently strong, allowing for safe knowledge exchange between rivals.