Knowledge transfer at BICC Cables

This case illustrates the problems of managing the transfer of knowledge, particularly in the context of high-tech companies.

This case uses insights from managers at the British multinational BICC Cables to illustrate the problems of managing the transfer of knowledge, particularly in the context of high-tech companies. 



For example, pre-transfer planning is often inadequate or non-existent, as are formal managerial processes, end-user input and trust.

Project leaders need to be good listeners as well as good communicators.Many traditional technology-based firms have responded to globalisation by decentralising geographically, either by investing in new plant abroad or by global acquisitions. The technological capabilities of the new or formerly-independent companies need to be co-ordinated, even where different businesses mostly serve different national markets. The funding of R&D with multiple business units also needs to be viewed as a whole. For these and other reasons, the modern multinational corporation (MNC) poses new problems of knowledge transfer requiring co-operation between many diverse groups: for example, R&D, manufacturing and marketing. The problems can be particularly acute where technology is concerned, both because the technology itself can be difficult to transfer and because of the difference in culture between, say, those working in R&D and in marketing. This article uses the experience of a British MNC, BICC Cables, in the 1990s, to draw general lessons about knowledge transfer, and specifically transfer of technological knowledge – “technology transfer”.

The BICC Story

By the late 1980s, BICC Cables had decentralised its R&D activities, closing central research laboratories in London and setting up three new technology centres in the UK. By the mid-1990s, following major acquisitions in Europe and North America, BICC had seven technology centres. The challenge was to preserve the local identity and focus for each technology centre while gaining the benefits of a coordinated global R&D programme. This required commitment from many participants.

To ensure a balanced world-wide R&D effort throughout BICC’s operations, a new Technical Board was set up by the early-1990s under the chairmanship of the BICC plc Technical Director, with representatives from the operating companies. The Technical Directorate was to oversee and audit all BICC’s R&D activities, long-term research planning and relationships with external bodies such as government departments, universities and the wider scientific community.

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