Developing Absorptive Capacity Theory for Public Service Organizations: Emerging UK Empirical Evidence

Michael J.R. Butler*, Ewan Ferlie

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A strong public policy focus on high performance means that utilizing management knowledge effectively is at a premium for UK public service organizations. This study empirically examined two English public agencies to explore the inter-sectoral transfer of a strategic management model originally developed in the private sector – absorptive capacity – which is one way of conceptualizing an organizational competence in such knowledge mobilization. Two theoretical contributions are made. First, a new absorptive capacity framework for public service organizations is developed which recognizes the participation of public agency project teams during an innovation process proceeding over time with phases of co-creation, testing, metamorphosis and diffusion. Second, our novel framework modifies an early influential model of absorptive capacity. Counter to this model, we argue that realized absorptive capacity requires agency from skilled and embedded actors to turn ‘curbing routines’ into ‘enabling routines’ in all four stages. Project (middle) managers have flexibility in their roles to seize episodic moments of opportunity to innovate and achieve service delivery goals, and to build absorptive capacity capability. Absorptive capacity capability develops organically over time. Future research directions are discussed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)344-364
Number of pages21
JournalBritish Journal of Management
Issue number2
Early online date5 Feb 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2020

Bibliographical note

© 2019 The Authors. British Journal of Management published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of British Academy of Management

This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Funding: Economic and Social Research Council. Grant Number: RES‐189‐25‐0025


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