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Employees’ agency in the formalisation of knowledge-intensive business service processes: A cross-case comparison

Tiina Tuominen (Faculty of Management and Business, Tampere University, Tampere, Finland)
Miia Martinsuo (Industrial Engineering and Management, Tampere University, Tampere, Finland)

Journal of Service Theory and Practice

ISSN: 2055-6225

Article publication date: 18 December 2018

Issue publication date: 23 April 2019




The purpose of this paper is to identify and explain how different kinds of knowledge-intensive business service processes (KIBS processes) can be formalised without excessively limiting employees’ agency, and thus flexibility in value creation. Previous research acknowledges the need to balance flexibility and formalisation but does not investigate how employees achieve this balance in various types of KIBS processes.


This paper employs a qualitative multiple-case study approach to compare employees’ agency in six successful formalisation projects targeting different types of KIBS processes in three firms. Through a systematic mapping of employees’ agency across the cases, this study reveals alternative patterns of formalisation that enable agency.


The findings reveal notable differences in employees’ agency in the studied cases. When KIBS processes were scale intensive and/or the culture-favoured conformity, formalisation projects were centrally organised, and employees obeyed codified process templates, even though some agency remained. When KIBS processes were smaller scale and/or the culture-favoured freedom, employees conducted formalisation projects autonomously and retained higher levels of agency in formalised KIBS processes.

Practical implications

Firms and business units providing KIBS should choose their formalisation approaches locally based on the scalability of the KIBS process, their employees’ skill levels, knowledge bases and culture. Choosing the right approach enables flexibility while striving for efficient processes.


Previous studies suggest that formalisation benefits only some KIBS, but this comparative approach shows that a variety of KIBS processes benefit from formalisation if the formalisation approach is tailored to the context. Alternative patterns of formalisation are revealed to guide further empirical research on the topic.



The authors gratefully acknowledge the contributions of Katriina Järvi, Jesse Valtanen and Mikko Lehtonen in data collection and project cooperation. The Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation TEKES, Tampere University of Technology, Aalto University and the participating companies funded the empirical data collection. Dr Tuominen acknowledges support from the Finnish Work Environment Fund and the Evald and Hilda Nissi Foundation during the writing process.


Tuominen, T. and Martinsuo, M. (2019), "Employees’ agency in the formalisation of knowledge-intensive business service processes: A cross-case comparison", Journal of Service Theory and Practice, Vol. 29 No. 1, pp. 45-70.



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