Knowledge seekers

Knowledge Seeking and Location Choice of Foreign Direct Investment in the United States, Wilbur Chung and Juan Alcacer, 2002

In the latest Knowledge@Wharton newsletter, Wilbur Chung and Juan Alcacer present the hypothesis that foreign direct investment (FDI) is not purely cost or market driven. Companies acquire firms, engage in joint-ventures and set up green fields ventures for access to unique knowledge - not just to cut cost or gain access to markets.

(The academic paper can be found here.)

While such seekers have historically been characterized as technology laggards trying to catch up with market movers, more recently scholars have embraced the idea that leaders, too, invest abroad as they seek to broaden or deepen their knowledge.

The study covers FDI in the United States (by state and by economic region).

Not surprisingly, they found that knowledge seeking is most prevalent among foreign companies in R&D-heavy industries such as pharmaceuticals, semiconductors and electronics. In fact, they found that drug makers are twice as likely to seek knowledge abroad as companies in any other industry.

Where were knowledge seekers most likely to invest? R&D-intensive areas. 'Many investments, 32% of the sample, fall into four major metropolitan areas: New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago,' the researchers write. In contrast, a region of the United States known mostly for agriculture - the Dakotas and Idaho - had no investments during our investigation period.'

It seems obvious that a European biotech company would conduct R&D in the US, that a knowledge seeker in pharmaceuticals would set up shop near Boston, or that a company seeking state-of-the-art IT knowledge might invest in operations in Silicon Valley. But what about the opposite direction? The column mentions GE's new research and development lab for medical systems in China. The lab focuses on product development tailored to emerging economies. Is this a unique example? (GE does seem to be a pioneer as far as spreading R&D globally goes...)

K@W concludes that leading regions in the knowledge industry should be wary about inviting foreign firms and giving them tax-breaks or other incentives.

Traditionally, investments from foreign firms have been celebrated by holding press conferences and ribbon-cutting ceremonies, as South Carolina and Alabama did when they landed BMW and Mercedes. But if Chung is right, these investments may not always be unalloyed victories. 'If many foreign firms enter seeking new knowledge, [productivity] gains may not accrue, and a nation's technological uniqueness might be more quickly replicated,' he and Alcacer point out in their paper. Of course investments from foreign firms may still bring benefits such as more jobs and spin-off economic activity as, for example, suppliers spring up near the foreign firm's new plant.

This sounds much like an absurd reversal of the current outsourcing debate - we don't want our firms to invest abroad because that means we'll lose our jobs (even though our firms will be more competitive), but we don't want foreign firms to invest here because that means we'll lose our competitive knowledge edge (even though we'll get more jobs).

Besides, the argument doesn't hold. Knowledge doesn't diminish by being shared - and if foreign firms invest in US high-tech clusters, this strengthens the competitive advantage of those clusters by increasing their innovative churn. Many of a cluster's advantages (labour pool, social networks, proximity to leading research labs/universities etc.) don't travel well.

To be fair, Chung and Alcacer acknowledge the importance of place in other parts of the discussion, and the 'threat' to American competitiveness is only vaguely alluded to in a generalized statement in their academic paper.

An objection to Chung and Alcacer's research - and to the notion of knowledge seeking via foreign expansion, in general - might be that investing abroad is a costly way to learn. After all, patents and technical manuals are widely published, and newly graduated scientists and engineers are eager for jobs.

But Chung argues that this objection misconstrues the nature of knowledge. 'Knowledge can be broken into a codifiable piece - the stuff you can write down - and a tacit piece,' he explains. ... Consider eating at a restaurant, he says. 'You don't really experience it unless you go there yourself. You can have someone tell you about it. You can order takeout from the restaurant. You can buy the cookbook. But to get the full benefit of the experience, you have to go there.'

Think about it: Which advantage is eroded more easily - an emerging economy's lower labor cost, or the United States' R&D and innovation prowess? (Doubters may want to read Thomas Friedman's recent op-ed.)

By all means, negotiate IPR protections when entering alliances and joint-ventures, but don't get paranoid about foreigners transferring their money and their researchers here.

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