Filling the Gap: The Consequences of Collaborator Loss in Corporate R&D

By Felix Poege, Fabian Gaessler, Karin Hoisl, Dietmar Harhoff, Matthias Dorner

Knowledge generation is increasingly pursued in collaboration. The success of such collaborative efforts is grounded in the joint use of “team-specific capital”. In this, collaborators combine explicit and tacit knowledge—human capital—and resources rooted in their relationships with each other—social capital. Mainly in the context of science, previous studies have shown that the loss of a researcher (e.g., due to death) leads to a reduction in team-specific capital among collaborators, which in turn decreases their long-term productivity. However, in the corporate context, the loss of a knowledge worker affects not only collaborators but also the employer, who seeks the continuation of current operations by filling the gap.

In a recent paper, we study knowledge workers in corporate R&D and argue that a collaborator loss affects the remaining collaborators not only by reducing their team-specific capital but also by increasing their bargaining power over the employer, who is in need of filling the gap left by the lost collaborator to ensure the continuation of R&D projects. This shift in bargaining power may, in turn, lead to benefits, such as additional resources or more attractive working conditions. These benefits can partially compensate for the negative effect of reduced team-specific capital on productivity and influence the career trajectories of the remaining collaborators.

We empirically investigate the consequences of collaborator loss by exploiting plausibly exogenous variation from 845 unexpected deaths of active inventors. For this, we draw on a novel and unique employer-employee dataset, which records complete biographies of more than 150,000 inventors in Germany between 1980 and 2014. As remaining collaborators, we consider all inventors that have patented at least once with the respective deceased inventor in the ten years prior to death. As a comparison group, we use the collaborators of carefully matched ‘pseudo-deceased’ inventors. We use difference-in-differences designs and hazard models to investigate the effect of the unexpected death of an inventor on the productivity (patented inventions) and the career trajectories (promotion and job mobility) of the remaining collaborators.

We find that collaborator loss has a lasting negative effect on inventor productivity, but find that the effect is driven by the group of inventors with a different employer than the deceased inventor. The negative average effect is in line with previous studies and with the notion of reduced team-specific capital. Finding no negative effect of collaborator loss on productivity for inventors with the same employer however is hard to explain if the reduction of team-specific capital was the only consequence of collaborator loss. Instead, our results are consistent with a countervailing effect on productivity resulting from a more favorable allocation of internal resources and more attractive working conditions for the remaining collaborators with the same employer.

Figure 1: Impact of inventor death on promotion to a senior position for the remaining collaborators with the same employer by position of the deceased inventor (Kaplan–Meier estimates)

Figure 1

To strengthen the plausibility of our explanation, we further test whether the loss of a collaborator directly affects the remaining collaborators’ career trajectories. First, we show that the remaining collaborators with the same employer are likelier to receive a promotion, in particular if the deceased inventor held a senior position (Figure 1). Second, remaining inventors are less likely to leave their current employers, in particular where the remaining collaborator is a suitable replacement for the deceased inventor in terms of human and social capital. Finally, we find that the career effects occur instantly and phase out before productivity effects materialize. Given this chronological order, we can rule out that the career effects simply result from changes in the remaining collaborators’ productivity.

Our study contributes to several strands of literature. First, it adds to the literature on collaborations and the careers of knowledge workers by investigating the effects of collaborator loss on the career trajectories of knowledge workers. Our study extends the existing research that has only focused on (decreases in) productivity but has ignored the role of the employer interested in filling the gap resulting from collaborator loss. Additionally, we highlight the role of substitutability among inventors for their individual careers. In contrast, the literature emphasizes complementarity as foundational for the joint performance of inventors. Second, our study improves our understanding of employment relationships in knowledge-intensive jobs. In particular, it introduces bargaining power as an important aspect of such relationships, which determine the productivity and careers of knowledge workers.

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