From knowledge dependence to knowledge creation: Industrial growth and the technological advance of the Japanese electronics industry: Retrospective

Charles Harvey, M Maclean, Tony Hayward

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


It is two decades since we published our article on the industrial growth and technological advance of the Japanese electronics industry in the Journal of Industrial History (Harvey, Hayward and Maclean, 2001a). Time has been called a ‘mighty sculptor’ (Yourcenar, 1992), and being given the opportunity to reflect back on this study after the passage of so much time has been an interesting, and poignant, exercise. It has proved interesting, because at the time of writing twenty years ago, Japan had become established as a global electronics powerhouse with a commanding presence in each of the three main markets: consumer, industrial and components. The article stemmed from Tony Hayward’s doctoral research and sought to explain how Japanese firms had transitioned from technological laggards in 1945 to technological leaders 50 years later. Under the twin influences of Porter’s (1990) macro study of the Competitive Advantage of Nations and Teece, Pisano and Shuen’s (1997) micro exploration of dynamic capabilities, we put forward a comprehensive macro-micro explanation of Japanese success in developing and exploiting solid state electronics technologies. This entailed close statistical work to demarcate eras and compute rates of growth in different sectors of the industry and synthesizing the work of numerous other scholars such as Fransman, (1995), Nakamura (1995), Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995), Odagiri and Goto (1996) and Fruin (1997). Our original insights stemmed mainly from corporate case studies based on company documents and interviews with executives and United States officials involved in the transfer of technologies and managerial knowledge to Japan in the 1950s. Two main conclusions emerged. First, that the deepening of technological and organizational capabilities in Japan followed from market success and the abundant free cash this generated. Second, that the process of deepening technological capabilities was one based initially on creative imitation and adaptation and then on continuous improvement rather than on disruptive innovations (Harvey, Hayward and Maclean, 2001a; 2001b). These findings hold up well and are consistent with subsequent research and current thinking on technological change and innovation (Arthur, 2009; Nonaka and Takeuchi, 2019). We continue to believe that our interpretation in all essential aspects is sound. Moreover, what has become evident in recent years is that our observation that in the case of Japanese electronics technological deepening was driven by market success, has wider implications for the theory of dynamic capabilities. Put simply, the pre-existence of advanced technological and organizational capabilities do not alone constitute a dynamic capability, as laggards endowed with compelling cost advantages can transition rapidly from technological laggard to leader, as in electronics, first in Japan and then later in Korea and China. We hold that it is only through theoretically sensitive historical analysis that the theory of dynamic capabilities can be rendered more realistic and context sensitive (Suddaby et al., 2019). Reflecting on our study has also proved poignant because our co-author, Tony Hayward, is no longer with us. Tony was a larger-than-life character who lived and breathed all things Japanese. He spoke the language fluently, a rarity in those days amongst the British, as now, and had a Japanese wife, Chizoya. Before completing his doctoral studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, under Charles’s supervision, he had worked as a roadie for Eric Clapton, with whom he had formed a good relationship, and who had given him the corner of his estate in Surrey where Tony had built a beautiful Japanese house and garden. Since completing this research on Japan twenty years ago, our own work has developed in a new direction. Most notably, we have contributed to the burgeoning body of literature that aims to reappraise the place of historical research in organization studies by integrating organizational research with historical approaches and methods (Maclean, Harvey & Clegg, 2016; Maclean, Clegg, Suddaby & Harvey, 2019). This, together with our work on business elites, now forms our principal research area (Maclean, Harvey & Kling, 2014). It is heartening for us that our joint work on the rise of the Japanese electronics industry, which in many ways was a precursor for our later elaboration of historical organization studies, is being given a new lease of life in the present volume. We are grateful to the editors of the present volume for making this happen. Tony would have been delighted. This chapter is dedicated to him.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationKnowledge Management
Subtitle of host publicationDependency, Creation and Loss in Industrial History
EditorsJohn Wilson, Ian Jones, Steven Toms
Place of PublicationLondon
Number of pages32
ISBN (Electronic)9780429059001
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2021

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