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Connections to distant knowledge: Interpersonal ties between more- and less-developed countries

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Abstract

Less-developed countries benefit from being connected to technologically and economically advanced countries. The well-documented mechanisms for this cross-national flow of knowledge all involve interfirm connections, such as trade, foreign direct investment (FDI), and alliances. We examine the potential of a different mechanism – interpersonal ties abroad – that has only recently become practicable, owing to advances in communication and transportation technologies, globalization, and increased migration. We investigate when business knowledge obtained from interpersonal ties in more-developed countries is more useful than locally sourced knowledge. Using a sample of South African managers, we find that knowledge from more-developed countries is not always more useful. Rather, overseas knowledge is preferable when novel and accessible: that is, when new-to-the-industry knowledge is needed, when there is already a strong tie, and when the knowledge does not involve a long discussion. Conversely, local knowledge is preferable when new-to-the-industry knowledge is not needed, when the interpersonal tie is a weak tie, and when a longer discussion is warranted. This study demonstrates the value of connections between individuals in countries at different levels of development as sources of useful knowledge, and suggests that international business research will benefit from exploring further the networks of individuals in addition to those of firms.

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Acknowledgements

The authors wish to thank Peter Enderwick, Kati Glac, Flocki Taeube, and Jorge Walter for advice and assistance. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2011 Academy of Management meetings, San Antonio, TX.

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Correspondence to Daniel Z Levin.

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Accepted by Mary Yoko Brannen, Deputy Editor, and Paul Almeida, Area Editor, 25 April 2013. This paper has been with the authors for three revisions.

APPENDIX

APPENDIX

Survey Items

Receipt of useful knowledge

(1) Overall contribution to your performance on your work project. (2) Overall contribution to the success of your work project. (3) Overall contribution to helping you deliver a better work project. (1=contributed very negatively; 2=contributed negatively; 3=contributed somewhat negatively; 4=contributed neither positively nor negatively; 5=contributed somewhat positively; 6=contributed positively; 7=contributed very positively.) Note: If the project that you identified is ongoing, then answer the questions based on the help that the person has given you so far. [Average of three items, Cronbach’s α=0.89.]

Respondent’s age

Year born [recoded as years until survey date].

Respondent’s gender

0=female; 1=male.

Respondent’s race

[Gauged by instructor, coded as 0=Black, Coloured, Indian, or Other; 1=White.]

Respondent’s job tenure

Number of years in specific organization you work for [recoded as logarithm of: months (+ 1)].

Respondent’s industry tenure

Number of years in industry [recoded as logarithm of: months (+ 1)].

Respondent’s org. size in home country

Approximate number of people employed by your organization (i.e., size) in South Africa? [Adjusted by instructor based on external data, recoded as logarithm of: number of employees + 1.]

Respondent’s org. size outside home country

Approximate number of people employed by your organization (i.e., size) worldwide excluding South Africa? [Adjusted by instructor based on external data, recoded as logarithm of: number of employees + 1.]

Percentage of workday spent on project

On average, what percentage of a normal work day do you spend on this work project?

New-to-respondent skills needed

To what extent does this project demand skills, knowledge, and/or expertise that are new for you personally? (1=not at all; 7=to a very large extent)

New-to-the-industry skills needed

To what extent does this project demand skills, knowledge, and/or expertise that are new for your industry? (1=not at all; 7=to a very large extent)

Respondent identifies with home country

(1) Being associated with South Africa (the country) is important to me; (2) Being associated with South Africans (as a group) is important to me. (1=strongly disagree; 2=disagree; 3=somewhat disagree; 4=neutral; 5=somewhat agree; 6=agree; 7=strongly agree) [Average of two items, Cronbach’s α=0.72.]

Tie abroad

(0=South African living and working in South Africa; 1=South African living and working abroad)

Contact’s gender

What is each person’s gender? (0=female; 1=male)

Contact’s race

What is each person’s race? [Recoded as 0=Black, Coloured, Indian, or Asian; 1=White.]

Same race

[Calculated as 0=different race; 1=same race as respondent.]

Same gender

[Calculated as 0=different gender; 1=same gender as respondent.]

Same age

What is each person’s age? (younger than me by 5+ years; my age plus or minus 5 years; older than me by 5+ years; don’t know) [Recoded as 0=different age; 1=same age as respondent.]

Communication mode richness

Estimate how much you used each communication mode (in percentages, adding up to 100%) to interact with each person: in person [multiplied by weighting of 4] + phone [multiplied by 3] + IM [multiplied by 2] + email [multiplied by 1]; Other (please specify) [recoded “Skype” (n=1) and “conference call” (n=1) as phone; “Facebook” as half IM and half email (n=4); and “fax” (n=1) as email]. [Variable calculated as weighted sum; weightings are consistent with results of MDS constrained to a single dimension.]

Similar time zone

Type in each person’s current location (country). [Countries coded as 0=North America or Oceania; 1=Europe, Israel, or South Africa.]

Contact identifies with home country

If I were to estimate, I would say that… (1) Being associated with South Africa (the country) is important to this person; (2) Being associated with South Africans (as a group) is important to this person. (1=strongly disagree; [etc.]; 7=strongly agree) [Average of two items, Cronbach’s α=0.85.]

People in common

You and this person are in contact with the same people (i.e., you two have interpersonal networks that completely overlap). (1=not at all; 7=to a very large extent)

Shared perspective

You and this person share the same perspective (e.g., thinking alike, similar goals, understanding each other’s language/jargon) (1=strongly disagree; [etc.]; 7=strongly agree)

Nonrelated time spent

If you were to add it up, about how much time did you spend … (1) Tracking down this person? (2) Talking with this person about things unrelated to your project (during discussions where your project was discussed)? (in minutes) [Recoded as logarithm of: tracking minutes+unrelated minutes + 1.]

Related time spent

If you were to add it up, about how much time did you spend … Consulting with this person concerning your project? (in minutes) [Recoded as logarithm of: minutes + 1.]

Tie strength

You and this person have the following relationship with each other (0=new (initiated for assignment); 1=distant; 2=in-between; 3=extremely close)

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Levin, D., Barnard, H. Connections to distant knowledge: Interpersonal ties between more- and less-developed countries. J Int Bus Stud 44, 676–698 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1057/jibs.2013.28

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