Knowledge Integration in Product Development Projects



Highly specialised individuals, who are normally located in different departments throughout an organisation, are sometimes gathered together in project teams to provide focused product development effort during a limited period of time. The establishment of such a cross-functional product development team is relatively easy, as it requires little more than the negotiation of personnel resources with departmental managers. The real challenge of the team is to “access the breadth and depth of functional knowledge pertinent to the product and to integrate that knowledge” (Grant, 1996a:368). 

This first chapter will set the background of this dissertation about knowledge integration in product development projects. First, the importance of knowledge integration to successful product development will be highlighted. Thereafter, the phenomenon of knowledge integration – the problems associated with it and the mechanisms by which it can be realised – will be explored and discussed. In the end of the chapter, a research agenda will be proposed.

Knowledge integration in product development projects – important but difficult

Product development requires a wide range of highly specialised knowledge, which is found in individuals located in different departments throughout an organisation, to be integrated. It has been suggested that it is the degree of integration of dispersed and distributed knowledge that helps explain differences in the product development performance of different firms and that it is the effectiveness of a firm’s knowledge integration that distinguishes it from its competitors (Carlile and Rebentisch, 2003; Hoopes, 2001). Recent studies have also shown a positive relation between the use of communication-intensive, preferably face-to-face-based, integration mechanisms and superior product development performance (Hoopes, 2001; Hoopes and Postrel, 1999). 

Although it is highly important, knowledge integration in product development projects is difficult to achieve as such projects incorporate individuals whose knowledge is both specialised and differentiated – and it appears as if knowledge differentiation is at the heart of the problem of knowledge integration. With differentiated knowledge follows differences in attitude and behaviour, as well as differences in cognitive and emotional orientation (Lawrence and Lorsch, 1967). It is expected that knowledge differentiation results in “communication impasses and potential for conflict among judgements” and that “the possibility of mutual understanding, of succeeding in decoding the messages, of utilizing the knowledge of others, decreases…” with increased knowledge differentiation (Grandori, 2001:390). 

Von Meier (1999) has investigated how differentiated knowledge constitutes a challenge to technological innovation. She found that individuals who represent different occupational cultures use “different mental models and cognitive representations of technology that are adapted to their particular work contexts” (von Meier, 1999:101). These different mental models and cognitive representations incorporated different goals which were related to the individual’s own performance and rewards, competing interests and conflicting values and judgements which gave rise to conflicting evaluation of technological innovation. Moreover, von Meier (1999) suggests that mental models and cognitive representations have an impact upon how individuals understand technical systems, define problems and generate solutions and she concludes that “the root of the differences lies not in fact, but in representation” (von Meier, 1999:109). 

Dougherty (1992) studied barriers to knowledge integration in a product development setting and came to the conclusion that individuals representing different knowledge domains live in different thought worlds. Different thought worlds comprise different funds of knowledge and different systems of meaning, which suggests that individuals living in different thought worlds not only know different things but also interpret the same thing in different ways. Each thought world is internally consistent and rational, but different thought worlds yield different perspectives and answers to what aspects of the product development task are important and how the collective effort should be undertaken. Thought worlds have a tendency to make people focus on their own particular area of expertise and not take notice of or understand the part played by their fellow team members in the collective task. 

Another difficulty associated with knowledge integration is related to the type of knowledge which is to be integrated. Grant (1996a:379) suggests that “explicit knowledge involves few problems of integration because of its inherent communicability” and further, that “the most interesting and complex issues concern the integration of tacit knowledge” as tacit knowledge must be “observed through its application and acquired through practice”. Similar suggestions are put forward by Sabherwal and BecerraFernandez (2005) who suggest that the ease by which knowledge is integrated is dependent upon whether the knowledge is context-specific, technology-specific or context-and-technology specific and further, that different integration mechanisms support the integration of different types of knowledge.