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Regional Studies

ISSN: 0034-3404 (Print) 1360-0591 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/cres20

Collective Learning and Relational Capital in Local


Innovation Processes

Roberta Capello & Alessandra Faggian

To cite this article: Roberta Capello & Alessandra Faggian (2005) Collective Learning
and Relational Capital in Local Innovation Processes, Regional Studies, 39:1, 75-87, DOI:
10.1080/0034340052000320851

To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/0034340052000320851

Published online: 18 Aug 2010.

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Regional Studies, Vol. 39.1, pp. 75–87, February 2005

Collective Learning and Relational Capital in


Local Innovation Processes
ROBERTA CAPELLO* and ALESSANDRA FAGGIAN†
*Department of Management, Economics & Industrial Engineering, Politecnico di Milano, Piazza Leonardo da Vinci 32,
I-20133 Milan, Italy. Email: Roberta.Cappello@polimi.it
†Department of Economics, School of Business, University of Reading, Urs Building, Whiteknights, PO Box 219, Reading
RG6 6AW, UK. Email: A.Faggian@rdg.ac.uk

(Received April 2003: in revised form February 2004)

C R. and F A. (2005) Collective learning and relational capital in local innovation processes, Regional Studies
39, 75–87. Innovative capacity of firms has traditionally been explained through intra-firm characteristics. In the more recent
literature, much emphasis has been put on determinants that are external to the firm. These external factors, called knowledge
spillovers, refer to the positive externalities that firms receive in terms of knowledge from the environment in which they
operate. Geographers and industrial economists underline the importance of knowledge spillovers. As the paper underlines, an
important difference exists between the approach of knowledge spillover and that of socialized processes of local knowledge
creation developed by regional economists; while in the former, the mere probability of contacts explains local knowledge
transfer, in the latter, the channels through which knowledge spills over a local area are clearly identified in the relational capital
of the area. Relational capital is defined as all relationships – market relationships, power relationships and cooperation –
established between firms, institutions and people, which stem from a strong sense of belonging and a highly developed capacity
of cooperation typical of culturally similar people and institutions. The main aims of the paper are twofold. The first is to
underline the major conceptual differences between industrial and regional economists. The second is to provide a quantitative
empirical approach, using econometric techniques, to verify the existence and importance of relational capital on the innovation
activity of firms. Proxies are found to represent the channels through which local knowledge develops at the local level and
therefore indirectly of relational capital. The different regional, sectoral and firm characteristics are also analysed to understand
whether they influence the role relational capital has on innovation. It is indeed reasonable to expect that relational capital will
play a different role in different regional, sectoral and firm’s contexts.

Collective learning Local knowledge Endogenous local economic development Relational capital

C R. et F A. (2005) L’apprentissage collectif et le capital relationnel dans les processus d’innovation locale,
Regional Studies 39, 75–87. Traditionnellement, la capacité à l’innovation des entreprises s’explique par des caractéristiques intra-
entreprises. Dans la documentation plus récente, on met plutôt l’accent sur les facteurs externes. Ces facteurs externes, appellés
retombées de connaissance, traduisent les effetes externes positifs dont profitent les entreprises en termes de la connaissance qui
provient du milieu où elles opèrent. Les géographes et les économistes industriels soulignent l’importance des retombées de
connaissance. Comme le souligne l’article, il y a une importante différence entre l’approche de retombées de connaissance et
l’approche qui met l’accent sur les processus socialisés de la création de la connaissance locale, développée par des économistes
régionaux. Alors que dans celle-là, c’est la probabilité de se faire des contacts qui explique le transfert de la connaissance locale,
pour ce qui est de cette dernière, ce sont les canaux par lesquels la connaissance s’étend à une zone locale qui se voient
clairement identifier dans le capital relationnel de la zone. Le capital relationnel veut dire tous les rapports – rapports de marché,
rapports de pouvoir, partenariat – établis entre les entreprises, les institutions et les individus, qui proviennent d’un fort sentiment
d’appartenance et d’une capacité à la coopération très développée, qui caractérise des individus et des institutions qui se
ressemblent du point de vue culturel. L’article cherche primo à souligner les principales différences conceptuelles entre les
économistes régionaux et industriels, et secundo à fournir une approche empirique quantitative, employant des techniques
économétriques afin de vérifier la présence et l’importance du capital relationnel pour l’innovation des entreprises. On emploie
des variables muettes afin de représenter les canaux par lesquels la connaissance locale se développe sur le plan local et, par la
suite, indépendamment du capital relationnel. On analyse aussi les diverses caractéristiques des régions, des secteurs et des
entreprises pour comprendre si, oui ou non, elles influent sur le rôle du capital relationnel quant à l’innovation. Il est fort
probable que le rôle du capital relationnel varie suivant le contexte de la région, du secteur ou de l’entreprise.

Apprentissage collectif Connaissance locale Développement économique local autochtone Capital relationnel

0034-3404 print/1360-0591 online/05/010075-13 ©2005 Regional Studies Association DOI: 10.1080/0034340052000320851


http://www.regional-studies-assoc.ac.uk
76 Roberta Capello and Alessandra Faggian
C R. und F A. (2005) Kollektives Lernen und relationales Kapital in örtlich begrenzten Innovationsprozessen,
Regional Studies 39, 75–87. Innovationsfähigkeit von Firmen ist tradionell mit innerbetrieblichen Eigenschaften erklärt worden.
In der neueren Literatur dagegen hat man von außen beeinflussenden Faktoren große Bedeutung für Firmen beigelegt. Diese
außerbetrieblichen Faktoren, die auch unter dem Begriff Wissensverbreitung laufen, beziehen sich auf die positiven Außenfak-
toren, die Firmen in Form von Fachkenntnissen von der Umgebung empfangen, in der sie wirken. Wie auch dieser Aufsatz
unterstreicht, besteht ein wichtiger Unterschied zwischen dem Ansatz von Wissensverbreitung und dem in der Gesellschaft
allgemein stattfindenden Vorgang der Wissensgenerierung am Orte, wie er von Regionalwirtschaftswissenschaftlern angestrebt
wird. Während im ersteren Fall die bloße Wahrscheinlichkeit von Kontakten die Übertragung von Wissen am Ort erklärt,
werden im letzteren die Kanäle, durch welche Fachkenntnisse in örtlich begrenzte Gebiete gelangen, klar im relationalen Kapital
der Gegend herausgestellt. Relationales Kapital wird als alle Beziehungen definiert – Marktbeziehungen, Machtbeziehungen,
Zusammenarbeit – die zwischen Firmen, Institutionen und Menschen betehen, und auf einem starken Gefühl der Zusammenge-
hörigkeit sowie einer für kulturell verwandte Menschen und Institutionen hoch entwickelten Fähigkeit zur Zusammenarbeit
beruhen. Der vorliegende Aufsatz verfolgt zwei Hauptziele: das erste ist, die begrifflichen Hauptunterschiede zwischen
Betriebswissenschaftlern und Regionalwirtschaftlern zu unterstreichen, das zweite, einen quantitativen, empirischen Ansatz mit
Hilfe ökonmetrischer Techniken vorzulegen, um das Vorhandensein und Bedeutung relationalen Kapitals für die innovative
Tätigkeit von Firmen zu bestätigen. Es wird festgestellt, daß Vertreter Kanäle darstellen, durch die sich Ortskenntnisse auf
örtlicher Ebene entwickeln und daher indirekt auf relationales Kapital auswirken. Es werden auch die verschiedenen regionalen,
sektoralen und firmeneigenen Charakterzüge analysiert, um zu erfahren, ob sie die Rolle des relationalen Kapital bei Innovation
beeinflussen. Es ist, in der Tat, nur zu erwarten, daß relationales Kapital in unterschiedlichen Regional-, Sektoren- und
Firmenzusammenhängen auch eine andersartige Rolle spielen wird.
Kollektives Lernen Ortskenntnisse Endogene örtliche Wirtschaftsentwicklung Relationales Kapital
C R. y F A. (2005) Aprendizaje colectivo y capital relacional en los procesos locales de innovación, Regional
Studies 39, 75–87. La capacidad innovadora de las empresas se ha explicado tradicionalmente por medio de caracterı́sticas intra-
empresariales. En la literatura más reciente, se ha puesto mucho énfasis en los determinantes que son externos a las empresas.
Dichos factores externos, denominados desbordamientos de conocimiento (knowledge spillovers), se refieren a las externalidades
positivas que reciben las empresas en materia de conocimiento del ambiente en el que operan dichas empresas. Los geógrafos y
los economistas industriales destacan la importancia de los desbordamientos de conocimiento. Tal y como el artı́culo subraya,
existe una diferencia importante entre el enfoque de desbordamientos de conocimiento y el de los procesos socializables de
creación de conocimiento local por parte de los economistas regionales; mientras que en el primero, la mera probabilidad de
contactos explica la transferencia de conocimiento a nivel local, en el segundo, los canales por los cuales se desborda el
conocimiento sobre una área local están claramente identificados en el capital relacional de la zona. El capital relacional se
define como todas las relaciones – relaciones de mercado, relaciones de poder, cooperación – que se establecen entre las
empresas, instituciones y personas, las cuales derivan de un fuerte sentido de pertenencia y una capacidad altamente desarrollada
de cooperación que es tı́pica de personas e instituciones culturalmente similares. Este artı́culo tiene dos objetivos fundamentales:
el principal objetivo es destacar las principales diferencias conceptuales que existen entre los economistas industriales y regionales.
El segundo es ofrecer un planteamiento empı́rico cuantitativo, utilizando técnicas de tipo econométrico, con el fin de verificar
la existencia e importancia del capital relacional en la actividad innovadora de las empresas. Se encuentran una serie de proxies
para representar los canales a través de los cuales se desarrolla el conocimiento a nivel local y por tanto indirectamente respecto
del capital relacional. También se analizan las diferentes caracterı́sticas de las empresas, sectoriales y regionales, con el fin de
entender si influyen de alguna forma en el rol que el capital relacional tiene en la innovación. En efecto, es razonable esperar
que el capital relacional juegue un rol diferente en contextos sectoriales, regionales y de empresas diferentes.
Aprendizaje colectivo Conocimiento local Desarrollo económico local endógeno Capital relacional

JEL classifications: R00, R11

INTRODUCTION These contrasting results have led industrial econom-


ists to look for other explanatory variables. In the
Innovative capacity of firms has traditionally been
explained through intra-firm characteristics, firms’ size recent literature, much emphasis has been put to deter-
being the most important. A wave of empirical studies minants that are external to the firm; these external
identifies small firms as the engines of technological factors are called knowledge spillovers and refer to the
change and innovative activity, at least in certain indus- positive externalities that firms receive in terms of
tries (A and A, 1993; A and knowledge from the environment in which they
V, 1996; P et al., 1987; R, operate (A et al., 1997; 2000; A and
1989). This statement and these empirical findings A, 1990; A and F,
contrast the well-known observation that since research 1996, F, 1994; F and A,
and development (R&D) expenditure is concentrated 1999; A et al., 2000; D G et al., 2001).
in large firms and that innovative output strongly The importance of knowledge spillovers has been
depends on R&D inputs (S, 1982), large firms emphasized by geographers, as well as by industrial
are expected to drive the technological process. and regional economists. As this paper underlines,
Collective Learning and Relational Capital in Local Innovation Processes 77
important differences exist in the way the subject is relational capital on the innovation activity of firms.
treated by different schools of thoughts, at both the Proxies are found to represent the channels of collective
theoretical and empirical levels. Geographers, sup- knowledge and therefore indirectly of relational capital.
ported by industrial economists, tend to stress the The different regional, sectoral and firms’ characteristics
importance of physical proximity as a condition for the will also be analysed in order to understand whether
diffusion of local knowledge; firms located in areas they influence the role relational capital has on firms’
characterized by a high number of scientific activities innovation; being relational capital meant to be the
register increasing returns in innovation processes capacity of local firms to cooperate, it can be influenced
thanks to knowledge they acquire from the external by regional, sectoral and firm’s contexts.
environment. The channel through which knowledge The paper is organized as follows. The second
is spread around is a simple epidemic process. At the section summarizes the main points of industrial and
same time, another stream of thought, led by regional regional economists on the determinants of innovation.
economists, has put much emphasis on the concept of The third section describes the methodology used. The
relational capital as a fundamental concept to under- fourth section presents the results of the empirical
stand the way in which knowledge spills over a local analysis. Finally, the fifth section suggests some conclu-
area. sions and policies.
Relation capital is defined as the set of all relation-
ships – market relationships, power relationships and
cooperation – established between firms, institutions SPACE AS AN INPUT FOR
and people that stem from a strong sense of belonging INNOVATION ACTIVITY
and a highly developed capacity of cooperation typical
Determinants of innovation: different theoretical approaches
of culturally similar people and institutions. The exist-
ence of high relational capital in an area generates stable In the last two decades, several authors focused their
cooperation between firms and their local suppliers and attention on the innovation phenomenon and its deter-
customers, an efficient local labour market with a high minants. So many contributions were produced that
internal mobility of employees and spin-offs from local the term ‘Innovation Economics’ was coined to gather
firms, which are considered as the main channels them under a common label. On the one hand, this
through which knowledge spreads over a local area large interest created the preconditions to take big steps
(A, 1986; A and K, 1988; forward on the subject. On the other hand, the different
C, 1991, 1999; M et al., 1993; R theoretical approaches developed did not always agree
et al., 1997; RERU, 1999; C and with each other.
C, 2000). New insights in the way knowledge As far as the determinants of innovation are con-
develops over space emerge in this way. cerned, the so-called ‘intra-firm’ determinants of
The concept of relational capital has a striking resem- innovation became the main explanation of different
blance with the concept of ‘social capital’ developed innovation performances. Among these determinants,
by P (1993); social capital is intended as all a crucial role was played by firm size and R&D
social networks, collective and institutional rules that expenditure, both internal and external to the firm.
through the development of trust and sense of Empirical analyses led in the past to some contrasting
belonging to a local community guarantee to overcome results, underlining the need for introducing other
more easily market failures in the coordination of variables vital for fostering the innovation process. Both
decision processes and gives rise to a community gover- large and small firms can prove to be very innovative
nance.1 The present authors prefer to refer to ‘relational’ due to certain factors, which are completely exogenous
capital rather than to ‘social’ capital for a specific reason. to the firm itself, such as their sector and location.2 As
Social capital exists wherever a local society exists, G (1995) underlines, the proximity to other
while relational capital refers to the (rare) capability of firms can be essential in increasing the innovation
exchanging different skills, interacting among different capacity of a firm, independently of internal firm
actors, trusting with each other and cooperating even characteristics.
at a distance with other complementary organizations. There is an agreement in the literature on the fact
Especially the capacity of interaction and cooperation that ‘physical proximity’ among firms plays a crucial
among local actors will be taken into consideration role in improving the innovative capacity of firms.
herein. Space matters because of the existence of ‘knowledge
The main aims of the paper are twofold. The first is spillovers’.
to go into more detail about the way knowledge However, the way in which space is conceptualized
spillovers are treated and interpreted in the literature into innovation processes through the concept of
by underlining the theoretical and empirical differences ‘knowledge spillovers’ is very different among different
in the approaches used. The second is to provide schools of thought.
a quantitative empirical approach using econometric One school, represented by geographers and indus-
techniques to verify the existence and importance of trial economists, adds to the traditional ‘intra-firm’
78 Roberta Capello and Alessandra Faggian
variables the space dimension, as simple physical prox- some empirical tests of the milieu innovateur concept
imity among innovative actors. Very solid econometric have been published recently (C, 1999a, b).
results prove the importance of physical proximity The present paper can be included in this second
and shed light on some of the previously mentioned approach, since its main purpose is to formalize the
contrasting results. A second school, represented by milieu concept, allowing one to test the importance of
regional economists, deals with a more complex con- relational space on the innovativeness and economic
cept of ‘space’. As will be shown in more detail performance of firms and to analyse the best conditions
below, physical space is coupled in this approach with under which relational capital maximizes its incentive
‘relational’ space, which is made of all the different to innovation.
relationships built among local actors. The next section will focus on the definitions of
The well-known concept of ‘milieu innovateur’ has relational capital, collective learning and the channels
been developed by this second school of thought and that make collective learning possible. It is essential to
is based on what regional scientists call ‘territory’, define these concepts clearly before proceeding,
rather than ‘space’ (C, 2004). The ‘milieu’ is a because they are the starting points of the following
place capable of maintaining a long-term competi- empirical analysis.
tiveness thanks to its adaptability to external changes.
It is a dynamic concept that partly overlaps with the
Geographical and relational knowledge spillovers: similarities
static industrial district view. The firms belonging to
and differences
the milieu are close not only in geographical terms,
but also, and above all, in terms of culture. As M As already noted above, the concept of knowledge
and L (1992, p. 2) underline ‘though the milieu spillovers has long been recognized as essential in
has a spatial dimension, it does not correspond to a studying the innovation process. Many authors address
well defined geographical area; the milieu is an organic the problem. A and V (1994),
framework including market and non-market links’. for instance, try to measure the effect of knowledge
The concept of ‘innovative milieu’ is interesting and spillovers on innovation – measured in terms of new
it found further refinements during the 1990s. In patents (using data on Italian firms) – and they find a
particular, two main refinements can be identified. On significant effect of these spillovers on small- and
the one hand, some authors tried to draw a parallel medium-sized firms. The definition they use of spill-
between the milieu innovateur and some concepts overs, though, is not very wide, including only the
borrowed from the biological sciences. In this respect, physical proximity (physical distance) to universities or
the contribution of G (1998), for instance, research centres.3
underlines that the correct theoretical approach to the A-B (1999) extends the definition
milieu should be ‘systematic’. The reasons for the of spillovers also to include the proximity of a high
success of a milieu are not simply additive. There are number of firms belonging to the same sector. Again,
feedbacks and reciprocal causality relationships between as in A and V (1994), he finds a
the factors of success of a milieu. It seems, therefore, significant positive relationship between knowledge
that the best approach to study a milieu is a non- spillovers – measured in terms of R&D expenditure
linear one, a ‘study of complexity’ (P and and researchers of firms in the local area – and the
S, 1983), that stresses that the milieu is a innovative performance of firms.
system in continuous evolution, not in equilibrium, Despite recognizing that proximity to universities,
and is strongly dependent on its past. This current of research centres and other firms – belonging both to
thought makes some very good points on the concept the same or different sectors – in the local area is
of milieu, but it does not answer the criticism of important, the phenomenon of knowledge spillovers is
abstractness, which has been moved to the concept. much more complex. A high concentration of firms
On the other hand, some authors tried to show the belonging to the same sector in an area is not enough
similarities between the concept of milieu and some to explain the high innovation of the area itself. It
concepts belonging to mainstream economics in order is necessary to define which channels convey these
to give a more formalized nature to the milieu concept knowledge spillovers and allow them to spread over
and also to attempt an empirical measurement of its the territory.
effects. The reason for doing so was to answer some of The concept of relational space, first introduced in
the first criticisms on the milieu innovateur concept. the milieu theoretical framework, becomes crucial in
Some authors, indeed, noticed how the milieu inno- this respect.4 Relational space is defined as the set of all
vateur was a sort of ‘abstract entity’, an ideal archetype, relationships – market relationships, power relationships
not applicable to reality. The contribution of C and cooperation – established between firms, institu-
(2002) shows how the milieu innovateur concept can tions and people that stem from a strong sense of
be integrated into a neo-classical endogenous growth belonging and a highly developed capacity of
model à la R (1986) and L (1988), without cooperation typical of culturally similar people and
distorting its initial hypotheses or conclusions. Also, institutions. The concept of relational capital helps to
Collective Learning and Relational Capital in Local Innovation Processes 79
Ω Explicit cooperation among actors.
Ω Implicit cooperation among actors.
Ω Public and private partnership.
Relational capital is therefore the ‘substratum’ of collec-
tive learning exactly like physical space is the necessary
condition for the ‘traditional’ knowledge spillovers.
It can be seen in Fig. 1 that the parallel between the
two approaches is almost complete, but an important
difference must be emphasized. In the industrial
approach, there is no clear definition of the channels
through which physical proximity materializes into
geographical knowledge spillovers. All that is known is
that the proximity to other firms or research centres
positively influences the performance and the innova-
tiveness of a firm, but it is not clear how this happens.
Everything is due to pure probabilistic mechanisms.
Conversely, in the regional approach, the channels
through which the relational capital becomes collective
learning are clearly defined:
Ω High mobility of local labour force.
Ω Stable and fruitful relationships with local customers
and suppliers.
Ω Spin-offs.
C (1995, p. 203) defines collective learning as
the ‘dynamic and cumulative process of production of
knowledge, which is due to interaction mechanisms
typical of an area characterised by a strong sense of
belonging and relational synergies’. The internal cohe-
sion promotes the introduction of new products or
production techniques and reduces the uncertainty
linked to innovations. The space is not just ‘physical’,
Fig. 1. Physical versus relational space
it is something more. It is a space created by men,
both the result of and the precondition for collective
learning, an active input rather than a passive surface
underline the difference between the approach of two (C and B, 1996).
schools of thought mentioned above. The definition of relational capital influences the
Fig. 1 underlines the comparison between the two indices that will be used in the empirical analysis below.
approaches. On the one hand, if one starts from a Cultural as well as social proximity is the basis for the
concept of pure physical space, the precondition for existence of relational capital, which in turn gives
knowledge spillovers is the physical proximity to firms rise to collective learning processes; the existence of
of the same sector (to exploit specialization economies), collective processes through strong local relationships
to firms of different sectors (to exploit economies indirectly assumes that social and cultural proximity is
coming from diversification), and to universities and present locally.
research centres, typical places where knowledge is
produced. Physical proximity increases the probability
Towards an empirical analysis: testable propositions
of contacts between the economic actors, therefore
allowing knowledge to spread more easily and produce Before presenting the database and empirical results,
useful spillovers. the steps to be followed, and the theoretical hypotheses
On the other hand, if one takes into account the behind them, will be stated more clearly.
concept of relational space, the precondition for the The main idea behind the paper is that ‘relational
creation of knowledge spillovers becomes the cultural capital matters’ in promoting innovation and some
proximity of actors, i.e. their sense of belonging to the indicators can be found to prove this point. Very few
area, their capability of interacting and the sharing of empirical works (C, 1999a) attempt to verify
common values. This cultural proximity is the basis for empirically the role of relational capital on innovation
the existence of relational capital, which in turn is and not without a reason. The lack of contributions is
formed by the following: directly proportional to the size of the challenge. Most
80 Roberta Capello and Alessandra Faggian
of the concepts being dealt with are very abstract. So Table 1. Variables used
abstract, that many authors dispute the possibility of
Variables Method used to build the
measuring them empirically. variables
Relational capital is an intangible and complex asset
that cannot be directly measured. The real challenge is Degree of innovation Percentage of turnover due to
sales of innovative products
to find a way to make this concept empirically verifi- (average in the last 5 years)
able. If relational capital does exist, there must be a
way to evaluate its effects on firms. Dimension Turnover (millions lire)
The first challenge is to try to find an empirical Research and development Percentage of turnover invested
counterpart to the concept of relational capital to show expenditure in research and development
its importance on the innovative performance of firms. expenditure
Is it true that, irrespective of their location, sector and Relational capital (measured via
intra-firm characteristics, all firms benefit from the collective learning channels):
presence of relational capital? Local labour market Percentage of new employees
(i.e. employees hired in the last
The second step is then to understand whether the 5 years) from local firms
effect of relational capital on innovation varies accord- Specialized local labour Percentage of new employees
ing to the characteristics of the different areas consid- market (i.e. employees hired in the last
ered. Is it reasonable to assume that different areas with 5 years) from local firms
different productive structures (i.e. the present case belonging to the same sector
Diversified local labour Percentage of new employees
studies) can all benefit from relational capital? And if market (i.e. employees hired in the last
so, which components of relational capital are more 5 years) from local firms
important in each territorial context? belonging to different sectors
Lastly, once it is identified which component of Innovative cooperation with Importance of local suppliers and
relational capital works at best in each territorial con- local suppliers and customer customers in fostering product
innovation (average of scores)
text, do firms’ size and sector influence the capability
of exploiting these components? High-technology sectors Dummy variable (1óhigh-
technology firm)

DATA AND THE SAMPLE


of three different universities facilitated the inter-
Database and the variables
viewing of a larger number of firms, making it possible
The empirical analysis is based on micro-data taken to obtain more robust econometric estimations.
directly from interviews to firms’ managers via a Second, the larger sample allowed the innovation pro-
questionnaire jointly prepared by three research groups cess to be studied from different angles. The sample
belonging to three different Italian universities. The indeed includes firms that differ in size, sector and
database includes 217 firms located in three different location. All previous studies based on micro-data
areas: Milan, Piacenza and the Belluno (Cadore) area focused on only one of these dimensions due to the
in the Veneto region. limits imposed by the sample size. Widening the sample
The questionnaire used can be divided into different meant one could analyse the subject in its entirety.
sections. The first includes general questions about Table 1 summarizes the variables used in the empiri-
firms such as their age, sector, dimensions (both in cal analysis. As input of innovation, the percentage of
terms of employees and turnover), exports and com- turnover spent in R&D was chosen. As a proxy for
petitive position in the local and global market. The the innovation, the percentage of turnover due to sales
second focuses on the innovative capacity of the firm, of innovative products was chosen. This last variable
which is the core of the analysis. As already noted, one seemed to have a very high degree of reliability as
of the basic hypotheses of the paper is that knowledge reported by the interviewers. It was more difficult to
spillovers turn into a higher innovative capacity. It is build a variable representing relational capital.
essential, therefore, to have detailed information on It was decided to use some variables representing
this variable both in terms of its dynamics over time so-called ‘collective learning channels’ (C,
and of its distribution in space. The rest of the question- 1999a, b). The literature describes three channels: the
naire is devoted to specific features that can influence local labour market, cooperation with local suppliers
the learning process of firms and consequently its and customers, and spin-offs. The present research,
innovative behaviour. These features include local however, focused on the first two, since spin-offs are
labour market characteristics, relationships with local less common and would have restricted the sample
suppliers and customers, and spin-offs and cooperation considerably. A good proxy for the importance of local
with other firms both locally and non locally. labour market was the percentage of new employees
There are several advantages to using the common from firms5 belonging to the local area. The importance
questionnaire as described above. First, the joint effort of cooperation with local suppliers and customers was
Collective Learning and Relational Capital in Local Innovation Processes 81
Table 2. Location quotients by sector in the three analysed areas important role in the Emilia-Romagna region, espe-
cially the food industry. The location quotient in this
Cadore
Milan Piacenza (Belluno) sector for Piacenza is 1.32 with respect to Italy.
The same holds for the mechanical sector and the
Sector production of non-metal products. A high location
Food 0.57 1.32 0.57
Textile 0.53 0.40 0.67 quotient is exhibited in the production of energy,
Timber 0.39 0.78 1.86 gas and water (1.85). The chemical and electronic
Press 1.79 0.79 0.45 industries, which are so strong in the Milanese area, are
Chemical 2.68 0.22 0.24 incredibly low in Piacenza (0.22 and 0.61, respectively).
Plastic 1.22 0.92 0.62 Belluno, the province where the Cadore area is
Non-metalliferous products 0.40 1.71 1.21
Metal 0.91 1.28 1.04 located, has a dichotomized productive structure. On
Mechanical 1.17 1.81 1.53 the one hand, there are some non-specialized sectors
Electronic and optical 2.01 0.61 6.25 with location quotients\0.50 such as press, textile
Transportation 0.48 0.83 0.03 industry and transportation. On the other hand, there
Electricity, water and gas 0.82 1.85 0.80 is one sector with a surprisingly high location quotient,
Hotels and restaurant 0.75 1.06 1.80
Monetary and financial brokerage 1.49 0.94 0.51 i.e. the electrical and optic sector (6.25). This is due to
Real estate, information technology the Cadore area being an industrial district specializing
and research activity 1.66 0.80 0.44 in the production of glass, which belong to the category
‘electrical and optical sector’ according to the National
Source: The authors’ elaboration on Istat data, 1996.
Statistical Office (Istat). Other sectors with high loca-
tion quotients, although much lower than the electrical
represented by the average of the scores attributed by and optical sector, are the timber industry (1.86), and
managers to the contribution of local customers and hotels and recreation (1.80).
suppliers to innovative activity. A dummy variable was This brief economic description of Milan, Piacenza
introduced for high-technology sectors6 to test if firms and Cadore emphasizes how different is the productive
belonging to this sector had considerably different structure of these three areas. Milan is a highly diversi-
behaviour. Table 1 summarizes the variables and fied metropolitan area specialized in more advanced
method used to build them. sectors, Piacenza is a middle-sized town more special-
ized in traditional industries and Cadore is a typical
industrial district.
Areas of analysis
The sample includes firms belonging to three different
Description of the sample
geographical areas: Milan, Piacenza and Belluno
(Cadore). The three areas were chosen for both theo- As already noted, the database includes 217 observa-
retical and practical reasons. From a theoretical point tions:7 62 firms located in Milan, 65 in Piacenza and
of view, there are two reasons for the choice. On the 90 in the Cadore district in Belluno province.
one hand, the three areas are located in three successful The firms differ for internal characteristics (dimen-
Italian regions, which have had good economic perfor- sions, R&D expenditure) and for the sectors in which
mance in the last decade. This ensures that the three they belong. Table 3 summarizes some of the main
areas have a comparable macroeconomic background. characteristics of the samples in the three different areas.
On the other hand, and more crucially, the three areas The firms in Piacenza are on average larger than
have very different productive structures, which allows those in Milan and Cadore, but they seem less innova-
one to test if the hypotheses hold under different tive. The percentage on turnover due to sales of innova-
territorial and productive conditions. From a practical tive products is, indeed, only 20% in Piacenza, 25% in
point of view, the choice was favoured by the location Cadore and 32% in Milan. R&D expenditure on
of the three research groups, which could exploit their average is higher in Piacenza in absolute value (1212
specific knowledge of the territory to select better the million lire), but lower than Milan in terms of percent-
sample. age on turnover (6% in Milan compared with 2% in
Table 2 shows the location quotients of the different Piacenza). In all the considered areas, the local labour
sectors in the three analysed areas. Each area has its market plays a crucial role. In Milan and Piacenza,
own specialization. Milan reports a very high location around one-third of new employees come from local
quotient in high-technology sectors (2.01) and in the firms; in Cadore, the percentage is even higher, 48%.8
chemical industry (2.68). High location quotients are Milan, though, differs from the other two areas for the
also exhibited in some advanced tertiary sectors, such origin sector of new employees. Indeed, while in
as monetary and financial brokerage, real estate, Piacenza and Cadore a high percentage of new
information technology services and research activities. employees come from local firms belonging to the
The fields of specialization in Piacenza are com- same sector as the new firm (21% in Piacenza, 37% in
pletely different. More traditional sectors play an Cadore), in Milan, 20% of new employees come from
82 Roberta Capello and Alessandra Faggian
Table 3. Characteristics of the sample by geographical area (averages)
Milan Piacenza Cadore (Belluno)
Degree of innovation (per cent of positive answers) 32 (60)* 20 (65) 25 (27)
Turnover (millions lire) 9785 (62) 60 226 (65) 14 371 (68)
Research and development expenditure (millions lire) 639 (60) 1212 (65) 79 (65)
Importance of the local labour market (per cent of positive answers) 38 (62) 33 (65) 48 (90)
Importance of the diversification of the local labour market (per cent of positive answers) 20 (62) 12 (65) 11 (90)
Importance of the specialization of the local labour market (per cent of positive answers) 18 (62) 21 (65) 37 (90)
Importance of suppliers on innovation (scores from 1 to 10) 3.9 (62) 1.8 (65) 4.9 (54)

Note: Number of valid observations is reported in parentheses.

local firms belonging to different sectors of origin and mobility of local labour market10 and the cooperation
only 18% from firms belonging to the same sector. with local suppliers, have a positive and significant
As far as the importance of local suppliers on innova- effect. Moreover, R2 rises from 0.19 to 0.28. An F-test
tion is concerned, the average scores are low. The has also been carried out to test the overall significance
minimum is 1.8 in Piacenza, followed by Milan (3.9) of the models.
and Cadore (4.9). The problem is in understanding if The result supports the initial hypothesis, i.e. the
these low values reflect the actual unimportance of importance of relational capital variables in fostering
suppliers or rather the misperception of their impor- the innovative performance of a firm. Regional eco-
tance by the interviewed managers. nomists are therefore correct in underlining that not
only are intra-firm characteristics crucial for innova-
EMPIRICAL RESULTS tion, but also (and maybe most of all) that the location
of firms in an area where the local labour market and
Role of relational capital in fostering innovation the tight links with suppliers foster the exchange of
As mentioned above,9 the productive structure in the local knowledge are vital for innovation. This seems to
areas selected as case studies is very different. To test hold no matter where firms are located, although, as
whether relational capital should play a crucial role in will be shown, with different features from one case to
fostering innovative activities irrespective of location, the other.
the internal characteristics of a firm and sector, the The last two columns in Table 4 show two further
starting point was the estimation of the same econo- models in which a dummy variable for high-technology
metric model for all firms included in the database firms was introduced to test if there was a substantial
(pooling) without any distinction of location, size or difference between high-technology and traditional
sector. firms. The dummy is statistically insignificant when the
The first step was the estimation of the relationship model is tested on the total sample, but becomes
between ‘intra-firm’ characteristics and degree of inno- significant if the Cadore case is dropped and Milan and
vation. The second step was then to introduce, in the Piacenza are only considered. This may be partly due
same model, some relational capital variables to test to the lack of variance in the sectorial composition of
their significance. Table 4 shows the results obtained. the firms in the Cadore area, almost all belonging to
Both relational capital variables, i.e. the interfirm the same sector.

Table 4. Role of relational capital on innovative activity (pooling)


Model 5
(only Milan
Variable Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Model 4 and Piacenza)
Constant 1.97 (2.54)* 2.02 (2.70) 1.49 (1.5) 0.91 (1.02) 0.93 (1.0)
Firm size (turnover in ln) ñ0.32 (ñ4.32) ñ0.30 (ñ4.13) ñ0.23 (ñ3.08) ñ0.21 (ñ2.59) ñ0.21 (ñ2.36)
Research and development expenditure as a
percentage of turnover (ln) 0.24 (4.08) 0.23 (3.99) 0.22 (3.84) 0.21 (3.66) 0.18 (2.53)
Local labour market (ln) 0.14 (3.27) 0.14 (3.4) 0.14 (3.31) 0.20 (4.5)
Cooperation with local suppliers and clients (ln) 0.21 (2.9) 0.20 (2.68) 0.22 (3.02)
High-technology sector 0.21 (0.87) 0.46 (1.79)
R2 0.19 0.24 0.28 0.29 0.40
Number of valid cases 148 148 148 146 122

Notes: Dependent variable: degree of innovation (per cent of turnover from sales of new products – last 5 years).
*Student’s t-test is in parentheses.
F-test is 9.47 when passing from model 1 to 2, and 7.95 when passing from model 2 to 3. Both values are significant at the 0.01 level.
Collective Learning and Relational Capital in Local Innovation Processes 83
Relational capital and innovative activity in the three coefficient of 0.14 in both models 1 and 2 and a
different areas Student’s t-test of 2.37 and 2.38, respectively (Table 5).
Furthermore, a more detailed analysis of the compo-
Once it is shown that relational capital does play a
nents of local labour market shows something very
crucial role in innovation, it becomes interesting to
understand better the differences among the areas interesting. In Milan, innovation performance is posi-
analysed. Is it possible to identify specific territorial tively linked to the diversification of the local labour
characteristics that allow the relational capital to be market rather than to its specialization. As models 3
more effective? To answer this question, one can start and 4 in Table 5 show, the variable ‘diversified local
by estimating separate models for the different geo- labour market’ has a coefficient of 0.12 and is highly
graphical areas. Unfortunately, in trying to do so, we significant (2.36 in model 3, 2.33 in model 4), while
had to deal with a high number of missing values for the variable ‘specialized labour market’ is insignificant
the Cadore area in both the dependent and explanatory in model 3 and has been removed in model 4 to test
variables. This reduced considerably the degrees of the robustness of the other coefficients. The economic
freedom and made the results for this area unreliable. meaning of this seems clear. In Milan, there are urban-
Therefore, it was decided to present the detailed analysis ization economies that foster innovation. Also, the
only for the areas of Milan and Piacenza. The Cadore dummy variable for the high-technology sector is statis-
area still contributes to the results obtained when tically significant in the Milan area. Because of the
pooling all the data. Tables 5 and 6 show the results of high specialization encountered in these sectors in
the estimations. Milan, one can easily draw the conclusion that these
In the Milan area, the intra-firm characteristics, i.e. sectors are organized around filières.
small size and high R&D expenditure, are crucial in Piacenza has some similarities to Milan, but also
fostering innovation. As far as the relational capital some peculiar characteristics. In the Piacenza area, as
variables are concerned, the most surprising result is in Milan, the local labour market is the most effective
that cooperation with local suppliers no longer plays collective learning channel with a coefficient of 0.25
an important role in Milan. The local labour market is (even higher than that of Milan), which is highly
the most important collective learning channel with a significant (4.04). Unlike Milan, though, cooperation

Table 5. Role of relational capital on innovative activity: Milan


Variable Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Model 4 Model 5
Constant 3.4 (2.07)* 3.26 (2.15) 3.67 (2.30) 3.51 (2.27) 3.93 (2.53)
Firm size (turnover in ln) ñ0.40 (ñ2.44) ñ0.39 (ñ2.50) ñ0.42 (ñ2.61) ñ0.41 (ñ2.60) ñ0.51 (ñ3.17)
Research and development expenditure as a
percentage of turnover (ln) 0.30 (3.04) 0.30 (3.09) 0.29 (2.89) 0.29 (2.94) 0.23 (2.279)
Local labour market (ln) 0.14 (2.37) 0.14 (2.38) – – –
Cooperation with local suppliers and clients (ln) ñ0.04 (–0.22) – – – –
Diversified local labour (ln) – – 0.12 (2.36) 0.12 (2.33) 0.12 (2.38)
Specialized local labour (ln) – – 0.02 (0.48) – –
High-technology sector – – – – 0.57 (2.06)
R2 0.24 0.24 0.24 0.24 0.29
Number of valid cases 59 59 59 59 57

Notes: Dependent variable: degree of innovation (per cent of turnover from sales of new products – last 5 years).
*Student’s t-test is in parentheses.

Table 6. Role of relational capital on innovative activity: Piacenza


Variable Model 1 Model 2 Model 3
Constant 0.51 (0.35) 1.64 (1.13) 1.65 (1.13)
Firm size (turnover in ln) ñ0.16 (ñ1.22) ñ0.16 (ñ1.24) ñ0.16 (ñ1.23)
Research and development expenditure as a percentage of turnover (ln) 0.15 (1.51) 0.21 (2.12) 0.21 (2.10)
Local labour market (ln) 0.25 (4.04) – –
Cooperation with local suppliers and clients (ln) 0.28 (3.05) 0.25 (2.40) 0.25 (2.37)
Diversified local labour (ln) – 0.18 (2.8) 0.18 (2.85)
Specialized local labour (ln) – 0.18 (3.02) 0.18 (3.00)
High-technology sector – – ñ0.08 (–0.11)
R2 0.37 0.42 0.42
Number of valid cases 65 63 63

Notes: Dependent variable: degree of innovation (per cent of turnover from sales of new products – last 5 years).
*Student’s t-test is in parentheses.
84 Roberta Capello and Alessandra Faggian
with local suppliers is significant with a coefficient of firm and different sectoral specialization. The calcula-
0.28 and a Student’s t-test of 3.05 (Table 6, model 1). tion results in the following two equations for Piacenza
Moreover, intra-firm characteristics do not play an and Milan, respectively, are as follows:
important role in Piacenza. Models 2 and 3 show
the results, once the local labour market has been (LI/LCR)Piacenzaó0.02DIM ò 0.12QL (2a)
decomposed into ‘diversified’ and ‘specialized’. Surpris- (LI/LCR)Milanó0.01DIM – 0.27QL (2b)
ingly enough, in Piacenza the specialized component
is significant. Both components, indeed, have the same The equations are shown in Fig. 1 (with a logarithmic
coefficient of 0.18, but the diversified one is statistically scale) for different levels of location quotients.
more significant (around 3.0 in both models). It seems, In the Piacenza area, the importance of the special-
therefore, that in the Piacenza area, specialization11 ized local labour market on innovation becomes
rather than urbanization economies are at work. increasingly more important as the location quotients
increase (Fig. 1a). It seems reasonable that firms
belonging to more specialized sectors can exploit the
Relational capital and innovation activity: a comparison specialized local labour market more efficiently to
between firm size and sectoral specialization increase their innovation. Moreover, as shown in Fig.
The last aspect to be considered is how the size of a 1a, the larger the firm, the better it can exploit the
firm and the degree of specialization of a sector can local labour market.
affect the effectiveness of relational capital in fostering In Milan, conversely, the capacity to exploit the
innovation. The following model has been estimated diversified local labour market decreases as the location
separately for Milan and Piacenza to analyse the quotients increase. Firms belonging to less specialized
problem: sectors can exploit better the ‘variety’ of the local
labour market. They localize in the Milan area to
IóaòbDIMòcCR*DIMòdCR*QLòe (1) exploit a wider pool of potential employees with
where I is the degree of innovation of a firm, DIM is differentiated characteristics and abilities.12 Moreover,
the size of a firm (turnover), CR is relational capital as in the previous case, the larger the firm, the better
(local labour market) and QL is the sectoral location it can exploit the relational capital. As shown in Fig. 1b,
quotient. location quotients being equal, larger firms exploit
As proxy for the relational capital (CR), the most better the diversified local labour market.
significant variable in the regressions presented above Similar results are presented in Fig. 2 (with a logarith-
is chosen, i.e. the diversified local labour market mic scale), where equations (2a) and (2b) were calcu-
in Milan and the specialized local labour market in lated for different location quotients. The importance
Piacenza. The results of the estimation of equation (1) of relational capital on innovation increases as size
are presented in Table 7. increases in both Milan and Piacenza. The difference
Differentiating equation (1) with respect to size is that, given a certain firm’s dimensions, the impor-
(DIM) and the location quotient (QL), it is possible tance of relational capital increases with location
to evaluate the effect of relational capital on innovative quotients in Piacenza (specialization economies) and
capacity of a firm for different dimensional levels of a decreases in Milan (urbanization economies).

CONCLUSIONS AND POTENTIAL


Table 7. Interaction among relational capital, firm size and
FURTHER DEVELOPMENTS
location quotients
The aim of this paper was to present a theoretical and
Variable Piacenza Milan
empirical analysis of the role of relational capital on
Constant ñ1.38 1.19 innovation activity. Relational capital – in the sense of
(ñ0.84) (0.88) the capacity of interaction among local actors due to a
DIM (turnover in ln) ñ0.03 ñ0.16
(ñ0.20) (ñ1.3) strong sense of belonging and a close cultural prox-
CR (division of local labour ñ 0.01 imity – is, indeed, the basis for local collective learning.
market)*SIZE (2.22) From a theoretical point of view, the paper focused
CR (division local labour market)*LQ ñ ñ0.27 on the differences between the industrial economists
(1.8) and regional economists in defining the local externali-
CR (specialization of local labour 0.02 ñ
market)*SIZE (3.39) ties generated by innovation activity referred to as
CR (specialization of local labour 0.12 ñ ‘knowledge spillovers’. Regional economists have the
market)*LQ (1.5) benefit of having defined the channels through which
R2 0.22 0.14 knowledge spills over space and of having introduced
Number of valid cases 63 59 the concept of relational space – rather than the purely
Note: Dependent variable: degree of innovation. physical one – as the key to understand collective
LQ, location quotient. learning.
Collective Learning and Relational Capital in Local Innovation Processes 85

Fig. 2. Role of sectoral specialization: (a) Piacenza and Fig. 3. Role of firm size: (a) Piacenza and (b) Milan
(b) Milan
opening the spillovers ‘black box’ and testing empiri-
From an empirical point of view, the paper shows cally some very abstract concepts, further developments
the importance of relational capital on the innovative can be added in the future. First, additional indicators
capacity of firms. The presence of relational capital is looking at different aspects of relational capital can be
measured indirectly via the collective learning channels, devised and used to test the consistency of the results.
which are believed here to represent the contents of Further, a second round of interviews with local cor-
the knowledge spillovers ‘black box’. porate decision-makers and industry-watchers could
Identifying the mechanisms through which know- provide a deeper understanding of some more general
ledge spills over the space is not only important from local socio-cultural factors that are strictly linked with
a theoretical point of view, but also it is fundamental the concept of relational capital.
when formulating useful and effective policies. As
A (1996, p. 139) underlines, NOTES
although knowledge spillovers between firms play a
1. On the concept of ‘social capital’, see P (1993),
critical role in the evolution technology little is known
G and V B (2001) and S
about such spillovers. . . . By understanding the mecha-
(2002).
nisms and determinants of knowledge flows, company
2. In this respect, we refer to the contrasting empirical
managers and public policy makers can influence know-
results traditionally obtained by industrial economists on
ledge diffusion more effectively.
the role of the physical dimension of firms on innovative
Underlining the crucial role of the local labour activity (e.g. A and A, 1993; L
market as a channel for spreading knowledge, the and S, 1991; S-L, 1986;
present paper shows how important it is for the govern- P et al., 1987; R, 1989).
3. When dealing with knowledge spillovers, we refer to
ment to implement policies that both improve the
J (1989) as a seminal work, followed by, among
quality of local labour market and foster the mobility others: A et al. (1994), dealing with the capacity of
of highly trained employees. large versus small firms to exploit knowledge spillovers;
Lastly, policies to encourage cooperation with local A and F (1996) and F and
suppliers and customers should be implemented, since A (1999), dealing with the importance of
both are important to the innovative capacity of firms. diversified versus specialized knowledge spillovers; and
Although the paper represents a first attempt in A et al. (2000), dealing with the definition of
86 Roberta Capello and Alessandra Faggian
the physical distance over which knowledge spillovers still believe that the results of our empirical analysis are
disappear. For a recent review on the role of knowledge sound and shed light on the main relationships of interest.
spillovers on regional development, see D G et al. 8. This is not surprising since Cadore is an industrial
(2001). district.
4. On the relationship between relational capital and 9. See the end of the section entitled ‘Areas of analysis’.
innovation, see C (1991), K and W- 10. This result is in line with A and K (1999),
 (1999, 2000), L and L (1999), who found that interfirm mobility of engineers in the
and C and C (2002). For the concept semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley indeed influ-
of organizational and cultural proximity, see also the enced the local transfer of knowledge among patent
French school on ‘la proximité’ (e.g. R, 1993). holders.
5. Both belonging to the same or to a different sector. 11. Although the terms ‘specialization economies’ and
6. High-technology sectors include: electronics, informa- ‘urbanization economies’ are well known in urban eco-
tion technology, telecommunications, and electric and nomics, note that for specialization economies, we mean
optical machinery economies external to the firm but internal to the sector,
7. The trade-off between the collection of primary data while urbanization economies are external to both the
and sample size is well known to every applied researcher, firm and the sector. The latter arise from the fact that
but it was fundamental for our research purpose not to they are located in a big city.
rely on simple secondary data, but to collect data directly. 12. This is a typical advantage offered by large cities and
Given this choice, the number of observations in our is part of what regional economists call ‘urbanization
sample seems reasonable. Although we are aware that a economies’. For an empirical analysis on urban milieu
much larger sample would obviously be preferable, we effects, see C (2001).

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