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J PROD INNOV MANAG 2016;33(1):69–89
© 2015 Product Development & Management Association
DOI: 10.1111/jpim.12261
Product Life-Cycle Management and Distributor Contribution
to New Product Development*
Mariachiara Restuccia, Ulrike de Brentani, Renaud Legoux, and Jean-François Ouellet
After the initial launch of a new product, distributors are frequently among the first to learn about product-related
problems through the information they get about how it is perceived and used by customers, and how it might be
improved or adapted for broader market coverage. For producers, such information, which has the potential to impact
new product development (NPD) activities during the product life-cycle management (PLM) phase that follows launch,
can be decisive for ensuring the continued viability of the product in the medium to longer term. The goal of this article
is to better understand how distributors contribute to producer PLM activities by engaging in product-related
information processing. A typology of four distinct scenarios is developed by integrating three conceptual themes:
organizational information processing, dynamic capabilities, and task complexity. Each scenario results from the
interplay of the distributor’s level (low/high) of capability—specifically, a combination of information coordination and
management of interorganization relations—and of the degree (low/high) of complexity of the product-related problem.
The four scenarios are analyzed and described in terms of NPD-related information processing. According to the
typology, distributors act as “problem informers” (low capability/high complexity), “solution advisors” (low
capability/low complexity), “solution implementers” (high capability/low complexity), or “solution managers” (high
capability/high complexity). Fourteen in-depth interviews with distributors and producers in industrial goods provide
empirical evidence for the analysis, description, and support of each scenario. The article contributes to NPD by
shedding light on the role of distributors in terms of incremental innovation in the context of PLM. Developers of new
products can use the typology in planning for distributor involvement in PLM activities; distributors can use it to map
out their current and future level of engagement in PLM-related activities.
Introduction
A
fter a new product is launched, distributors are
at the forefront to inform producers about
problems they identify through the feedback
they receive from customers about product usage, need
for technical support, requests for modifications or
customization, and information about competitor
advances (Crawford and Di Benedetto, 2011; Mudambi
and Aggarwal, 2003). Such product-related information
is potentially of value for producers during the decisive
product life-cycle management (PLM) phase that follows
new product launch. During PLM, producers are typically involved in incremental new product development
(NPD), including modifications, updates, and improvements that ensure the initial viability of the new product
Address correspondence to: Mariachiara Restuccia, Department of
Business and Management, School of Business, Management and Economics, University of Sussex, Brighton BN1 9SL, UK. E-mail: m.restuccia@
sussex.ac.uk. Tel: +44(0)1273678622.
* The authors would like to thank the three anonymous reviewers and
the editor for their advice and suggestions during the revision process. The
authors are grateful to the managers interviewed as part of the research.
and also support its competitive sustainability over the
medium to longer term (Ausura, Gill, and Haines, 2005;
Urban and Hauser, 1993). This type of NPD is extremely
important as is indicated by Cooper (2011), who notes
that close to 40% of new products in the NPD program of
firms entail incremental innovations. Further, the relevance of distributors in this regard has been shown in
Gupta et al. (2009), which notes that top performing
manufacturing companies “obtain new ideas from
channel members and distributors for more than 25% of
their new products” (p. 12). Indeed, evidence presented in
the current article suggests that distributors go beyond the
mere transfer of information about product-related problems or ideas for modifications by actually undertaking or
actively managing such changes. Thus, independent
distributors—including wholesalers, resellers, industrial
distributors, or manufacturer agents—whose primary
function is to make products available for consumption
(Coughlan, Anderson, Stern, and El-Ansary, 2006), can
also be viewed as contributing to NPD through the information they process and the activities they undertake that
are relevant for incremental NPD during PLM. This
supports the contention by Yoon and Lilien (1988) that
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distributors contribute to improving producers’ NPD
process and that companies increasingly make a connection between their innovation program and channel management activities.
A closer look at the PLM literature reveals, however,
that distributors are viewed almost exclusively in terms
of their traditional channel function as intermediary
sales agents (Ausura et al., 2005; Urban and Hauser,
1993), in charge of and a source of information about
sales, shipping, inventory handling, and channel logistics.
Indeed, their role as a source of “product-related” information with the potential to contribute to NPD during
PLM has been largely ignored.1 PLM “best practices” do
not list distributors as a relevant source of product information for producers, but do detail the value of internal
sales personnel or suppliers in this regard (Ausura et al.,
2005; Ernst, Hoyer, and Rübsaamen, 2010; Saaksvuori
and Immonen, 2008). It is important to note that, accord1
Because this article deals with distributor contribution to NPD, as
opposed to their primary function as logistics intermediary, the term
“product-related” activities is used to distinguish between the two sets of
functions. Also, because in this study the product-related information generated by distributors has the potential to impact NPD, “product-related”
and “NPD-related” are used interchangeably.
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCHES
Dr. Mariachiara Restuccia is a lecturer (assistant professor) in marketing
at the School of Business, Management and Economics, University of
Sussex, United Kingdom. She earned her Ph.D. in business administration at HEC Montréal, Canada. Her main research interests include:
new product development, business-to-business (B2B) marketing, the
marketing-finance interface, and arts marketing.
Dr. Ulrike de Brentani is a professor of marketing at John Molson
School of Business, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada, and has
research interests in new product/service development in the businessto-business sector. Current studies deal with global new product development, fuzzy front end of NPD, and market vision for new-to-theworld high-tech products. Her work is published in top journals dealing
with innovation, research, and B2B marketing. She was awarded the
“Thomas P. Hustad Best Paper Award” for the top 2007 article in the
Journal of Product Innovation Management and the “Tudor Rickards
Best Paper Award” for the top 2010 article in Creativity and Innovation
Management.
Dr. Renaud Legoux is an associate professor in the Marketing Department at HEC Montréal, where he is the director of the Master of
Management in Cultural Enterprises. Before his academic career, he
worked as a manager for a professional theater company. His current
research interests include B2B marketing, longitudinal dimensions of
consumer behavior, arts marketing, and sponsorship.
Dr. Jean-François Ouellet is an associate professor in the Marketing
Department at HEC Montréal, where he teaches entrepreneurship and
innovation. He also holds a professorship from the Québec Government
and spends his summers hosting a French-language television show
about entrepreneurship and business.
M. RESTUCCIA ET AL.
ing to the U.S. Census Bureau (2010), industrial sales
through indirect channels outnumber by three-to-one
those involving direct connections. Thus, by focusing
primarily on internal sales personnel, the literature underestimates the relevance of distributors as a source of
information during PLM.
This article addresses this knowledge gap by focusing
on independent distributors as a source of information and
activity relevant to incremental NPD during PLM. The
research adopts a typological approach (Doty and Glick,
1994; George and Bennett, 2005) by which to identify
recurring patterns in a given phenomenon—specifically,
the different ways in which distributors process NPDrelated information—and how these patterns affect a focal
outcome; that is, how distributors contribute to producers’
incremental innovation during PLM. The typology and its
analysis are based on three conceptual themes: organization information processing (OIP), dynamic capabilities,2
and task complexity. According to OIP and dynamic
capabilities theories, knowledge and information
processing are among the key mechanisms by which
firms make sense of their environment and adapt their
processes accordingly (Kleinschmidt, de Brentani, and
Salomo, 2007; Teece, Pisano, and Shuen, 1997). This is
consistent with the primacy of information in NPD as an
element underlying all innovation activity (Moenaert,
Caeldries, Lievens, and Wauters, 2000; Zahay, Griffin,
and Fredericks, 2011) and in channels as an essential
for achieving effective working relationships among
channel members (Anderson and Narus, 1990; Coughlan
et al., 2006). This research proposes that to generate
and process information relevant for NPD during
PLM, distributors deploy two key capabilities: the coordination of relevant information and the management of
interorganization relations. In addition, the typology
incorporates the concept of task complexity as this is
key to the type and extent of information processing
undertaken (Tushman and Nadler, 1978), and to the level
of capability required by firms (Zollo and Winter, 2002)
for dealing with problems. Thus, a two-by-two typology
is proposed where product-related information processing
activities by distributors are described and analyzed in
terms of varying (low/high) levels of information coordination and interorganizational relational capabilities, and
of task complexity.
The typology is supported by evidence from 14
in-depth interviews with managers of North American
industrial manufacturing and distribution firms. Four
2
The authors thank an anonymous reviewer for the suggestion to use
dynamic capabilities theory.
DISTRIBUTOR CONTRIBUTION TO PRODUCT LIFE-CYCLE MANAGEMENT
distinct scenarios of product-related information processing activities carried out by distributors are identified
using the combination of low/high level of capabilities
and task complexity. According to the typology, distributors do not limit themselves to the simple problem
informer function described in the literature, in which
they transmit basic information about product-related
problems to the producer. The research indicates that this
scenario is relevant primarily when distributors have a
low capability level and are faced with product-related
problems of high complexity. According to the typology,
some distributors go beyond simple information transmission and contribute to the actual solution of the
problem. In cases where a basic (low) capability level is
enough to tackle low complexity problems, some distributors act as solution advisors by providing ideas about
how the problem might be addressed. Others—those with
high capability levels—become even more involved: as
solution implementers by actually effecting the product
modification needed to address a simple problem; or as
solution managers by acting as quasi “brokers” between
customer and producer for the purpose of facilitating the
solution to a complex problem. Indeed, according to
recent literature, environmental dynamics in distribution
increasingly call for industrial distributors to go beyond
their traditional role and take on more sophisticated
tasks—such as involvement in NPD as advocated in this
article—in order to provide greater value for customers
and thereby gain a competitive advantage (Mudambi and
Aggarwal, 2003; Olsson, Gadde, and Hulthén, 2013).
The research contributes to both theory and practice
by enriching the extant literature about the channel and
product management interface (Rosenbloom, 2013).
From a scholarly standpoint, the typology adds to the
stream of research on distributor contribution to NPD
(Biemans, 1991; Song and Zhao, 2004; Yoon and Lilien,
1988) by identifying, analyzing, and describing relevant
scenarios in this regard. Further, it responds to the call in
the NPD literature for a better understanding of PLM
(Kahn, Barczak, and Moss, 2006); this, by expanding on
input coming from external channel partners, depending
on their level of capability and on the complexity of the
problem they encounter. Given the importance of incremental innovation in NPD during PLM (Cooper, 2011;
Kahn et al., 2006), the typology offers insights about
distributor activities that contribute to this. From a managerial standpoint, the typology can be useful for distributors in mapping out their level of engagement in productrelated information processing and in planning for the
future in terms of developing more advanced capabilities
and resources in this regard. Producers can use the typol-
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2016;33(1):69–89
71
ogy to identify what type and level of contribution to
expect from distributors, and to decide when and how
distributor input should be integrated as part of the NPD
program during PLM.
Theoretical Framework
PLM consists of the continued NPD activities that take
place after the launch of a new product by which firms
“[change] the features and benefits of the product . . . to
maximize the profits obtainable from the product over its
lifecycle” (PDMA Glossary, 2005, p. 602). These activities lead to product modifications, updates, and improvements over the medium to longer term and, as such, entail
new products that are at the incremental end of the
innovation spectrum (Ausura et al., 2005; Urban and
Hauser, 1993). For producers, PLM involves important
information-processing activities oriented toward changing product features and benefits, including: tracking customer satisfaction or problems, monitoring product
reinventions or changes introduced by competitors, and
observing product usage patterns (Millson and Wilemon,
2002). These activities have in common the issue of identifying and changing the initial new product such that it
remains a viable and competitive entity in the marketplace over its life cycle.
In this article it is argued that, because indirect
channel members perform the role of gatekeeper between
producer and customer (Coughlan et al., 2006), they are
likely to engage in the type of tracking, monitoring, and
observing so important for PLM. Therefore, distributors
may contribute to NPD by identifying product-related
problems or by formulating and/or implementing solutions to these. Because distributors engage in multiple
activities, ranging from gathering customer feedback to
providing technical support, the goal of this research is to
better understand the information processing they undertake that is relevant to PLM. This goal is achieved
through the development of a typology of distributor
information processing activities connected to productrelated problems. Using a typological approach allows
for the identification of “[generalized] pathways through
which particular types [of organizational behaviors]
relate to specific outcomes” (George and Bennett, 2005,
pp. 235–36). Typologies qualify patterns in which differences can be captured by a unique combination of attributes that lead to relevant outcomes (Doty and Glick,
1994). Three conceptual themes provide the building
blocks of the typology: organizational information processing (OIP), dynamic capabilities, and task complexity.
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Organizational information processing (OIP) theory is
a key conceptual theme of this typology because of the
primacy of information to the functioning of both
channels and NPD processes (Coughlan et al., 2006;
Moenaert and Souder, 1990). Thus, distributor contribution to PLM is investigated and analyzed in terms of such
information-processing activities as: information acquisition, interpretation, transmission, storage, retrieval, and
usage (Huber, 1991). But not all distributors demonstrate
the same activity with respect to product-related information processing. In order to capture this variation, the
second conceptual theme underlying the typology is
dynamic capabilities theory, which proposes that firms
develop specific capabilities in order to cope with a
changing environment and to achieve a sustainable
competitive advantage (Teece et al., 1997). Given the
dynamic environment in which industrial distributors
operate (Olsson et al., 2013), their ability to thrive,
indeed survive, has been associated with their ability to
create value through the development of more advanced
levels of market and technical knowledge, as well as
skills in relating with customers, partners, and suppliers
(Mudambi and Aggarwal, 2003). Thus, a key factor in
defining the typology is the dynamic capabilities of
firms—specifically, those involved in coordinating and
combining product-related information and in managing
interorganizational relationships (Kleinschmidt et al.,
2007; Lorenzoni and Lipparini, 1999). The third conceptual theme underlying the typology is the complexity of
the task involved. The extant literature links complexity
to the type and level of information processing undertaken by organizations (Choo, 2002; Tushman and
Nadler, 1978). A higher level of complexity increases
uncertainty and thus calls for greater and deeper information processing by individuals and organizations
(Campbell, 1988; Clark, Abela, and Ambler, 2006). This
link is also relevant in the contexts of NPD (e.g., Kim and
Wilemon, 2003) and dynamic capabilities (e.g., Zollo and
Winter, 2002). Thus, it is expected that organizations
(including distributors) demonstrate different patterns of
information processing depending on their level of capability and on the complexity of the task (or problem) they
are confronted with.
Distributors, Information, and PLM
As a by-product of their channel function, distributors
process a substantial volume and variety of information
(Coughlan et al., 2006; Frazier, Maltz, Antia, and
Rindfleisch, 2009; Pimentel Claro and Oliveira Claro,
2010). This view is in line with OIP theory, according to
M. RESTUCCIA ET AL.
which information processing is a key mechanism by
which organizations interact with their environment
(Tushman and Nadler, 1978). More specifically, information processing begins with information need, which can
result from an emerging problem, an uncertainty, an
ambiguity, or a forthcoming decision (Choo, 2002; Day,
1994). In response, organizations engage in information
acquisition, where data are collected from relevant stakeholders, both internal and external (Frishammar and Ã…ke
Hörte, 2005; Zahay et al., 2011). Interpretation follows,
giving meaning to the information (Huber, 1991), while
transmission consists of sharing the interpreted information with potential users (Frishammar and Åke Hörte,
2005; Huber, 1991). Then comes information storage
(Choo, 2002); this, for varying amounts of time, depending on whether the information is immediately usable
(Choo, 2002; Day, 1994). The final activities entail information retrieval and usage, where the stored data are
accessed and deployed to make decisions (Moorman,
1995). Information usage can take the form of actual or
potential changes in organizational activities (Huber,
1991).
To qualify the role of distributors as processors of
information related to NPD, different streams of research
in marketing and NPD were considered. According to the
literature on market orientation, distributors are a relevant
source of market knowledge (e.g., Kohli, Jaworski, and
Kumar, 1993) and in the NPD literature are seen as a
potential source of ideas and feedback regarding new
product introductions (Crawford and Di Benedetto,
2011). Table 1 provides a summary of the literature. This
indicates that distributors are seen as a relevant source of
information in general and to a lesser extent in regard to
NPD. It should be noted that information generated by
distributors is valuable to producers only if shared. This
highlights the importance of relational capabilities on the
part of distributors that facilitate information sharing
dynamics such as interdependence, trust, and transactionspecific investments (Frazier et al., 2009).
As shown in Table 1, little attention has been paid to
the role of distributors as information processors with the
potential to contribute to incremental NPD during PLM.
In the PLM “best practices” literature (Ausura et al.,
2005), it is company sales personnel and suppliers (Ernst
et al., 2010; Petersen, Handfield, and Ragatz, 2003) who
are seen as primary sources of information in this regard.
In the case of distributors, given their downstream position in the supply chain, the emphasis is on the handling
of channel logistics and achieving market coverage
(Ausura et al., 2005). While some scholars do refer to
distributor information processing activities after new
DISTRIBUTOR CONTRIBUTION TO PRODUCT LIFE-CYCLE MANAGEMENT
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73
Table 1. Distributor Involvement in New Product Development: Summary of Past Research
Topic
Highlights
Representative Works
Distributors as source • Information is key resource exchanged between
of information
channel members
• Strategic and tactical information
• Market-based issues
• Technical elements
Distributor role in
• Cooperation with producers during NPD (in general)
NPD activities
• Source of new product ideas and contributors to
product quality improvements
• Feedback on promotion- and pricing-related issues
during launch
• Source of feedback: product usage, acceptance,
and/or problems
• Primary role during PLM: achieve market coverage,
logistics support
Coughlan et al. (2006), Rosenbloom (2013)
Frazier et al. (2009); Pimentel Claro and Oliveira Claro (2010)
Kohli et al. (1993); Mudambi and Aggarwal (2003)
Mudambi and Aggarwal (2003)
Biemans (1991); Crawford and Di Benedetto (2011);
Yoon and Lilien (1988); Song et al. (2008)
Lonsdale et al. (1996); Crawford and Di Benedetto (2011);
Weber (2001)
Song et al. (2008); Song and Zhao (2004)
Crawford and Di Benedetto (2011); Mudambi and Aggarwal
(2003)
Ausura et al. (2005); Urban and Hauser (1993)
NPD, new product development; PLM, product life-cycle management.
product launch, topics deal primarily with marketing
mix variables other than “product” (i.e., promotion and
pricing) (Song, Di Benedetto, and Zhao, 2008; Song and
Zhao, 2004). This limited role is linked to the view in the
NPD literature of distributors as external sales agents in
charge of bringing already developed products to market
(Hultink, Griffin, Hart, and Robben, 1997; Song and
Zhao, 2004). A minority of authors refer to distributors as
potential contributors to the product variable, and such
references tend to be nonspecific and exclude PLM
activities. More specifically, distributor input to NPD is
noted in the literature as a possible source of information
for: new product ideas (Crawford and Di Benedetto,
2011; Lonsdale, Noël, and Stasch, 1996); feedback on
product usage, acceptance, and problems (Crawford and
Di Benedetto, 2011; Mudambi and Aggarwal, 2003); and
for quality improvements (Weber, 2001). In sum, the
potential for distributors to generate product-related
information relevant for NPD has been largely neglected
in the extant literature on PLM.
Despite this neglect, given that activities of gathering
and transmitting information about product-related problems by distributors take place primarily after new
product launch (Mudambi and Aggarwal, 2003), one can
expect that their contributions to innovation during PLM
have the potential to be more significant. From the more
general statements found in the literature about distributors as a source of information about product-related
problems, at the minimum it can expect the relatively
passive role, referred to in this study as problem informer.
There is evidence to suggest, however, that distributors go
beyond just sharing information about problems; Weber
(2001) notes that they can contribute to the enhancement
of product quality. Such changes to existing products
typically take place during PLM (PDMA Glossary,
2005), suggesting the potential for a broader range of
contributions resulting from the information processing
activities of distributors. This study shows that by deploying specific capabilities, more sophisticated contributions
are indeed made by distributors that go beyond simply
raising awareness about to formulating or even implementing changes to product features in order to solve
problems.
Resources, Capabilities, and Information
Processing
To expand on the view of distributors as simple “problem
informers,” it is proposed that enhanced contributions to
NPD during PLM are made when distributors deploy
specific capabilities by which to combine relevant information and to manage interorganizational relationships
(Kleinschmidt et al., 2007; Lorenzoni and Lipparini,
1999). To this end, resource-based/dynamic capabilities
theory provides the theoretical foundation to further
qualify distributors’ information-processing activities
during PLM.
Resource-based theory postulates that the key source
of sustained competitive advantage is the firm’s resource
endowments (Barney, Ketchen, and Wright, 2011). These
include inimitable intangibles developed over time such
as organizational culture, knowledge, experience, and
working relationships (Teece et al., 1997). Resources are
defined as “assets linked semi-permanently to the firm
and that allow it to conceive and execute value-creating
strategies” (Morgan, Vorhies, and Mason, 2009, p. 910).
In changing business environments, however, organizations also need specific dynamic capabilities by which to
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leverage and deploy their resources (Teece et al., 1997).
Accordingly, capabilities are processes, skills, actions, or
routines developed by firms in order to “adapt, integrate
and reconfigure internal and external organizational
skills, resources and functional competences to match the
requirements of a changing environment” (Verona and
Ravasi, 2003, p. 578).
Modern industrial distribution is characterized by
changing environmental conditions where specialization
in logistics-related activities and simple product handling
are no longer adequate for ensuring success. Recent
industry reports show that consolidation trends have led
to significant concentration in this sector (Tompkins
International, 2013) while at the same time, customers
expect distributors to create value not only by means of
competitive prices and product availability, but especially
through support and timely answers to their increasingly
complex needs (Mudambi and Aggarwal, 2003). This
puts significant pressure on distributors to differentiate
themselves from competitors by responding more effectively to customers and thereby achieve a competitive
edge (Mudambi and Aggarwal, 2003; Olsson et al.,
2013).
Olsson et al. (2013) underline that distribution intermediaries respond to changing conditions by developing
“diversity in the capabilities they represent [and through
which they] generate value for their business partners”
(p. 1138). In their analysis of distributor sources of
value creation, Mudambi and Aggarwal (2003) point to
three key processes: (1) building personalized and
meaningful relationships with downstream and upstream
channel partners, (2) increasing efficiency and effectiveness in production and operations management, and (3)
developing and sharing technical and market knowledge. It is worth noting that the second capability—the
logistics role of handling physical goods—is the traditional view of the distributor in the PLM literature (e.g.,
Ausura et al., 2005). Thus, to expand on the view of
distributors beyond their role as logistics intermediary,
the typology focuses on the other two value-creating
capabilities. Of particular relevance to distributor
product-related contribution to PLM are the following
capabilities:
• Information coordination capability: a knowledgebased ability developed by firms to obtain and combine
information belonging to both the marketing and technical sphere (Kleinschmidt et al., 2007; Moenaert and
Souder, 1990); this is linked to distributors’ market and
technical knowledge resource base (Mudambi and
Aggarwal, 2003).
M. RESTUCCIA ET AL.
• Interorganization relational capability: an ability
developed by firms involved in interorganizational networks to establish and manage relationships with partners (Dyer and Singh, 1998; Lorenzoni and Lipparini,
1999); this is linked to distributors’ experience in relationship building and as gatekeeper between producers
and customers (Coughlan et al., 2006).
Information coordination capability. An information
coordination capability is highly relevant for firms when
it comes to achieving a sustained competitive advantage
(Eisenhardt and Martin, 2000; Teece et al., 1997).
Through effective information gathering and processing,
firms make sense of their environment and are able to
adapt their course of action accordingly. In the innovation
literature, this capability has been shown to have a decisive and positive impact on the success of companies’
NPD efforts. According to Kleinschmidt et al. (2007),
the capabilities or routines developed by firms for gathering and processing information are central to success
because “information about markets and the ability to
respond to opportunities and threats underlie all NPD
activities” (p. 425). In the indirect channel setting, given
distributor proximity to markets (Coughlan et al., 2006;
Rosenbloom, 2013), they are in an ideal position to
access this type of information and thus to make a positive contribution to NPD during PLM.
To achieve this potential, distributors need a capability
that incorporates both market and technological information, as these are the primary dimensions of any NPDrelated endeavor (Clark and Wheelwright, 1993; Cooper,
2011; Zahay et al., 2011). Given their proximity to customers, market knowledge is likely to be strong, providing distributors with expertise about demand, customer
needs and wants, and competitor activity (Kohli et al.,
1993; Mudambi and Aggarwal, 2003; Song and Zhao,
2004). In addition, distributors possess technical knowledge. This results from their need to understand the technical specifications of the products they sell, their
experience with after-sales service, and also from their
access to information about how products are used by
customers and the problems they incur. Some distributors
develop this technical expertise to a more advanced level
as a way of providing improved technical assistance and
thereby responding to the growing demand for increased
service in this regard (Mudambi and Aggarwal, 2003).
Thus, by developing routines to combine and interpret
information related to both marketing and technical
aspects, distributors are in a position to leverage this
knowledge resource base and thereby contribute to PLM.
DISTRIBUTOR CONTRIBUTION TO PRODUCT LIFE-CYCLE MANAGEMENT
Interorganization relational capability. Distributors
have an interorganization relational capability resulting
from their role and experience as intermediary between
producers and customers (Coughlan et al., 2006), which
are considered to be a key resource (e.g., Lusch, Brown,
and O’Brien, 2011). Interorganization relational capability is defined as the ability of firms embedded in an
interorganizational network to effectively establish and
manage relationships with partners (Dyer and Singh,
1998; Lorenzoni and Lipparini, 1999). As per dynamic
capabilities theory, it is essential to enhance this capability if the company is to address the challenges of
exchanges within and between organizations (Eisenhardt
and Martin, 2000). Establishing working relationships
that ensure the smooth functioning of the channel itself
(Anderson and Narus, 1990; Mudambi and Aggarwal,
2003) is closely associated with information flow in the
channel; this, because information is the key resource
generated and exchanged among channel partners
(Coughlan et al., 2006; Frazier et al., 2009). As such, a
strong relational capability can be seen as positively
impacting both the information processing and the
collaborative NPD activities performed by companies
(Frazier et al., 2009; Sisodiya, Johnson, and Grégoire,
2013). This capability is expected to be relevant in facilitating interactions between channel members during
PLM.
In sum, the deployment of two types of capabilities—
information coordination and management of interorganization relations—can be expected to impact how
and to what extent distributors process product-related
information during PLM. In the context of this study,
some distributors deploy a higher level of capability than
others, thus leveraging their knowledge resource base
regarding marketing and technical aspects, and their
experience in managing interorganization relationships.
Distributors defined as “high” in terms of these capabilities are in a better position to acquire, interpret, and use
information to solve product-related problems, sometimes without involving producers. At the other end of the
spectrum are distributors whose information coordination
capability is focused on channel- and market-related
factors rather than on technical matters, and whose interactions with upstream and downstream partners are
minimal. In the context of PLM, these distributors are
qualified as “low” in terms of capabilities, offering only
limited contribution to NPD.
Task complexity. The second attribute underlying the
typology of distributor information-processing activity is
task complexity. For the purpose of this study, task com-
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plexity is defined in terms of the objective characteristics
of the task encountered during information processing
(Campbell, 1988). Consistent with Novak and Eppinger’s
(2001) definition of complexity in the context of NPD,
this study views task complexity as the number of
product components affected by the problem encountered
by customers (and therefore by distributors) and the
extent of interaction between these components. (Note: a
third dimension in this definition, degree of product
novelty, is not retained as PLM activities typically
involve only incremental NPD; see Urban and Hauser,
1993.) Choo (2002) observes that problems at the origin
of information processing can be categorized along a
continuum ranging from simple to complex. Thus, for the
typology, a low/high dichotomy is used as a basis for
categorizing product-related problems occurring during
PLM.
Task complexity is highly relevant in connection with
both dynamic capabilities and OIP. In the context of
dynamic capabilities, Zollo and Winter (2002) underline
that firm capabilities are contingent on the level of uncertainty and complexity found in the environment. This
view is aligned with a key tenet in OIP theory that organizations face different levels of uncertainty in the tasks
they perform and have limited levels of informationprocessing capacities (Galbraith, 1973; Tushman and
Nadler, 1978). Research shows that increased complexity
calls for greater and deeper information processing
(Campbell, 1988; Clark et al., 2006). In the NPD literature, increasing complexity of new products is seen as
leading to greater effort spent on combining and making
sense of the information gathered and to longer development times (Griffin, 1997; Kim and Wilemon, 2003).
Thus, the varying level of complexity of the productrelated problem encountered by distributors during PLM
is used as the second attribute defining the typology.
Proposed Typology of Distributor
Involvement during PLM
This article proposes that the deployment of specific
capabilities—information coordination and management
of interorganization relations—allows distributors to
leverage key resources (i.e., market and technical knowledge, and established interorganizational relationships),
depending on task complexity (i.e., complexity of the
product-related problem). The literature acknowledges
that capability (Barreto, 2010) and task complexity
(Choo, 2002) vary on a continuum from low to high. In
line with this, a two-by-two matrix is developed resulting
in four scenarios based on the interplay of low/high levels
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M. RESTUCCIA ET AL.
Low
Task Complexity
High
Table 2. Typology of Distributor Information Processing Activities during PLM
Information Coordination and Interorganization Relational Capabilities
Low
High
1. Problem informer
4. Solution manager
Distributors focus on their traditional market expertise and on
Distributors have high technical and market-related capabilities,
basic connections with their upstream and downstream
and strong interorganizational skills. With these advanced
partners. When faced with product-related problems involving
capabilities, they have a good understanding of complex
several/complex components, they identify (from customer
product-related problems (involving several components and/or
input) and share with producers information about the problem
interactions with other parts). Their advanced ability to
and need for a solution.
establish and maintain connections with partners allows them
to “broker” the process of finding a solution in partnership
with producers and participate in its delivery to customers.
2. Solution advisor
3. Solution implementer
Distributors deploy essential technical knowledge and maintain
Distributors have both the technical and market-related expertise
connections with upstream and downstream partners. When
to deal with a low-complexity problem and can manage
product-related problems faced by their customers are low in
interactions with both upstream and downstream partners. They
complexity (limited number of components or interactions with
are able to use these advanced capabilities to cover the entire
other parts), they not only acquire information about the
process of identifying and, independent of producers, actually
problem, but also come up with ideas for possible solutions.
implementing a solution to a relatively simple product-related
problem (few components and/or interactions).
PLM, product life-cycle management.
of capability and of task complexity. This typology is
then characterized in terms of the distributor role and
activities involving NPD-related information processing
during PLM. The typology, which is described below, is
presented in Table 2. (Note: the “problem informer” label
comes from the literature; labels for the other scenarios
are based on the fieldwork.)
Starting from the top-left side of the matrix, a first
scenario is identified when task complexity is high and
the capability level of distributors is low. Distributors
cannot handle the complex problem with their basic
information coordination routines, especially with regard
to the technical dimension. Even though they are receptive to customer requests and other market-related
information, distributor involvement in information processing is limited to gathering data and informing producers about the problem(s) they identify. The label of
“problem informer” is used for this scenario, which corresponds to the traditional view of distributors as a source
of information about product-related problems (e.g.,
Mudambi and Aggarwal, 2003).
The second scenario (bottom left) results from the
match between task complexity and capabilities, both of
which are at a low level. In this scenario, despite their
only basic information coordination and relational capabilities, distributors are in a position to become more
involved with the problems encountered by customers.
Because task complexity is low, they are able to engage in
information-processing activities that provide insight into
the problem, thus allowing them to enter the domain of
“solution” provision. As part of their role as gatekeeper
between customer and producer, these distributors often
recommend possible product modifications that could
solve the relatively simple problem; hence, the label of
“solution advisor.”
Moving to the bottom-right side of the matrix, the
third scenario entails low task complexity but high levels
of capability both in terms of information coordination
and interorganizational relations. This provides a greater
capacity for distributors to process information, allowing
them to comprehend and deal with the problem in a more
thorough manner. Instead of waiting for producers to act
on a given problem, these distributors prioritize their relationships with customers and implement solutions themselves by deploying their capability to coordinate a higher
level and broader range of information. These distributors
play the role of “solution implementer.”
Scenario four (top right) depicts a situation where
both task complexity and distributor capability level are
high. Distributors become involved in a full range of
information-processing activities, getting a good understanding of the problem and actively participating in
facilitating a solution; this, due to superior technical and
marketing expertise, along with an advanced capability
to manage relationships with customers and producers.
Given the complexity of the task, however, distributors
cannot fully exploit the information; producers must
become involved. Distributors in this scenario play a
quasi “project broker” role (de Brentani and Reid,
2012), assembling different stakeholders and facilitating
a solution to the problem; hence, the label “solution
manager.”
DISTRIBUTOR CONTRIBUTION TO PRODUCT LIFE-CYCLE MANAGEMENT
Methodology
The literature provided the building blocks for developing the typology but offered only limited evidence
regarding the specific topic in question. Thus, a qualitative approach was used to explore the scenarios under
investigation (Miles and Huberman, 1994; Patton,
2001). Because interviews “yield in-depth responses
about people’s experiences, perceptions, opinions,
feelings, and knowledge” (Patton, 2001, p. 4), this approach is of particular value for gaining a rich description in the context of typologies (Doty and Glick, 1994),
providing a better understanding of distributors’
product-related information-processing activities during
PLM.
The interviews targeted managers of North American
industrial equipment and supply firms. Producer and distributor companies were included in the study in order to
explore perceptions from both sides of the channel relationship. Industrial equipment and supply sectors were
chosen for the fieldwork because information sharing
dynamics between producers and distributors have been
shown to be highly relevant here (Frazier et al., 2009).
Prospective respondents were identified through a combination of public lists (NAICS 4238: Machinery, equipment and supply merchant wholesalers) and business
contacts available to the research team. As incentives,
respondents were assured anonymity and promised an
executive report. This report was also used to validate
the research conclusions with participants (Miles and
Huberman, 1994).
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77
After developing contacts with 50 firms, data from 14
usable in-depth interviews (time: 25–75 minutes) that
took place over a six-month period were analyzed. The
study used a key informant approach (John and Reve,
1982; Kumar, Stern, and Anderson, 1993). Interviewees
held positions of president, vice president, or senior
manager, thus ensuring that respondents had significant
decision-making experience in their fields. They were
knowledgeable about NPD practices in their firms (producers) or about product-related interactions with producers (distributors). Table 3 provides a summary of the
research participants, including selected descriptive characteristics (e.g., firm size, sector, market coverage, and
type of product offering). To ensure confidentiality of
participants, producer and distributor firms are identified
in this study by “P” and “D,” respectively.
Except for one interview (telephone, D2), all interviews took place at company headquarters. To structure
the data collection, two interview guides—one for each
side of the channel relationship (see the Appendix)—
were developed based on the existing literature and the
preliminary typology derived from this. Questioning
moved from general topics to more specific ones. To
begin, respondents were asked to provide general information about their firm (e.g., history and organizational
structure) and the markets in which they operate (e.g.,
local/international and types of products). They were
questioned about their indirect channel relationships and
how NPD-related information was typically generated
and shared within these relationships. Particular attention
was given to spontaneous references to information
Table 3. Description of Respondents
Label
P1
P2
P3
P4
P5/D10
D1
D2
D3
D4
D5
D6
Position
Industry Sector (Channel Function)
Employees
VP: Business Development
VP: Sales
President
VP: Test and Measurement Division
VP: Security and ID
Associate Partner, Co-Founder
Territory Manager
President
President
Territory Manager
Technical Director
D7
D8
Electrical and electronic (producer)
51–200
Biometrics (producer)
201–500
Diamond tools (producer)
10–50
Telecom equipment (producer)
> 1500
Security equipment (producer and distributor)
51–200
Electrical equipment (manufacturer agent)
5–10
Safety and industrial equipment (manufacturer agent)
11–50
Industrial equip. and supplies (manufacturer agent)
5–10
Industrial printing equipment and supplies (distributor) < 5 Woodworking equipment (wholesaler) 51–200 Product ID equipment and supplies (producer and 51–200 distributor) VP: Projects, Operations and Innovation Pumping equipment (producer and distributor) 51–200 Branch Manager Maintenance supplies (wholesaler) 1001–2000 D9 VP: Marketing VP, vice president. Telescopic machinery (distributor) 51–200 Market Coverage International International International International International National National National Regional National National (United States and Canada) National National (United States and Canada) National 78 J PROD INNOV MANAG 2016;33(1):69–89 processing activities involving distributors. Whenever respondents mentioned these, additional questions were asked to probe the details. When this issue did not arise spontaneously, specific questions were asked to gain insight about these activities. Interview data were content analyzed according to qualitative data analysis guidelines (Miles and Huberman, 1994; Patton, 2001). Verbatim transcription of interviews was undertaken before the data were coded using Atlas-TI (Atlas.ti Scientific Software Development GmbH, 2012) qualitative data analysis software. Coding was performed using a list of codes developed from the literature and integrated with emerging codes. The codes covered the different information processing activities, the level of task complexity, and the level of information coordination and relational capabilities. A code-check verified the reliability of the coding scheme. A trained independent judge coded a randomly chosen interview, comprised of 90 thought units defined as a single idea expressed by the respondent across one or multiple sentences. The resulting Cohen’s kappa was .795, indicating substantial agreement among coders (Landis and Koch, 1977). Disagreement was resolved through discussion. Data analysis took place over several stages. First, interview data were analyzed to identify instances of information processing activity. Next, the results relating to the two groups of respondents (producers and distributors) were compared to identify similarities and differences. Third, the results relating to the two respondent groups were again compared in order to recognize common patterns in the information-processing activities reported. This process led to over 30 instances of productrelated information-processing activities involving distributors. Next, based on the theoretical framework, each case was characterized in terms of: level of task complexity, level of information coordination capability and interorganization relational capability, and informationprocessing activities. These instances were grouped to reflect similarities in terms of low/high task complexity and capability levels. In line with the two-by-two matrix (Table 2), ad hoc labels were derived to describe the patterns of information-processing activities beyond the “problem informer” one derived from the literature. Given the exploratory nature of the study, the frequency of each type should not be seen as representative of the extent to which the scenarios occur in the universe of the phenomenon (George and Bennett, 2005). Rather, this research is aimed at providing evidence of different pathways of product-related information processing by distributors conducive to changes and improvements in product features during PLM. M. RESTUCCIA ET AL. Findings The results of the fieldwork allow for a more complete picture of the typology initially developed from the literature. The problem informer type of distributor (i.e., a basic source of information about product-related problems) could be derived from previous research; but a paucity of detail is available regarding the other three scenarios, the features of which were predicted based on the interplay between level of capability and task complexity. The in-depth interviews with managers addressed this issue, providing specifics and insights about the information processing activities that take place in each of the four scenarios. In total, interviewees mentioned over 30 instances of product-related information processing activities performed by distributors during PLM, ranging from generic descriptions to detailed accounts of specific cases. Figure 1 provides details of the product-related information processing activities performed in each scenario. Overall, all distributors engaged in at least three of these: information acquisition, interpretation, and transmission. Information usage was performed by only two of the distributor types—that is, solution implementers and solution managers. The four scenarios varied, however, in the way the activities are performed.3 Problem informers and solution advisors undertake information acquisition more passively than solution implementers and solution managers. In the latter scenarios, there is more purposeful information interpretation oriented toward implementing a solution to a problem or cooperating in developing it. The only significant departure from the typical sequence of information processing activities occurs in the solution implementer scenario, where transmission to producer follows, rather than precedes, information usage. Before detailing the scenarios, it should be noted that respondents agreed that these product-related information-processing activities represent only a portion of distributor interactions with upstream partners. D10 stated, “it happens with only some manufacturers” typically when a strong channel relationship exists. This is in line with past research on information-sharing dynamics in channels (e.g., Frazier et al., 2009). Yet, the situations were reported repeatedly and appeared to be a noticeable part of distributors’ regular activities. The fact that some respondents described such instances, but that each fit 3 Because all distributors handled information storage and retrieval in a similar manner and because these two information-processing activities are less relevant to the topic in question, they were omitted from Figure 1 and only briefly acknowledged in the text where appropriate. DISTRIBUTOR CONTRIBUTION TO PRODUCT LIFE-CYCLE MANAGEMENT J PROD INNOV MANAG 2016;33(1):69–89 Information Coordination and Interorganization Relational Capabilities Low 1. Problem Informer Passive Information Acquisition Collects information from customer/marketplace High Minimal Information Interpretation Makes sense of information collected from mostly market-based sources High 4. Solution Manager Active Information Acquisition Actively engages in collecting information to achieve in-depth understanding of problem Purposeful Information Interpretation Direct efforts to make sense of the information towards identifying a solution Iterative Information Transmission Factual Information Transmission Ongoing exchange and coordination of information with producers and customers Shares data about problem(s) with producers Shared Information Usage Task Complexity Producer develops product modification; distributor manages integration 9 cases: (P) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5; (D) 1*, 2, 3 8 cases: (P) 4; (D) 2*, 3, 6*, 8, 10 2. Solution Advisor 3. Solution Implementer Low Passive Information Acquisition Active Information Acquisition Collects information through customer contact Actively engages in learning about the problem Enhanced Information Interpretation Purposeful Information Interpretation Active analysis of information; direct efforts to identify solution Direct efforts at finding implementable solution Elaborate Information Transmission Shares information with producer about problem and potential solution(s) Internal Information Usage Uses information to actually change product Post hoc Information Transmission Shares information with producer after solution was implemented 12 cases: (P) 1, 2, 5*; (D) 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8*, 9 6 cases: (D) 4, 6*, 9* Figure 1. Summary of Scenario Information-Processing Activities Notes: *Respondents with repeated mentions within scenario. D#/P#, distributor/producer respondents. 79 80 J PROD INNOV MANAG 2016;33(1):69–89 with a different scenario, indicates that distributors decide to deploy their capabilities to a greater or lesser extent when faced with product-related problems. This suggests that in some cases, despite having the capability, the distributor does not have the interest or motivation to doing something about a problem. To this end, evidence is provided about the reasons for the actual deployment of a high capability level in the two scenarios concerned. Independent of the specific scenario, there was an awareness on the part of respondents that problems and ideas shared by distributors usually represent “directions for improvements” (D6). Respondents recognized that most decisions to act on product-related information generated by distributors belong to producers, who assess these inputs according to their NPD objectives. Problem Informers The study includes nine cases of distributor informationprocessing activity most often referred to in the literature and labeled in this study as problem informer. In this scenario, distributors gather information about productrelated problems and transmit it to producers with minimal interpretation taking place (Figure 1). This is typical when distributors confront a level of problem complexity that goes beyond their technical skills. Essentially, using their basic level of information coordination and relational capability, they inform producers about customer needs and concerns. Evidence from respondents suggests that most interactions with customers occur during the initial information acquisition stage; those with manufacturers occur during information transmission. Examples of problems identified by problem informers include: “customer requests for new features in an electrical transformer” (D1); threats from “new products launched by competitors” (P3); and “lack of conformity to the [National] Standards Association” (D1). As underlying reasons for engaging in problem informer type of behavior, respondents noted: “we need to ensure that products remain competitive” (D1, P3, P4), “explicit requests from customers” (D2, P4), “part of our daily sales activities” (P5), and “a missed sale” (P1). A quotation by D1 is a representation of the problem informer scenario that incorporates several information processing stages: We [distributors] take the pulse of the market and bring it to producers. We tell them that there is a problem with this kind of equipment because customers regularly mention the concern and that something should be done M. RESTUCCIA ET AL. to resolve it. We ask the manufacturer if it is possible to develop something. There would be more sales potential if it were fixed, given the number of requests we receive. Companies are quite open to listening to us and try to develop something accordingly. Detailing this scenario in terms of OIP, distributors acting as problem informers engage in relatively passive information acquisition in that they react to productrelated problems arising from the field (e.g., “several customers mentioned the concern,” D1). They undertake minimal information interpretation by focusing on market-based data about specific product characteristics (e.g., “our distributors can give us some feedback on usage issues, as our products are very complex,” D2). The final stage of information processing for this group is information transmission (e.g., “we bring the pulse of the market to producers,” D1), which typically entails objective data about customers. These distributors were quite proactive in transmitting information about a problem, typically after repeated incidences or specific customer requests triggered an iterative cycle of information acquisition and interpretation. This happens when “customers regularly mention [a problem]” (D1) or bring up “a recurrent issue” (P5). No evidence of distributor information usage was found; only regarding actions taken by the producer based on information provided by distributors. According to respondents, information generated by problem informers is useful “at the initial stages of the [PLM] development process” (P4), when manufacturers are exploring ways to improve their products (e.g., “producers ask us to let them know what is/is not working,” D2). Overall, the posture of problem informers is quite passive, involving awareness of a product-related problem, which they transmit to producers either proactively or in response to producer requests. Solution Advisors The second information processing pattern involves solution advisors. Solution advisors perform the same information-processing activities as problem informers but differ in how they engage in the interpretation and transmission phases. They do not stop at collecting and sharing information about a product-related problem, but typically recommend a course of action to solve it. Because they deal with a product environment involving low task complexity (i.e., few product components or simple modular design), they can deploy their basic information coordination capability to develop ideas about a possible solution. Such ideas are often facilitated by the DISTRIBUTOR CONTRIBUTION TO PRODUCT LIFE-CYCLE MANAGEMENT presence of technically trained personnel (e.g., “our technicians looked into the problem,” D6). Respondents in this scenario describe few in-depth interactions with customers and producers, suggesting only limited deployment of their relational capability. Typically, solution advisors “talk with the customer during the sale” (D5), and then “tell the manufacturer our idea about a possible new feature” (D7). The fieldwork identified 12 instances of distributors acting as solution advisor. Some examples of potential solutions to problems included: “adding a third impeller to a two-impeller pump to match better performing products launched by competitors” (D7), “modifying an agricultural attachment for a telescopic handler to fit with olive-picking methods in Greece” (D9), and providing “a service component to the sale of the [product] to address customer difficulties with after-sale support” (D8). As underlying reasons for engaging in these activities, respondents mentioned: “the product was no longer competitive due to new products launched by competitors” (D7), “we came up with an idea for a new product feature during a sales meeting with a customer” (D5, P1), and “we wanted to differentiate the product from what was currently available in the market” (D8). D5 provides an example of the solution advisor scenario: A customer wanted the sawing equipment to be remotely controlled. Even though we made the sale without that feature, we thought that adding a modem-internet connection might address this need. We shared the idea with the manufacturer and it was incorporated as part of the next product generation. So, it can happen that for subsequent machines, the manufacturer will add a feature that we suggested. When this happens, these become improved pieces of equipment, which are easier for us to sell. As is evident from the above, solution advisors perform information acquisition in a similar fashion to problem informers and are also relatively passive in that information is acquired through regular contact with clients (e.g., “we noticed that several of our customers had similar problems,” D8). Important differences, however, emerge during the information-processing stages that follow. During information interpretation, instead of noting that a problem might deserve attention, respondents stated that they themselves tried to make sense of the technical dimension and to come up with a solution. Because of this enhanced interpretation of, for example, a problem of “local differences in terminology in the product interface” or “a too rigid sequence in questions to be answered when using an electronic J PROD INNOV MANAG 2016;33(1):69–89 81 device” (P5), distributors suggested ideas for “making the product interface fully adjustable by the user” and “creating a dynamic structure that allows the nesting of questions depending on the previous answer” (P5). Thus, during information transmission, solution advisors not only alert producers about a problem, but offer ideas about how it might be solved, leading to a more elaborate information transmission stage. Regarding information usage, similar to problem informers, there was no evidence of actual usage by distributors. As stated by D5: “manufacturers decide whether or not to incorporate our suggestions.” Nevertheless, compared with problem informers, solution advisors adopt a more proactive posture in that they engage in sketching out potential changes to product features, which can then be adopted by producers during PLM. Solution Implementers The third information-processing pattern entails distributors acting as solution implementers. In this scenario, distributors go beyond gathering and interpreting information to share with producers; they become actively involved in information usage. In other words, these firms use the information they collect to actually address the problem. Several distributors were identified who, on becoming aware of a problem, went about implementing a solution (sometimes temporarily) that facilitated the sale of the product or its postsale support. These distributors benefit from their knowledge and relational resources, and deal proactively with a relatively simple problem. To this end, solution implementers deploy strong relational skills with customers in order to learn about particular concerns and then use their advanced marketing and technical information coordination capabilities to solve the problem. For example, D9 stated: “I bring to the sales process my own expertise as a graduated engineer”; and D6 noted: “our sales reps talk to our technicians when there is a problem.” The research shows that solution implementers have an excellent capability to manage relationships with customers, and this facilitates their task throughout the information-processing activities. A typical solution implementer scenario is described by D9: One customer explained: “Although I like this platform for the telescopic handler, it will be tiring to use on a continual basis. I’d like to be able to remove this barrier from the platform of the attachment.” After getting assurance of purchase from the customer if we solved this problem, we started talking with our technicians about 82 J PROD INNOV MANAG 2016;33(1):69–89 what we could do to modify the platform. The customer really liked the modification we made and bought the product. And . . . the producer eventually decided to include our modified platform as a regular item in the catalogue! The question of why some distributors go substantially beyond their traditional role as marketing intermediaries and take over part of the producer’s role of changing specific product features was addressed by several respondents. Five cases offer some detail, providing insight to the motivation to engage in this type of activity. Solution implementers felt compelled to deploy their capabilities because of the perceived urgency of “addressing the weaknesses of the product” (D9) because it is ultimately they who “are responsible for customer satisfaction” (D6). Distributors also mentioned that they “cannot afford that customers are not able to work with the tools that we sell them” (D9). Thus, for solution implementers, having the ability to respond in a timely fashion to a problem experienced by customers is an essential part of their effort to create greater value and thereby differentiate themselves from competitors. Failing to deploy the “right” level of capability to meet customer expectations was perceived as detrimental because of the high-pressure competitive environment in which these distributors operated. In terms of OIP, distributors acting as solution implementers become much more actively involved in information acquisition about product-related problems. They do this by maintaining a strong link with customers and by wanting to learn about and respond to their concerns. Examples include: “this problem has a major impact on our customer’s operations” (D6), or “there may be a failure of motion sensors during cold and humid winter days” (D9). Further, in this low task complexity environment, distributors are in a position to deploy their high level information coordination capability to improve information interpretation in a “purposeful” manner by formulating insights about actual changes to product features. Several respondents discussed how “trained engineers” (D6) or “staff technicians” (D9) became actively involved in making sense of the information gathered and “found a concrete solution to the problem” (D6). In contrast to the two previous scenarios, solution implementers also directly engage in information usage (note the qualification of “internal” usage in Figure 1). Instead of counting on manufacturers to handle the problem, they respond to the needs of customers more immediately by executing product modifications themselves. For example, D6 described the decision to “change the position of a M. RESTUCCIA ET AL. moving arm in the print-and-apply labelling machine in order to accommodate the round (rather than square) boxes used by the customer.” Although occasionally these distributors communicate with manufacturers prior to implementing a solution (“to ensure that it does not interfere with the rest of the product,” D9), in most cases information transmission takes place only after the information usage stage (note the qualification of “post-hoc” in Figure 1). For example, D6 related: “we told the manufacturer about the temporary solution we had implemented after the sale was completed.” Compared with the two previous scenarios, solution implementers demonstrate an active posture when faced with a simple product problem. This proactivity is revealed not only by their in-depth involvement during earlier stages of information processing, but especially by their direct engagement in information usage. The resulting implementation of the product modification was carried out for at least two purposes: (1) “[it] is a temporary solution that allows the machine to work with this customer” (D9); and (2) “[it] represents an improvement to the equipment” (D9). One respondent highlighted how, at a later date, “the manufacturer actually built on our temporary ‘fix’ to develop a more permanent solution” (D9). Thus, from the producer’s point of view, while problem informers and solution advisors influence the idea generation or concept development stage when developing incremental new products during PLM, solution implementers can contribute to the development of an actual prototype of the improved product. Solution Managers The fourth type of product-related informationprocessing scenario identified in this study is labeled the solution manager. Eight respondents discussed situations where, instead of implementing a change to a product feature, distributors became actively involved in coordinating a customized solution in collaboration with customers and producers, performing the intermediary role of “project broker” (de Brentani and Reid, 2012). In this scenario, what contributes to high task complexity is a complex, integral product design with interrelated components that are not easily modified or adapted without impacting the functioning of other elements or the product as a whole. Given this high task complexity, solution managers engage in repeated cycles of information acquisition, interpretation, and transmission oriented toward finding a solution that meets the criteria of the relevant stakeholders. Thus, in addition to a high information coor- DISTRIBUTOR CONTRIBUTION TO PRODUCT LIFE-CYCLE MANAGEMENT dination capability, distributors’ interorganization relational skills play an important role in achieving success. According to respondents, engaging in this type of information processing by deploying high capability levels derives from a commitment “to make the life of our customers easier” and also because “we want to distinguish ourselves [from competitors] by bringing about a solution” (D3). They deploy these capabilities because of the “need to respond to our customers and to quickly adapt to changes in the market” (D2). Furthermore, active participation in the process was seen as an “opportunity to achieve higher revenues in the future [from this and other customers] resulting from the product modification” (D8). As such, solution managers appear to be driven to develop and deploy a high capability level by motivations similar to those of solution implementers; that is, competitive differentiation and consolidation/ expansion of market position. Different from the implementer scenario, however, solution managers do not achieve these goals independently. Because of the complexity of the task, they need to “include suppliers in the process, notwithstanding [their] high level of competence” (D6). Examples of product changes “brokered” by solution managers include: • changes to facial recognition equipment arising from its integration into an hardware/software solution provided to customers (D10), • adaptations to signal testing equipment as part of a solution developed in collaboration with a distributor for a major German phone operator (P4), and • modifications to print-and-apply labeling equipment using an electronic board that was developed and tested in conjunction with the manufacturer (D6). Solution managers develop routines by which they combine relevant information—customer related and technical—required for developing a solution. In effect, they “bring both expert customer experience and product knowledge to the manufacturer” (D10). Despite a strong market-plus-technical capability that allows them to play this more sophisticated role, they nevertheless are “not able to implement the solution on [their] own” (D2) because of the high level of task complexity. Therefore, a high level of relational capability is also needed by these distributors in order to manage the multiple and ongoing interactions among themselves, customers, and producers. This is evident from the description by D3: We sit down with customers to determine what their needs are. Based on this, we start to see what we can do with the individual components we offer or with a com- J PROD INNOV MANAG 2016;33(1):69–89 83 bination of products and services . . . an assembled solution. We also determine the resources required to address these needs. Once we have a better understanding of what is involved, we turn to the manufacturer and provide the facts, the detailed needs and sometimes even the resources required to address the issue. While the manufacturer works on the solution, we take charge of all the back and forth between customer and producer. . . . At this point, the manufacturer’s engineering department starts working on the actual solution; but, we are in charge of deployment at the customer site. As shown above and in Figure 1, solution managers deploy substantial effort when it comes to information acquisition. Repeated exchanges of information regarding market and technical factors take place in order to gain an “in-depth understanding of the issues at stake” (D8). During information interpretation, solution managers delineate the product adaptations, accompanying services, and customizations needed. As part of this purposeful interpretation, distributors compare the information gathered with the “competencies, products and services available in-house and through producers” (D6). Once producers become involved, several respondents noted that information transmission between the firms becomes an ongoing and iterative affair. As described by D2: “we make sure that what we do with the producer corresponds to customer needs.” Finally, this scenario involves shared information usage by both producer and distributor: the producer develops the modified component(s) or redesigns the product; the distributor oversees “integration of the [solution] at the customer site” (D2). In OIP terms, solution managers take on an active posture when it comes to solving problems during PLM. They not only identify the product-related concerns and transmit these to producers (similar to problem informers), but they also interpret the information and undertake sophisticated information integration in order to facilitate a solution. Further, they use advanced interorganization relational capabilities to mediate the interactions among stakeholders. The scenario entails a “quasi-partnership” as channel members become interdependent in terms of the information-processing activities and, differently from the other scenarios, gives producers easier access to the information-processed by distributors. As in the case of solution implementers, product modifications resulting from solution managers fulfill at least two goals: they address customer needs, providing distributors with greater influence over achieving sales objectives; and they help producers during PLM to make “potentially more permanent product improvements based on the customized modifications already undertaken” (P4). As 84 J PROD INNOV MANAG 2016;33(1):69–89 stated by D2, “most exchanges with producers take place only for the initial prototype; after that, we are out of the picture.” In many respects, not the least that the key capabilities of information coordination and relationship handling must be deployed at a high level, solution managers represent the most complex scenario described in this study. It should be noted, however, that distributors do not always begin their contribution to PLM in this role. One respondent (D6) discussed migrating over time from a less involved role such as solution advisor to the more complex one of solution manager: It was a slow process. At first, the producer realized that whenever we exchanged information, this led to an improved product. Sometimes, rather than having a simple conversation, we engaged in several exchanges. We would make some drawings, show a video, and ultimately this led to more product changes. We did this several times and, at a certain point, it became part of our relationship with that manufacturer. At a later stage, we worked together on solutions where our company played a proactive role in that we identified which parts of the product needed to be modified. This allowed us to achieve important successes, such as signing a contract with a [major] customer. Summary and Discussion The study builds on evidence in the channels and NPD literatures indicating that, through their feedback to producers, distributors contribute to NPD by potentially enhancing product quality (Weber, 2001) and as a possible source of new product ideas (Crawford and Di Benedetto, 2011; Lonsdale et al., 1996). But these literatures offer only limited insight about the dynamics underlying the generation and transmission of product-related feedback especially during the important PLM stage that follows new product launch. Further, the extant PLM literature primarily emphasizes the logistics-related role of distributors (e.g. Ausura et al., 2005), thus providing only limited insight about how and the extent to which information coming from distributors benefits incremental NPD (Urban and Hauser, 1993). To address this knowledge gap, an original typology was developed, based on the themes of task complexity and dynamic capabilities, and then used the concept of OIP to describe distributor product-related information-processing activities during PLM. The typology frames the information-processing activities of distributors as driven by the (low/high) level of two key dynamic capabilities—that is, the combination M. RESTUCCIA ET AL. of information coordination and interorganization relational capabilities—and level of task complexity. Insights from the literature are complemented with empirical evidence from managers of business-to-business producer and distributor firms. Based on this, four distinct patterns of distributor product-related information processing during PLM are identified, including: problem informer, solution advisor, solution implementer, and solution manager. Distributors act as problem informers when they provide simple feedback to producers about product usage issues and/or customer problems. This scenario occurs when task complexity is high and when distributors deploy a basic (low) capability level. These distributors focus on their normal channel-related functions, engaging in relatively passive information acquisition, minimal interpretation, and only factual information transmission to producers. The study shows, however, that distributor involvement is not limited to this traditional role. In three of the four scenarios, they go further by actually getting involved in bringing about a solution to the problem. In the solution advisor scenario, distributors provide producers with ideas about how a problem might actually be solved. This occurs when task complexity is low and when distributors use their basic capabilities not only to acquire and transmit information, but also to interpret the data and provide insights about solving the problem. While the latter of these two scenarios enriches the information that is transmitted, in both situations the decision to use the information and to solve the problem is left to the producer. Looking at the two highcapability scenarios, the potential for contribution to PLM by distributors is substantially increased. Deploying their higher capability in information coordination and interorganizational relations, these distributors become more proactive in the realm of solution provision. In cases of low task complexity, distributors acting as solution implementers actually change specific product features to address the problem. These distributors adopt a more proactive stance toward information acquisition and interpretation, and make deliberate use of the information in order to solve the product-related problem. Finally, some high-capability distributors, when faced with a complex problem, become solution managers. They act as “brokers” who coordinate a collaborative effort involving the relevant stakeholders in order to bring about an integrated solution. This scenario is particularly demanding as distributors are required not only to coordinate a variety of information (marketing and technical), but also to have a distinctive capability to manage the often complex interorganizational relationships involved. DISTRIBUTOR CONTRIBUTION TO PRODUCT LIFE-CYCLE MANAGEMENT Theoretical Contributions By integrating the literatures on innovation and channels, this article responds to the call by Kahn et al. (2006) to develop extant knowledge about PLM. It shows that it is possible to “turn industrial distributors into partners” (Narus and Anderson, 1986, p. 55). The typology developed and investigated in this article provides both theoretical and empirical evidence in favor of a broader role for distributors during PLM, beyond what past research has acknowledged in terms of support for logistics and market coverage. Further, it provides important evidence and insight about how the interplay between task complexity and level of firm capabilities—both information coordination and interorganizational relations—affect the information processing activities underlying the generation and handling by distributors of product-related feedback. The research enriches the innovation literature by focusing on the manufacturer–distributor interface during PLM. It significantly enhances with specific detail the general statements about the usefulness of distributor feedback and the checklists that deal with distributors involvement in NPD-related activities (Crawford and Di Benedetto, 2011; Song and Zhao, 2004; Weber, 2001). The research further qualifies the type of product feedback coming from distributors, over and above the simple problem informer type. It identifies specific scenarios where distributors contribute to the actual solution of a problem by formulating ideas about what product features should be changed (solution advisors), by directly implementing product changes (solution implementers), or by cooperating in and managing collaborative efforts to develop solutions (solution managers). These insights about distributor information processing patterns relevant for NPD during PLM make an important contribution. Through the typology, a better understanding is gained into distributor–producer relationships and into their role in the incremental NPD program of firms, which is considered “important” or “very important” by 80% of firms (Andrew, Manget, Michael, Taylor, and Zablit, 2010). Building on dynamic capabilities theory, this article sheds light on the mechanisms underlying value creation in channel relationships through information flow. The typology underscores the importance of developing organizational dynamic capabilities as a preliminary condition for contributing to product innovation. As shown in the findings, processes and skills aimed at coordinating market and technical information, and managing interorganization relationships are not only key drivers of J PROD INNOV MANAG 2016;33(1):69–89 85 value creation in modern distribution (e.g., Mudambi and Aggarwal, 2003; Olsson et al., 2013), but are fundamental to the ability of distributors to effectively deal with the product-related concerns of their customers. The findings show that these dynamic capabilities must be developed and deployed not only by manufacturers, but also by distributors if they are to take full advantage of the information available to them. When these capability levels are high, distributors can deal more effectively with the needs of customers and thereby gain a significant competitive edge (solution implementer and solution manager). This more active role of distributors suggests that producers’ innovation processes can benefit from enhanced connections with distributors, similar to what occurs between suppliers and manufacturers in a “Keiretsu” context. Dyer (1996) shows how industrial innovation benefits from linkages between producers and upstream suppliers in what is defined as an “American Keiretsu” approach to value chain relationships. This article enriches past studies listing distributors as partners in Keiretsu configurations4 (e.g., Lincoln, Gerlach, and Ahmadjian, 1996) by exploring the ways in which downstream partners contribute to incremental NPD during PLM. Managerial Implications Distributors can use the typology to better plan for achieving differentiation and competitive advantage thanks to the product-related feedback they have access to. As a hands-on tool, the typology can assist distributors regarding the type of information processing they should undertake depending on the complexity of the problem encountered. Distributors can assess their current position in terms of information coordination and relational capabilities and decide whether or not to invest in the enhancement of the resources underlying these capabilities. When operating at a “low” capability level, distributors are more dependent on producers for achieving differentiation; this, because they must wait for producers to implement ideas for product modifications that result from their input as problem informers or solution advisors. With more advanced capabilities, distributors can become more actively involved in addressing their customers’ concerns. This occurs either as primary decisionmakers when acting as solution implementers or as project coordinators, or project brokers, when acting as solution managers. Whereas a higher capability level 4 The authors thank an anonymous reviewer for this insight. 86 J PROD INNOV MANAG 2016;33(1):69–89 opens to distributors the possibility of contributing directly to differentiation and competitive advantage by solving product-related problems, these intermediaries need to be aware of the commitment in time and resources required to develop such capabilities. For producers, the typology can serve two purposes. First, they can categorize distributors based on their level of information coordination and interorganization relational capabilities, and product modification tasks planned for the PLM phase in terms of degree of complexity. This mapping activity would provide an idea of what type of product-related feedback to expect from which distributors. They can also use the typology to identify at what stage of the incremental NPD process to integrate input from distributors. Up-front idea generation could benefit from both problem informers and solution advisors. Including these two types of distributors has the potential to: gain a better understanding of market needs, increase the number of credible ideas put forward, and reduce this front-end stage in terms of cost and time. The product prototyping stage would benefit from input from solution implementers and solution managers. In the case of solution implementers, at least one prototype has already been developed, usually in response to a relatively simple, but urgent, problem. When undertaking development activities for the next product generation, producers can potentially use the modification “as is,” thus reducing development cost and time; and also lowering uncertainty and risk by using the quasi-gamma test data resulting from the distributor-implemented solution. When dealing with more complex redevelopment scenarios, partnering with solution managers can help to jointly develop a prototype and gain more direct access to relevant customer and product-related information. In both of these scenarios, changes to product features are sometimes made to meet the needs of customers who are ahead of the market (i.e., “lead users”; von Hippel, 1986), resulting in markets with substantial potential for the future. Finally, the typology can be used by distributors and producers to determine the potential impact of the information-processing activities undertaken by distributors on channel relationships. Distributors with advanced information coordination and relational capabilities can provide a rich contribution to PLM; but they might also claim more autonomy in the process. In the longer run, this power asymmetry has the potential to increase channel conflict (e.g., Webb and Lambe, 2007) because of diminished compatibility in the goals of channel members and changed expectations regarding the roles and rights of each party. To address these issues, channel M. RESTUCCIA ET AL. members must ensure the presence of appropriate incentives, communication mechanisms, and trust levels to facilitate alignment of interests and cooperation (Anderson and Narus, 1990; Palmatier, Dant, and Grewal, 2007). Limitations and Future Research Our study contributes to both theory and practice, as detailed in the previous sections. Nevertheless, certain limitations are acknowledged that should be addressed by future research. In particular, the small sample size and its focus on industrial goods, while coherent with the exploratory nature of the investigation and its goal to achieve greater understanding of distributor contribution to PLM, limits the generalizability of the findings. Thus, future research should validate this typology through a larger scale quantitative study (Doty and Glick, 1994). To ensure that the typology is a generalized description of distributor information-processing activities during PLM, the sample should include both manufacturers of goods and service providers. Extant research shows that service innovation benefits from information from frontline employees or sales representatives due to their privileged access to customers (de Brentani, 1989, 2001; Lievens and Moenaert, 2000). Thus, because of their proximity to local markets, the role of distributors in the service sector might be even more decisive. Because of the inherently interactive nature of service offerings (Grönroos, 1998), a more prominent role of relational capabilities could be expected in the service context. Future research should add measures of NPD performance and of environmental conditions. Given that information processing has a beneficial impact on NPD success (Pentina and Strutton, 2007), the inclusion of performance measures would help in verifying the positive impact on performance suggested by some of the respondents in this study. Whereas distributor input was linked to reduced development time and to competitive advantage, no performance indicators were used in this study. It would also be beneficial to study the impact of key environmental factors—for example, competitive intensity, market instability, or degree of globalization (de Brentani, Kleinschmidt, and Salomo, 2010; Frazier et al., 2009; Song et al., 2008)—on the occurrence of distributor information-processing types. Future research could test whether an environment that is subject to more rapid change accelerates the development of information coordination and relational capabilities on the part of distributors, leading to more sophisticated informationprocessing scenarios during PLM. DISTRIBUTOR CONTRIBUTION TO PRODUCT LIFE-CYCLE MANAGEMENT Finally, future research could explore whether distributors with more advanced capabilities—that is, solution implementers and solution managers—can help producers to identify “lead users” (Franke, von Hippel, and Schreier, 2006; von Hippel, 1986). Distributors acting in these roles sometimes detect pressing needs that are in advance of the majority of customers in a given market. Distributors’ active posture toward the problems experienced by these pioneering customers can help producers to achieve the enhanced benefits associated with solving them. 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