Fans of the TV series Star Trek will remember the Borg – cybernetic beings from the Delta Quadrant of space whose aim is to attain perfection by forcibly assimilating other species into their ‘Collective’. Their catchphrase (so to speak) is ‘Resistance is futile’.
The Borg had extensive absorptive capacity – the ability to recognise and successfully assimilate new information. Although misused by the Borg, absorptive capacity is a valuable asset to any company or organisation. Because resistance to change is, indeed, futile, absorptive capacity is vital to successful change management.
A bit of history
Although the identification of absorptive capacity can arguably be traced to Joseph Alois Schumpeter, a professor of economics at Harvard University from 1932, it was Wesley M. Cohen and Daniel A. Levinthal who gave it greater prominence in an article in Administrative Science Quarterly in 1990. They related it to a company’s investment in R&D while later, Shaker A. Zahra and Gerard George in a 2002 article in The Academy of Management Review, expanded absorptive capacity (ACAP) to include potential absorptive capacity and realized absorptive capacity.
Potential absorptive capacity (PACAP)
In simple terms, this means an organisation has recruited and trained people who will seek out ideas and innovations. Also, that the organisation has a culture of enquiry and processes for new ideas to be considered carefully and thoughtfully.
Realized absorptive capacity (RACAP)
Again, in very simple terms, RACAP is the ability of an organisation to incorporate and exploit new knowledge – often referred to as facilitation.
In an article entitled Getting evidence into practice: the role and function of facilitation (J Adv Nurs. 2002 Mar;37(6):577-88), Harvey G. et al proposed that ‘facilitation can be represented as a set of continua, with the purpose of facilitation ranging from a discrete task-focused activity to a more holistic process of enabling individuals, teams and organizations to change.’
Why (we think) facilitation works: insights from organizational learning theory, an article by Whitney Berta et al (Implement Sci. 2015; 10: 141.) states, ‘In health care, facilitation empowers staff closest to care processes to change care practice. These staff members are often underutilized in identifying work problems and improvement efforts. Facilitation equips staff with the skills and self-efficacy to act in resolving problems, by accessing and leveraging their potential or latent absorptive capacity at the unit level.’
Mobilizing Knowledge in Healthcare: Challenges for Management and Organization, edited by Jacky Swan et al, explored the absorptive capacity of commissioners with responsibilities for healthcare services planning and budgets. Of the critical organisational capabilities to build ACAP, coordination capabilities were identified as especially important.
How good is the NHS?
In a report by the Nuffield Trust entitled Falling short: Why the NHS is still struggling to make the most of new innovations, published in December 2017, the authors referred to Doblin’s 10 types of innovation model stating that it ‘recommends de-emphasising reliance on products and technology in favour of changing the customer experience and the operating or business model’ before going on to say ‘But this requires adaptive leadership and processes, usually across departments and sectors. Essentially it is the organisation’s ‘absorptive capacity’ to use the innovation effectively. In the NHS, siloed working has eroded the ability for leaders to effectively ‘boundary span’ and to change pathways across departments and organisations.’
And now the conclusion
Absorptive capacity is one of the many aspects of the process of change. To be successful and sustained, the process of change requires dedicated management. Rarely is the time and expertise available for this to take place in-house. Hence my role as a change management consultant within the healthcare sector. Where change management is concerned, my mission is to boldly go or should that be go boldly?
Get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss your change management requirements.