Technological capability building in public research organisations: the case of CSIR in South Africa

Sekwele, Stella Dineo
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The purpose of this study is to investigate the process that Public Research Organisations (PROs) in South Africa, such as the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), use in building technological capabilities. PROs in industrialising countries face a number of challenges such as limited access to resources, cut-backs in government funding, lack of relevance to industry needs and failure to transfer technology to industry as well as changing government priorities. In the specific case of the CSIR Biosciences Unit, the above mentioned challenges have had a detrimental effect on building technological capabilities, and are likely to have a compounded effect on how technological capabilities are built within the CSIR. One approach that has been suggested in the literature reviewed in the case of industrialising countries that could assist in understanding the challenges currently faced by the CSIR Biosciences Unit is to contrast the elements of the balanced Technological Capability Building (TCB) system model with an unbalanced TCB system model. The objective of this research is therefore to understand the factors that promote or impede technological capability building in a PRO in South Africa. The study uses the TCB model as a reference to investigate how this is done in the context of the selected case study, but it goes further to explore how the TCB model is actualised/implemented in this particular PRO, investigating how a lack of technological capabilities impacts on its overall performance. Much has been written about how best to develop technological capabilities in general. However, there is limited empirical evidence on the process through which capability building is done within public research organisations in industrialising countries. Therefore, little is known about the specifics of the process in these contexts, including considerations such as speed and decision making in the capability building process. Public Research Organisations (PROs) in such countries use highly sophisticated technology and machinery, a majority of which is sourced internationally, in order to carry out their developmental mandate. As a result, the technology and operational expertise also emanates from outside of industrialising countries. ii In this study, empirical data from the CSIR Biosciences Unit is interrogated and analysed by employing a qualitative methodology in order to gain an indepth understanding of how this process works in a PRO based in South Africa. Most of the empirical literature that has been explored by several authors and scholars primarily deals with how organisations in industrialised countries build technological capabilities, but there is very limited literature and empirical data on how public research institutions in industrialising countries build their own technological capabilities. In conclusion, the findings of this research project are in general agreement with the literature, which indicates that organisations that deploy a balanced and effective approach to TCB with equal attention given to internal and external processes are likely to yield positive results in terms of improved effectiveness. However, this study goes further to demonstrate that the more fundamental issues in this particular case are limited funding, ineffective and inconsistent leadership and a lack of retention of scarce skills.
Thesis (M.M. (Innovation Studies))--University of the Witwatersrand, Faculty of Commerce, Law and management, Graduate School of Business Administration, 2015.