The Imitation to Innovation Transition: Exploratory Research in the Chinese Wind Turbine Manufacturing Industry
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International technology transfer and imitation is a critical mechanism in China’s unprecedented growth. Existing research on firm learning and imitation, however, is of limited applicability because assumptions of firm heterogeneity, and linear concepts of capabilities development which are not tenable given the size, complexity and heterogeneity of China. Drawing on theories of evolutionary economics, imitation driven firm learning, and innovation systems, this research undertakes iterative theory building based on in-depth case studies in the wind turbine manufacturing industry in order to develop a working framework within which imitation-driven firm learning processes within the Chinese context can be understood. Based on interviews with industry consultants, experts, and employees we develop a novel typology of firm strategies, examine the processes by which firms transition between these, and rigorously apply this framework by examining the learning processes three firms through intensive case studies. From this, we propose that search routines emerge as a response to inadequate or mismatched feedback within trial-and-error processes, that Chinese market conditions uniquely support trial-and-error through risk sharing, and that the success of parallel learning processes within Chinese firms is a key factor in their rapid growth and capabilities development. Based on these observations, we suggest search routine development processes, market support for trial-and-error, and firm internal heterogeneity of routines and parallel learning strategies as core topics for future research, and examine the possibilities and challenges of research on these specific topics.