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To successfully compete with advanced market multinationals (AMNEs), emerging market multinationals (EMNEs) have to access higher innovation capabilities from their autonomously operating advanced economy subsidiaries. There are two competing schools of thought on how EMNE subsidiaries obtain capability-upgrading autonomy from their headquarters. The first school of thought embraces a knowledge-based, boundedly rational perspective on headquarters’ delegation of capability-upgrading autonomy. The second argues that normative stakeholder priorities pervade headquarters’ capability-upgrading logic, with a “headquarters knows best logic” standing in the way of knowledge-based subsidiary autonomy. This paper adopts a process perspective to understand how EMNE headquarters’ logics and subsidiaries’ mandate for capability-upgrading co-evolve over time. Drawing on the case of Chinese multinational subsidiaries (CMNEs) in Belgium we find that subsidiary managers’ ability to challenge normative expectations is a condition to headquarters acting in a knowledge-based manner. We contribute to the literature on EMNE capability-upgrading by developing several propositions on how autonomy negotiation processes between headquarters and subsidiary evolve over time; depending on the historical imprinting of home success values, the socialisation in how to respond to failure and the emergence of constructive conflict.
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