Innovation and development activities in professional service firms: A role structure perspective

Research output: ThesisDissertationMonograph


This study explores innovation and development activities in professional service firms (PSFs) from the perspective of role structures. Whereas innovation activities in some firms are organized as a separate function, in PSFs these activities are often dispersed throughout the organisation. Professional employees are recognized as key individuals who may carry out these activities more or less autonomously alongside their normal service work. Knowledge of how such system works could offer new insights into the so-called employee-driven innovation, which is currently creating interest in many organisational settings.

This study uses the theories of social structure and roles to address this issue. Innovation and development activities are approached as social systems that consist of interrelated behaviours of organisational members. The role structures in these systems consist of interrelated role expectations concerning these behaviours. The study describes and explains the nature of the role structures, and explores their coherence and flexibility in different organisational contexts. The study is a qualitative multiple-case study that is based on critical realism. The primary data consist of 54 interviews in five PSFs.

The study shows that although autonomy and information characterized the studied activities, similar structures were identified among the case firms. A multitude of innovation and developments systems were identified in each firm, with different goals, participants, and role structures. Five role structure types were identified and termed as centralized, coordinated, empowered, collective, and dispersed structures. The structures were fairly flexible, as individuals were often able to shape their own roles and role structures. Many innovation and development systems acted autonomously within units and teams, due to locality of novelties and context-specificity of required skills. The findings suggest that the participants and the role structure types depend on how the abilities to explore and evaluate a novelty and to mobilise resources for its implementation were dispersed in the organisation.

The study contributes to current innovation studies by showing the diversity of role structures within a firm, the co-existence of which within a single organization has not previously been explored in detail. The findings show that organizational members are involved in innovation and development activities in a variety of ways, and that a single individual may simultaneously have different roles in several activities. Therefor, in order to understand employee-driven innovations, greater attention should be paid to differences in novelty types and organisational sub-contexts.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor Degree
Awarding Institution
  • Aalto University - Department of Industrial Engineering and Management
  • Vartiainen, Matti, Supervisor, External person
Award date22 Feb 2013
Print ISBNs978-952-60-4987-8
Electronic ISBNs978-952-60-4988-5
Publication statusPublished - 22 Feb 2013
MoE publication typeG4 Doctoral dissertation (monograph)


  • professional service firms
  • service innovation
  • employee-driven innovation
  • role structures
  • social structures


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