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The dynamics of technological learning

By looking more closely at the processes of technological learning in companies, we observe a cumulative dynamic over time, collective and specific to each company. Moreover, the histories of the companies indicate that these learnings are discontinuous in time.

All the case studies of work in companies agree in showing the importance of common knowledge among workers around a piece of equipment or an assembly line.

There are production workshops where the workers use little formal knowledge, with fairly low levels of education, but where they quite easily ensure the link between their tasks and the instructions issued by the foremen and technicians.

In the context of countries with few technicians, workers from rural areas, a workforce from the workshops of craft businesses, very satisfactory levels of mastery of manufacturing processes are obtained in assembly lines and of production, including capital-intensive companies.

We also observe the introduction of standardized manufacturing processes, where the relations between the technicians who operate the machines and those who produce them on a regular basis are intense, even if they are limited in time and frequency.

In China, we also had to follow on several occasions Western technicians presenting new processes to teams of Chinese workers and foremen who did not speak a word of English. On the other hand, everyone participated in setting up the production line with relative ease.

These field studies revealed a distributed collective knowledge where the workshop was itself a collective actor, an idea clearly described by work sociology studies (Jacot, 1984; Ruffier, 1989; Villavicencio, 1989) around the idea of technical solidarity

John Ruffier (1996) proposes to speak of a productive system to designate this collective which will extend beyond the borders of the company, because it includes commercial, technical, contractual and other links, such as those of friendship or , at a minimum, professional solidarity.

These links, which are forged during the installation of equipment, for example, can play an essential role in the rapid and efficient operation and repair of this equipment (INIDET, 1998, 2002).

Thus, the collective nature extends not only to the members of the group of workers defined by the company within the organizational boundaries but to all the actors who are in solidarity relations at the time of the implementation of the technologies. and which are prolonged in their maintenance.

We must therefore emphasize the importance of the time dimension: learning takes place discontinuously in the life of the production units, for example during the installation of new equipment, the increase in the production capacity of a workshop and the moving or relocation of a production workshop, as D. Sahal (1981) had already pointed out in a pioneering work.

These are times when learning is intense and strong links can be forged between producers and holders of technical knowledge; while these tasks are accomplished, the productive collective is put in place.

The knowledge held by the producers in a workshop is therefore always specific to a given piece of equipment; it is knowledge specific no longer to the company but to a particular social group within the company and in external relations.

This construction of knowledge over time ensures a solid productive capacity: it is forged in fits and starts, around the equipment and its use by the group; knowledge does not aggregate in a homogeneous way and does not form continuous paths.

Thus, companies can remain for long periods without new inputs or, on the contrary, introduce a large quantity of novelties in short periods.

The workshop can also give rise to more informal learning when the workers and foremen, to guarantee production, have to “record” the particularity of a knack or a “curious” action on the equipment.

What we want to point out here is that the case studies agree in pointing out the importance and permanence of learning without being able to point out exactly when the particular moment the group learns. This learning is therefore as much discontinuous as it is collective.

The manufacturing routines in an industrial company are organized by groups who have proven their efficiency. Innovation often consists of breaking effective routines, hence the extreme difficulty of introducing process innovation in workshops and companies (Villavicencio, 1990; Tanguy, 1996).

Finally, technological learning in the workshops consists as much in ensuring the integration of acquired knowledge with pre-existing knowledge as in introducing the novelty itself. In all cases, learning is a form of collective experimentation.

The processes of technological learning

These properties of forms of learning in factories, revealed by empirical study, make it possible to formulate a definition of technological learning as the set of experiences, discontinuous and fragmented, within production systems that allow the development of practices  and knowledge necessary for the operation and maintenance of these systems for companies

These practical and cognitive activities, as we have just pointed out, concern the way of producing, the definition of the product, the different levels of intervention on the equipment.

They concern the search for information on technological alternatives, the negotiation of technology, the adaptation of technologies through the adaptation of parts and equipment, the development of new products or the adaptation of existing products (formulation or total or part of a product, new or improved product design, copy or reproduction), the design of new or improved processes.

Moreover, when it exists, R&D in companies often plays an essential role, because it performs at least three functions that affect all of these activities: carrying out research projects aimed at developing and improving products or processes.

Carry out part of the technological watch of the company, provide support for production and marketing and, in most cases, provide a liaison function between internal concerns, linked to the improvement of production, and concerns arising from the market or apprehension of technology in contexts other than that of one’s own company.

Some of these activities are aimed at consolidating the human potential of the company to master its equipment and this translates into a consolidation of information research, engineering, R&D services, in short functions less linked to production and further upstream, sometimes even in the design of the investment project.

Training can also be part of these activities, although we have noticed that in the majority of companies, technical training is above all on-the-job training, with training often reserved for managers or technicians for collateral tasks. management (management) and learning foreign languages.

Similarly, the level of initial training of technical staff, for the reasons indicated above, is not a very precise indicator of learning capacities.

Indeed, the main surprise of both surveys and case studies is that a company made up of relatively untrained staff at the start could be particularly efficient and innovative due to the collective construction of skills (Villavicencio and Arvanitis, 1994) , where individual and collective, codified and tacit knowledge are combined.

This paradox has led us to consider that these activities, too quickly qualified as technical, lead companies to establish strong relationships with their environment.

These are links with suppliers, customers, immediate technological partners. These links form a whole system of industrial links and under certain conditions become what Lundvall (1988) calls the micro-foundation of the innovation system.

The nature of these links determines the technological behavior of a company and can lead to cross-learning determinants.

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