The Power of Attention: Examining the Effects of Headquarters Attention to Reverse Knowledge Transfer

  • Bo Jiao

Student thesis: Doctor of Business Administration


My research has aimed to shed light on the role of headquarters (HQ) attention in reverse knowledge transfer (RKT). Subsidiaries in developing economies have been recognised, not only as the recipient of knowledge from their HQs in developed economies, but also as the source of innovation and knowledge for multi-national companies (MNCs). Despite RKT increasingly gaining attention, it is not practised well, in particular from subsidiaries in developing economies to HQs in developed economies. Prior RKT research has highlighted the importance of knowledge characteristics, but has focused on the role of the subsidiary as a ‘persuader’ in selling its knowledge to the HQ (Yang et al., 2008). The importance of subsidiaries does not lead to a less important role for the HQs in RKT; however, little is understood about the role played by HQ attention in the RKT process. By integrating attention theory, and taking the lenses of process (Ambos & Birkinshaw, 2010; Ocasio, 1997; Yaniv, 2011) and knowledge theory (Grant, 1996; Yang et al., 2008), my thesis has expanded attention theory in the context of RKT. More specifically, I have sought to explore how knowledge characteristics (technical fit and legitimacy), interactional factors and HQ attention combine to influence RKT outcomes, and how MNCs benefit over time from HQ attention to RKT. My empirical findings show that HQ attention to RKT is not an object that a MNC can obtain, but is a managerial process that centres on the processes of recognition, legitimation and exploitation. Through these processes, I argue that HQs play an active role in RKT; rather than being solely passive knowledge receivers, they can act as gatekeepers, facilitators, legitimators and learners. Further, my research indicates that knowledge legitimacy plays a more important role than technical fit for RKT, which implies that HQs should pay attention towards not only the knowledge per se, but also the legitimation process in RKT, by developing an appropriate context for accepting and adopting this knowledge. In addition, my study also highlights that HQs may, over time, increase their ability to leverage their subsidiaries’ knowledge, and increase the benefits from doing so through mechanisms such as using expatriate subsidiary heads, co-practice and social interaction between HQs and subsidiaries. Through a single longitudinal case study tracing four RKT events using an ‘abductive’ approach (Timmermans & Tavory, 2012) and combined process data analysis strategies (narrative, temporal bracketing and visual mapping) (Langley & A., 1999) in an 7 American multi-national company over 18 years, my study contributes to knowledge management and attention theory and helps practitioners and policy makers in the field of knowledge in the IB context by providing ‘guidance’ to HQs on how to attend to RKTs.
Date of Award31 Dec 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorJiajia Liu (Supervisor) & Stefania Marino (Supervisor)


  • Reverse Knowledge Transfer; HQ attention; Technical Fit; Knowledge Legitimacy; Legitimation

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