Thesis Defense - Hiba Al Ali


Ms. Hiba AL ALI, a doctoral student at McGill University in the area of Strategy & Organization will be defending her thesis entitled:

Innovation in the Arab World Context

Hiba Al Ali

Doctoral Student in Strategy & Organization, McGill University

Co-Chairs of student's committee:  Prof. Jan Jorgensen & Prof. Margaret Graham

Date: November 1, 2012

Time: 3:15 pm - 5:15 pm

Location: Room 178, Bronfman Building

A copy of the thesis is available for examination in the PhD Program Offices at McGill, HEC, Concordia and UQAM.


The thesis is grounded in the literature of the national system of innovation (NSI) and, its latest version, the national innovation and competence building system (NICS) that focuses on the developed and, to a lesser extent, emerging markets such as Brazil, Russia, India and China (the “BRIC” group). Four theoretical gaps are identified in this literature. The literature lacks the following: 1) an agreed upon unit of analysis; 2) a broad approach that goes beyond the narrow focus on science-based high-technology innovations; 3) a fine-grained articulation of innovation’s micro-dynamics in developed countries; and, 4) an understanding of innovation’s macro and micro elements in developing countries.

The thesis focuses on the fourth gap, attempting to provide an initial understanding of innovation in the developing countries of the Arab world. It poses the following research question: how is innovation in the Arab world countries brought to fruition without the enabling institutions that the innovation and NSI literatures consider to be essential? The thesis takes a broad view of innovation that goes beyond the science-based high-technology innovations that typify much of the innovation literature to consider innovations that employ low- and medium-technology (LMT) that constitute the majority of innovative activity referred to as ‘hidden innovation’. Besides LMT innovations in manufacturing, hidden innovation comprises organizational, social, and service innovations. Reflecting this broad view, I advance the following working definition: Innovation is any newly developed and diffused institutional, social, organizational or business model, process, product or service that has been broadly adopted within a certain community, industry, country or the world.

The research is conducted as an exploratory qualitative study that is retrospective and longitudinal. It deals with five innovation mini-cases within an embedded case. These mini-cases are researched in the three Arab countries of Jordan, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates. The embedded case is Aramex, a Jordanian-founded service sector organization that has grown into a major global logistics and transportation solutions provider. One of the innovation mini-cases is organizational, another is social, and three are services. Each of these mini-cases is identified as a unit of analysis. The research initially uses a semi-structured interview guide and research questions that are premised on NSI’s foundational constructs of 1) formal institutions; 2) knowledge; and, 3) learning, as well as on NICS’s area of emphasis of 4) social capital.

Early observations in the field reveal the low relevance of these NSI ‘theorized’ foundational constructs in the Arab world context. These observations prompt the use of an unstructured interview format to collect the data and, later, an iterative data analysis and literature research process. Arab world NSI ‘observed’ foundational constructs ultimately emerge and an Arab world NSI grounded theory and model are inductively built. The ‘observed’ constructs are the following: 1) institutions; 2) culture of empowerment; 3) dynamic capabilities building; and, 4) social capital. Besides revealing qualitatively distinct institutions and the significance of a culture of empowerment in the Arab world contexts, these constructs uncover alignments with developed-country NICS’s areas of emphasis on social capital and competence building.

Results indicate that institutions considered in the developed-country literature to be ‘essential’ for innovation are often either weak or missing from the Arab world contexts while strong ‘hostile’ institutions seem to be prevalent. In response to this adverse set of conditions in the Arab world, organizations dynamically build micro-level capabilities to mitigate the challenges resulting from these weak, missing or hostile macro-level institutions. Consistent with NSI’s pattern of macro-micro interplay, these capabilities seem to play the following four roles vis-à-vis institutions: 1) substitute missing institutions; 2) support weak institutions; 3) overcome hostile institutions; and, in some cases, 4) create new institutions altogether. Several external and internal mechanisms are employed to build capabilities dynamically. The two that emerge as most important in this research are the external mechanism of social capital and the internal mechanism of empowerment that are observed to develop over time into critical capabilities. The process of dynamic capabilities building is mobilized by an overarching organizational culture of empowerment.

The Arab world grounded NSI theory with its model, foundational constructs and the macro-micro interplay offers two main contributions to NSI’s fourth literature gap. First, this articulation of innovation in the Arab world countries builds knowledge within the scant literatures on innovation in developing countries including those of the Arab world. Second, building a grounded theory of an Arab world NSI framework provides an initial understanding of the macro and micro elements of NSI in the developing countries of the Arab world, builds knowledge within the NSI literature and extends it beyond its developed and BRIC country contexts. The thesis also addresses indirectly the other three NSI literature gaps and identifies overlaps with NICS’s areas of emphasis. Hence, it has the potential to contribute to NSI’s literature on developed countries as well as the dynamic capabilities building literature.