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The role of a single actor in technical innovation and network evolution: An historical analysis of the leather network

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Innovation is often seen as a vital element in the strategy of many companies seeking to differentiate themselves in a world of excesscapacity and wide customer choice. This single-company view of innovation seems to have been based on the assumption that it is possible for an individual company to “turn on” an innovation tap and change the direction of a business. But more recently, the interconnections between business actors, their activities and resources and the complexity of the innovation process have been emphasised. For example, Dosi (1988) discussed the effects on innovation of complex intersectional linkages and Lundgren (1995) and Håkansson and Waluszewski (2002) highlighted how difficult it is to predict the outcomes of any attempt at innovation because of the limitations of actors' “network pictures” (Ford, Gadde, Håkansson & Snehota, 2003) in a business landscape characterised by interdependency, variety and motion (Håkansson, Ford, Gadde, Snehota & Waluszewski, 2009).

But despite the interdependencies between a single business company and its counterparts and the unpredictability and uncontrollability of the innovation process, individual companies still need to seek innovation and at least sometimes, they can play a decisive role in its achievement. This paper centres on the experience of a small UK company working mostly in the USA in the transformation of the network surrounding the production, distribution and use of leather in the late 19th century and which led to the introduction of a new chemistry which was to become the dominant process for the manufacture of all leather to this day. This paper chronicles the evolution of the company, the network and the specific innovations, using correspondence from the company founders and other contemporary sources. It observes the complexities and interactions involved over a tumultuous 25 years.


Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: June 1, 2012

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