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Absorbing the Concept of Absorptive Capacity: How to Realize Its Potential in the Organization Field
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The purpose of this perspective paper is to advance understanding of absorptive capacity, its underlying dimensions, its multilevel antecedents, its impact on firm performance, and the contextual factors that affect absorptive capacity. Twenty years after the Cohen and Levinthal 1990 paper, the field is characterized by a wide array of theoretical perspectives and a wealth of empirical evidence. In this paper, we first review these underlying theories and empirical studies of absorptive capacity. Given the size and diversity of the absorptive capacity literature, we subsequently map the existing terrain of research through a bibliometric analysis. The resulting bibliometric cartography shows the major discrepancies in the organization field, namely that (1) most attention so far has been focused on the tangible outcomes of absorptive capacity; (2) organizational design and individual level antecedents have been relatively neglected in the absorptive capacity literature; and (3) the emergence of absorptive capacity from the actions and interactions of individual, organizational, and interorganizational antecedents remains unclear. Building on the bibliometric analysis, we develop an integrative model that identifies the multilevel antecedents, process dimensions, and outcomes of absorptive capacity as well as the contextual factors that affect absorptive capacity. We argue that realizing the potential of the absorptive capacity concept requires more research that shows how "micro-antecedents" and "macro-antecedents" influence future outcomes such as competitive advantage, innovation, and firm performance. In particular, we identify conceptual gaps that may guide future research to fully exploit the absorptive capacity concept in the organization field and to explore future fruitful extensions of the concept.