How much do firms imitate each other? The role of external search strategies in KIBS firms

Stefano Li Pira, Anna Cabigiosu, Diego Campagnolo


Purpose. Despite many firms rely on a wide range of external partners to achieve and sustain innovation, we still know little about if and how firms’ openness to external sources of information affects firms’ imitation strategy. We conceptualize openness as the involvement of a heterogeneous range of actors and sources. Approaching this underexplored area of research, we apply information-based theory of imitation to evaluate how firms decide how much to imitate by compensating their information deficiency via external partnerships.

Methodology. We test our hypotheses using a large-scale sample of Italian knowledge intensive business service (KIBS) firms, a very relevant setting for an increasing knowledge-based economy.

Findings. Our findings show that both external search depth and breadth affect firms’ imitation propensity. When the depth of exchanges is high, and firms draw deeply from external sources, KIBS firms increase their level of imitation, while the breadth in the number of external sources takes a curvilinearly (U-shaped) relationship with the imitation propensity.

Practical implications. Managers, who operate in complex and uncertain environments, can rely on external partnerships to explore the external environment and define how much to imitate rivals.

Originality/value. We contribute to the strategic management and KIBS literature by applying information-based theories of imitation to firms’ external search strategy and by identifying new original antecedents to imitative behavior.


Imitation; information; external partners; KIBS

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