Approaching the innovation frontier in Korea: the transition phase to leadership

Michael Hobday, Howard Rush, John Bessant

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


As leading East Asian latecomer firms begin to compete on the basis of new product development and in-house research and development (R&D), they appear to confront a difficult strategic dilemma. Should they compete as R&D and brand leaders on the international stage or should they continue with their tried and tested formula of low cost catch up competitiveness? Most studies of East Asian firms focus on catch up innovation processes. By contrast, this paper focuses on the challenges facing latecomer firms in the transition phase from catch up to leadership status, in order to assess the ‘strategic dilemma’ argument and examine the nature of transition innovation. Based on in-depth interviews with leading Korean firms, the paper contends that the strategic dilemma argument is a misleading oversimplification of the main innovation challenges facing most Korean firms as they become more technologically advanced. Most of the major exporters (or chaebol) offer a portfolio of products, some of which are technologically advanced and others less advanced. Corporate innovation strategies tend to be executed in relation to the needs of specific products (or closely related product families) rather than ‘the firm’ in its entirety. In addition, many firms in many product areas have yet to reach the innovation frontier stage and even the leading chaebol continue to produce large volumes of products under sub-contracting and licensing agreements. Firm strategies tend to embody a mix of leadership, ‘followership’ and latecomer positions according to the product portfolio of the company in question. The study identifies various strategic options and difficulties facing Korean firms during the transition process and points to promising future research on latecomer transition.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1433-1457
Number of pages25
JournalResearch Policy
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2004


  • Research and development
  • Exploratory study
  • Firm strategies
  • Innovation


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