What Is the Work Performed in This Field?

Intangible assets and their role in obtaining and maintaining competitive advantage have a considerable history in the economics and business literatures albeit in different forms and with different definitions. But combining the different literature streams into a coherent whole can help us understand the opportunities presented by attention to these intangibles as well as develop a better grasp of the potential of the relatively new interest in Big Data and business analytics.

Knowledge-Based View of the Firm

The earliest interest in intangibles generally revolved around innovation. Given that context, it’s not surprising that Schumpeter (1934) is often seen as an important source, especially his focus on knowledge combination, learning, and new insights. Nelson and Winter’s (1982) evolutionary theory suggests that intangibles, such as skills and learning, might be the real drivers of competitive advantage in firms. This view fit nicely with the near-contemporary development of the resource-based view of the firm (Wernerfelt 1984) with organizational knowledge, in this case, as the key resource or differentiator. From there, a knowledge-based view of the firm with knowledge and similar intangibles at the heart of competitive advantage was a natural extension (Teece 1998; Grant 1996). Indeed, many in the field now argue that organizational knowledge may be the only source of unique, sustainable competitive advantage as other, more traditional assets and differentiators become commoditized.

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