Journal of International Business Studies

, Volume 50, Issue 2, pp 250–260 | Cite as

Unintentional, unavoidable, and beneficial knowledge leakage from the multinational enterprise

  • Andrew InkpenEmail author
  • Dana Minbaeva
  • Eric W K Tsang


Knowledge leakage as an undesirable outcome for MNEs is an accepted view in IB literature. We challenge this view and argue that knowledge leakage is often unintentional, unavoidable, and beneficial for the MNE. In a highly networked and information-rich society, knowledge leakage from MNEs (1) happens naturally due to interfirm relationships, interactions, and socialization, (2) is unavoidable due to employee mobility, and (3) facilitates knowledge inflows due to the reciprocity nature of knowledge exchange and hence is beneficial for MNEs. In addition, the costs of protecting knowledge incurred by an MNE will often outweigh the benefits.


knowledge leakage knowledge protection reciprocity 


La fuite de connaissances, en tant que résultat indésirable pour les entreprises multinationales, est un point de vue accepté dans la littérature de l’international business. Nous contestons ce point de vue et considérons que les fuites de connaissances sont souvent involontaires, inévitables et bénéfiques pour les entreprises multinationales. Dans une société très réticulaire et riche en informations, les fuites de connaissances des entreprises multinationales (1) se produisent naturellement en raison des relations, des interactions et de la socialisation entre entreprises, (2) sont inévitables en raison de la mobilité des employés et (3) facilitent les flux de connaissances en raison de la nature réciproque de l’échange de connaissances et, par conséquent, sont bénéfiques pour les entreprises multinationales. En outre, les coûts de protection des connaissances supportés par une entreprise multinationale l’emportent souvent sur les avantages.


La filtración de conocimiento como un resultado indeseable para las empresas multinacionales es un punto de vista aceptado en la literatura de negocios internacionales. Retamos este punto de vista y argumentamos que la filtración de conocimiento es con frecuencia no deliberada, inevitable y beneficiosa para la empresa multinacional. En una sociedad altamente interconectad y rica en información, la filtración de conocimiento de las empresas multinacionales (1) ocurre naturalmente debido a relaciones entre las empresas, interacciones y socialización, (2) es inevitable debido a la movilidad de empleados, y (3) facilita los flujos de conocimiento debido a la naturaleza de reciprocidad del intercambio de conocimiento, y, por ende, es beneficioso para las empresas multinacionales. Además, los costos de proteger el conocimiento incurridos por una empresa multinacional con frecuencia superarán los beneficios.


O vazamento de conhecimento como um resultado indesejável para as MNEs é uma visão aceita na literatura de IB. Nós desafiamos essa visão e argumentamos que o vazamento de conhecimento é muitas vezes não intencional, inevitável e benéfico para a MNE. Em uma sociedade altamente conectada e rica em informação, o vazamento de conhecimento de MNEs (1) acontece naturalmente devido a relações, interações e socialização entre empresas, (2) é inevitável devido à mobilidade de funcionários, e (3) facilita o fluxo para dentro de conhecimento devido à natureza de reciprocidade da troca de conhecimento e, portanto, é benéfico para as MNEs. Além disso, os custos de proteção do conhecimento incorridos por uma MNE geralmente superam os benefícios.


知识泄漏是跨国公司不希望的结果, 这是IB文献中的一个公认观点。我们质疑这一观点, 认为对跨国公司来说知识泄露往往是无意的, 不可避免的, 且是有益的。在高度网络化和信息丰富的社会, 跨国公司的知识泄露(1)自然发生这是因为企业间的关系, 互动和社会化; (2)是由于员工的流动性而不可避免; (3)由于知识交换的互惠性而促进知识流入, 因此对跨国企业有益。另外, 保护跨国公司知识的成本往往会超过收益。



We thank Wolfgang Sofka for helpful comments on the manuscript.


  1. Alcácer, J., & Chung, W. 2007. Location strategies and knowledge spillovers. Management Science, 53(5): 760–776.Google Scholar
  2. Alexy, O., George, G., & Salter, A. J. 2013. Cui bono? The selective revealing of knowledge and its implications for innovative activity. Academy of Management Review, 38(2): 270–291.Google Scholar
  3. Almeida, P., & Kogut, B. 1999. Localization of knowledge and the mobility of engineers in regional networks. Management Science, 45(7): 905–917.Google Scholar
  4. Almeida, P., & Phene, A. 2004. Subsidiaries and knowledge creation: The influence of the MNE and host country on innovation. Strategic Management Journal, 25(8–9): 847–864.Google Scholar
  5. Andersson, U., Forsgren, M., & Holm, U. 2002. The strategic impact of external networks: Subsidiary performance and competence development in the multinational corporation. Strategic Management Journal, 23(11): 979–996.Google Scholar
  6. Argote, L., & Ingram, P. 2000. Knowledge transfer: A basis for competitive advantage in firms. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 82(1): 150–169.Google Scholar
  7. Awanis, S., Schlegelmilch, B., & Cui, C. 2017. Asia materialists: Reconciling collectivism and materialism. Journal of International Business Studies, 48(8): 964–991.Google Scholar
  8. Awate, S., Larsen, M. M., & Mudambi, R. 2015. Accessing vs sourcing knowledge: A comparative study of R&D internationalization between emerging and advanced economy firms. Journal of International Business Studies, 46(1): 63–86.Google Scholar
  9. Becker, G. 1964. Human capital. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Berry, H. 2013. When do firms divest foreign operations? Organization Science, 24(1): 246–261.Google Scholar
  11. Berry, H. 2014. Global integration and innovation: Multicountry knowledge generation within MNEs. Strategic Management Journal, 35(6): 869–890.Google Scholar
  12. Bouty, I. 2000. Interpersonal and interaction influences on informal resource exchanges between R&D researchers across organizational boundaries. Academy of Management Journal, 43(1): 50–65.Google Scholar
  13. Cassiman, B., & Veugelers, R. 2002. R&D cooperation and spillovers: Some empirical evidence from Belgium. American Economic Review, 92(4): 1169–1184.Google Scholar
  14. Cheyre, C., Klepper, S., & Veloso, F. 2014. Spinoffs and the mobility of US merchant semiconductor inventors. Management Science, 61(3): 487–506.Google Scholar
  15. Colakoglu, S., Yamao, S., & Lepak, D. P. 2014. Knowledge creation capability in MNE subsidiaries: Examining the roles of global and local knowledge inflows and subsidiary knowledge stocks. International Business Review, 23(1): 91–101.Google Scholar
  16. de Faria, P., & Sofka, W. 2010. Knowledge protection strategies of multinational firms: A cross-country comparison. Research Policy, 39(7): 956–968.Google Scholar
  17. Ding, X. H., Huang, R. H., & Liu, D. L. 2012. Resource allocation for open and hidden learning in learning alliances. Asia Pacific Journal of Management, 29(1): 103–127.Google Scholar
  18. Duhigg, C., & Lohr, S. 2012. The patent, used as a sword. New York Times, October 7,
  19. Easterby-Smith, M., Lyles, M. A., & Tsang, E. W. K. 2008. Inter-organizational knowledge transfer: Current themes and future prospects. Journal of Management Studies, 45: 677–690.Google Scholar
  20. Ganco, M. 2013. Cutting the Gordian knott: The effect of knowledge complexity on employee mobility and entrepreneurship. Strategic Management Journal, 34(6): 666–686.Google Scholar
  21. Gouldner, A. W. 1960. The norm of reciprocity: A preliminary statement. American Sociological Review, 25(2): 161–178.Google Scholar
  22. Grant, R. M. 1996. Toward a knowledge-based theory of the firm. Strategic Management Journal, 17(special issue): 109–122.Google Scholar
  23. Grillitsch, M., & Nilsson, M. 2017. Firm performance in the periphery: On the relation between firm-internal knowledge and local knowledge spillovers. Regional Studies, 51(8): 1219–1231.Google Scholar
  24. Gulati, R., & Singh, H. 1998. The architecture of cooperation: Managing coordination and appropriation concerns in strategic alliances. Administrative Science Quarterly, 43: 781–814.Google Scholar
  25. Hall, B. H., & Ziedonis, R. H. 2001. The patent paradox revisited: An empirical study of patenting in the US semiconductor industry, 1979–1995. RAND Journal of Economics, 32(1): 101–128.Google Scholar
  26. Hamel, G. 1991. Competition for competence and inter-partner learning within international strategic alliances. Strategic Management Journal, 12(special issue): 83–104.Google Scholar
  27. Heiman, B. A., & Nickerson, J. A. 2004. Empirical evidence regarding the tension between knowledge sharing and knowledge expropriation in collaborations. Managerial and Decision Economics, 25(6–7): 401–420.Google Scholar
  28. Hertzfeld, H. R., Link, A. N., & Vonortas, N. S. 2006. Intellectual property protection mechanisms in research partnerships. Research Policy, 35(6): 825–838.Google Scholar
  29. Inkpen, A. C. 2000. Learning through joint ventures: A framework of knowledge acquisition. Journal of Management Studies, 37(7): 1019–1043.Google Scholar
  30. Inkpen, A. C. 2008. Knowledge transfer and international joint ventures: The case of NUMMI and General Motors. Strategic Management Journal, 29(4): 447–453.Google Scholar
  31. Inkpen, A. C., & Beamish, P. W. 1997. Knowledge, bargaining power and international joint venture stability. Academy of Management Review, 22(1): 177–202.Google Scholar
  32. Jiang, X., Li, M., Gao, S., Bao, Y., & Jiang, F. 2013. Managing knowledge leakage in strategic alliances: The effects of trust and formal contracts. Industrial Marketing Management, 42(6): 983–991.Google Scholar
  33. Jones, C., Hesterly, W. S., & Borgatti, S. P. 1997. A general theory of network governance: Exchange conditions and social mechanisms. Academy of Management Review, 22(4): 911–945.Google Scholar
  34. Kale, P., Singh, H., & Perlmutter, H. 2000. Learning and protection of proprietary assets in strategic alliances: Building relational capital. Strategic Management Journal, 21(3): 217–237.Google Scholar
  35. Kalnins, A., & Chung, W. 2004. Resource-seeking agglomeration: A study of market entry in the lodging industry. Strategic Management Journal, 25(7): 689–699.Google Scholar
  36. Khanna, T., Gulati, R., & Nohria, N. 1998. The dynamics of learning alliances: Competition, cooperation, and relative scope. Strategic Management Journal, 19(3): 193–210.Google Scholar
  37. Kim, J. Y. R., & Steensma, H. K. 2017. Employee mobility, spin-outs, and knowledge spill-in: How incumbent firms can learn from new ventures. Strategic Management Journal, 38(8): 1626–1645.Google Scholar
  38. Kogut, B., & Zander, U. 1993. Knowledge of the firm and the evolutionary theory of the multinational corporation. Journal of International Business Studies, 24(4): 625–645.Google Scholar
  39. Kupfer, J. 1987. Privacy, autonomy, and self-concept. American Philosophical Quarterly, 24(1): 81–89.Google Scholar
  40. Larson, A. 1992. Network dyads in entrepreneurial settings: A study of the governance of exchange relationships. Administrative Science Quarterly, 37(1): 76–104.Google Scholar
  41. Laursen, K., & Salter, A. 2006. Open for innovation: the role of openness in explaining innovation performance among UK manufacturing firms. Strategic Management Journal, 27(2): 131–150.Google Scholar
  42. Lerner, J. 1995. Patenting in the shadow of competitors. Journal of Law and Economics, 38(2): 463–495.Google Scholar
  43. Li, D., Eden, L., Hitt, M. A., & Ireland, R. D. 2008. Friends, acquaintances, or strangers? Partner selection in R&D alliances. Academy of Management Journal, 51(2): 315–334.Google Scholar
  44. Liebeskind, J. P. 1997. Keeping organizational secrets: Protective institutional mechanisms and their costs. Industrial and Corporate Change, 6(3): 623–663.Google Scholar
  45. Madhok, A., & Tallman, S. B. 1998. Resources, transactions and rents: managing value through interfirm collaborations. Organization Science, 9(3): 326–339.Google Scholar
  46. Matusik, S. F., & Hill, C. W. L. 1998. The utilization of contingent work, knowledge creation and competitive advantage. Academy of Management Review, 23(4): 680–697.Google Scholar
  47. Meyer, K. E., Mudambi, R., & Narula, R. 2011. Multinational enterprises and local contexts: The opportunities and challenges of multiple embeddedness. Journal of Management Studies, 48(2): 235–252.Google Scholar
  48. Minbaeva, D., & Collings, D. 2013. Seven myths of global talent management. International Journal of Human Resource Management, 24(9): 1762–1776.Google Scholar
  49. Minbaeva, D., & Santangelo, G. 2018. Boundary spanners and knowledge sharing in MNE: The individual perspective. Global Strategy Journal, 8(2): 220–241.Google Scholar
  50. Monteiro, F., Mol, M., & Birkinshaw, J. 2017. Ready to be open? Explaining the firm level barriers to benefiting from openness to external knowledge. Long Range Planning, 50(2): 282–295.Google Scholar
  51. Morley, M., Minbaeva, D., & Michailova, S. 2016. The transition states of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. In C. Brewster & W. Mayrhofer (Eds), Handbook of research in comparative human resource management (2nd ed.): 550–575. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.Google Scholar
  52. Oxley, J. E., & Sampson, R. C. 2004. The scope and governance of international R&D alliances. Strategic Management Journal, 25(8–9): 723–749.Google Scholar
  53. Perri, A., & Andersson, U. 2014. Knowledge outflows from foreign subsidiaries and the tension between knowledge creation and knowledge protection: Evidence from the semiconductor industry. International Business Review, 23(1): 63–75.Google Scholar
  54. Perri, A., & Peruffo, E. 2016. Knowledge spillovers from FDI: A critical review from the international business perspective. International Journal of Management Reviews, 18(1): 3–27.Google Scholar
  55. Pudelko, M., & Harzing, A. 2007. Country-of-origin, localization, or dominance effect? An empirical investigation of HRM practices in foreign subsidiaries. Human Resource Management, 46(4): 535–559.Google Scholar
  56. Reagans, R., & McEvily, B. 2003. Network structure and knowledge transfer: The effects of cohesion and range. Administrative Science Quarterly, 48(2): 240–267.Google Scholar
  57. Rich, B. R., & Janos, L. 1996. Skunk works: A personal memoir of my years of Lockheed. Boston, MA: Little Brown & Company.Google Scholar
  58. Sampson, R. C. 2004. Organizational choice in R&D alliances: Knowledge-based and transaction cost perspectives. Managerial and Decision Economics, 25(6–7): 421–436.Google Scholar
  59. Schotter, A., & Teagarden, M. 2014. Protecting intellectual property in China. MIT Sloan Management Review, 55(4): 41–48.Google Scholar
  60. Schrader, S. 1991. Informal technology transfer between firms: Cooperation through information trading. Research Policy, 20(2): 153–170.Google Scholar
  61. Shaver, J. M., & Flyer, F. 2000. Agglomeration economies, firm heterogeneity, and foreign direct investment in the United States. Strategic Management Journal, 21(12): 1175–1193.Google Scholar
  62. Shih, W., & Wang, J. C. 2013. Will our partner steal our IP? Harvard Business Review, 91(1): 137–141.Google Scholar
  63. Shirouzu, N. 2010. Train makers rail against China’s high-speed designs. Wall Street Journal, November 17,
  64. Singh, J. 2007. Asymmetry of knowledge spillovers between MNEs and host country firms. Journal of International Business Studies, 38(5): 764–786.Google Scholar
  65. Singh, J. 2008. Distributed R&D, cross-regional knowledge integration and quality of innovative output. Research Policy, 37(1): 77–96.Google Scholar
  66. Sofka, W., Preto, M., & de Faria, P. 2014. MNE subsidiary closures: What is the value of employees’ human capital in new jobs? Journal of International Business Studies, 45(6): 723–750.Google Scholar
  67. Somaya, D., & Williamson, I. 2011. Embracing turnover: Moving beyond the “war for talent”. In D. Collings & H. Scullion (Eds), Global talent management: 74–86. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  68. Somaya, D., Williamson, I., & Lorinkova, N. 2008. Gone but not lost: The different performance impacts of employee mobility between cooperators versus competitors. Academy of Management Journal, 51(5): 936–953.Google Scholar
  69. Takalo, T., & Kanniainen, V. 2000. Do patents slow down technological progress? Real options in research, patenting, and market introduction. International Journal of Industrial Organization, 18(7): 1105–1127.Google Scholar
  70. Teece, D. J. 2014. A dynamic capabilities-based entrepreneurial theory of the multinational enterprise. Journal of International Business Studies, 45(1): 8–37.Google Scholar
  71. Teigland, R., & Wasko, M. M. 2003. Integrating knowledge through information trading: Examining the relationship between boundary spanning communication and individual performance. Decision Sciences, 34(2): 261–286.Google Scholar
  72. von Hippel, E. 1987. Cooperation between rivals: Informal know-how trading. Research Policy, 16(6): 291–302.Google Scholar
  73. von Hippel, E. 1988. The sources of innovation. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  74. Williamson, O. E. 1975. Markets and hierarchies: Analysis and antitrust implications. New York: Free Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Academy of International Business 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Andrew Inkpen
    • 1
    Email author
  • Dana Minbaeva
    • 2
  • Eric W K Tsang
    • 3
  1. 1.Thunderbird School of Global ManagementArizona State UniversityGlendaleUSA
  2. 2.Copenhagen Business SchoolFrederiksbergDenmark
  3. 3.Naveen Jindal School of ManagementUniversity of Texas at DallasRichardsonUSA

Personalised recommendations