For some time already I have been struck by how thin most (popular press as well as casual) discussions regarding innovating and innovations are. This showed particularly clearly at the Healthcare Innovation Expo in London in March 2011, where I was involved in the Innovation Hub experiment – a UK Cabinet Office attempt to promote grassroots engagement in innovations and entrepreneurship. The simple idea was to provide a wall on which passers-by in this health care exhibition could propose new, especially digital, solutions to health care related challenges. These would then be nurtured by the network developing online and offline. The Cabinet Office itself does not promise any money nor official status for these ideas, but rather wishes to give a helping hand in the generation of ideas, hoping that entrepreneurial people and organisations will take the ideas into production.
Plenty of ideas were generated and placed on the wall on Post-it notes. And here lies the general problem: innovations are seen as good ideas. One, thought not the main, shortcoming with this view is that so often good ideas do not go much further than the wall, or wherever else they have been voiced or published. More importantly, this view of innovations relates to the Schumpeterian theory of winning, more formally labelled as ‘innovation economics’: new innovations overtake older ones just by grace of being better, whether technically or otherwise. Yet, there is plenty of evidence that this view is simplistic, does not explain change, and thus is analytically unhelpful. One of the classic cases cited in organisation and management literature is the case of video cassette technologies where the technically inferior VHS format won the race over the superior Beta format.
Now, it is widely recognised in organisational science that innovation is invention plus impact. While the above approach may still fit within this definition of innovation, a more compelling view of how innovations become adopted comes from economic sociology. It argues that all economic activity, and here resource allocation decisions (as economists would put it), is heavily embedded in social relations, as argued e.g. by Mark Granovetter of Stanford already in the 1980’s. As a result, whether an innovation will become adopted, in one organisation or large scale in society, tends to depend on how it relates to existing social, but also organisational and administrative, structures. Organisational and administrative as well, because the world has been organised largely by formal organisations (about this thesis, more in another blog post), and therefore adoption tends to be decided in formal organisations. Andrew Hargadon of UC Davis, in his recent visit to Oxford, put it well: Innovation work is about building permanent networks of relationships. It is by building these network relations that an organisation may bring an innovation into practical use (impact). On the ground this will mean negotiating with customer, supplier, regulatory, and even competitor organisations the implementation, and possible adaptation of existing systems. Just think of how much negotiating with various public and private organisations would the implementation of electric automobiles require: in order to arrange e.g. recharging facilities at petrol stations, new parts to and rearrangement of parts within automobiles, new assembly lines for building automobiles, possibly new logic for city planning (that caters to the shorter driving distances of electric cars), and different taxation treatment from petrol cars, just to mention a few issues. Therefore, the impact part of innovations requires careful thought, beyond merely the shiny new idea.
While tasked to canvas for ideas for the ‘Innovation Hub’, I tried to raise discussion with the visitors to the ‘Hub’ whether the mere idea is really what we should focus on or is there something else more important. I even suggested that as part of the proposal for a solution the author should also name the existing solution that needs replacing, by which it then would be easier to locate the whole network of actors and systems that will be affected by the adoption of the new innovation. However, this idea did not seem to catch on, just yet anyway…..
Doctoral research at the University of Oxford (Oxford Internet Institute), with earlier academic background in organisational and management science (Said Business School), as well as political science. My earlier professional background consists of (largely implementation) work relating to novel organisational and societal systems in transportation and regional economy, as well as entrepreneurship. In my current research project I am investigating on a broader level how social change begins to happen, which at a lower level means to study how innovations begin to take shape within a specific area of social activity. The empirical case is the emergence of mobile communication technology in health care, which I am making a comparison in Finland and the UK (- or just England, actually). The theoretical framework I am using is one of the core constructs in sociology, 'institutional theory' and within that 'institutional work'. This work has a home in economic sociology.