Democratizing Innovation

VonhippelI've been reading and thinking about innovation for quite a while, so when someone mentioned Eric Von Hippel's Democratizing Innovation (published 2005), I had to take a look. The book is a combination of academic writing (reporting Von Hippel's and other's research with plenty of references to studies and research and correlation factors) with connections to the wider thinking about innovation and communities. Personally, I could have done with a little less of the academic style.

The basic concept of the book is that innovation cannot be considered the domain of research institutions or companies - if it ever really was. Innovations (significant product improvements and entirely new products) come about through many, many sources. Rather than focusing on the innovation processes, Von Hippel focused on how innovations arise from people (or businesses) that actually use the products. One of the big elements behind Democratizing Innovation is that these things aren't happening in isolation (and if they do they get repeated by many individuals separately), but that the ability to share and communicate within specific communities has gotten so easy that it only naturally pushes innovation out to the edges: where people who actually care can do the innovations.

The book's examples range across a number of disciplines. This kind of innovation might be seen in sporting enthusiasts who modify their equipment, come up with new ways to use the equipment (new techniques), and then modify again to support those uses. Or surgeons who need new tools to conduct new operations. Or entire communities of software user-developers who contribute to the development of their tools. Or the steampunk movement who create groovy equipment, evocative of the Victorian area and share the ideas and designs with one another. Sometimes these innovations become commercial products, and sometimes they stay within the community as post-commercial modifications. There were some interesting comments about companies that believe they were the source of the innovations that were provably developed by users first and several years later became commercial products.

Since I tend to see a lot of connections between innovation and knowledge management, I was pleased to see a number of things in this book that highlighted those connections. One was that a lot of information / knowledge about how things are used are embedded in the environment in which it is used. It's tacit. Acknowledging this is a key to seeing the importance of taking advantage of innovations that occur at the "bleeding edge" of user innovation examples. It is these examples that may become more common over time - and therefore likely candidates for commercialization. Von Hippel highlighted the difference here between customer-requested improvements and innovations by what he calls "lead users" who are doing new and unexpected things with the products and services. There were also connections to the importance of networks and connections amongst people. There was an example where the research into innovation looked for experts through what I would call a network analysis technique: who is more expert than you on this topic. Another obvious connection into KM and networks is the draw of communities of practice in enabling and spreading innovative practices and designs. And this of course leads back to the tacit knowledge embedded in context and use and community of users.

With all the discussion of user-inspired innovation and my reading this book electronically, I had to wonder about user participation in things like ebooks. I wonder what the errata process would look like for books if the collection of readers were allowed to participate in the process more explicitly. This isn't quite the same as innovation, but the idea is related.

Note: This was my first "serious" read in ebook format (Kindle app on iPad). I'm not yet sure if I like reading nonfiction in the electronic mode. I tend to take lots of notes and like to mark pages that have said something interesting to me. The Kindle application lets me highlight and take notes, but in this first attempt the novelty of the technology has somewhat gotten in the way of spontaneous note-taking and writing down of ideas. We'll see how it goes for the future.

2 Comment(s)

So many books on innovation advocate for having an "innovation department". This is a concept I can't get around. I think innovation comes from everywhere.

First, someone has to be close enough to the problem to understand the dynamics of what is going on. This can't be the case for every topic within the research department.

Second, you have to be able to see the problem or the benefit. This requires understanding the user.

Third, every brain is inherently wired for problem solving, even if we're not structured or good at it. Why would we limit the number of brains engaged in problem solving.

I'll add this book to my reading list.

Jamie Flinchbaugh
www.JamieFlinchbaugh.com

Thanks for the comment, Jamie. The perspective of "department for X" is pretty familiar across a lot of business literature. KM department. Office of Lean Transformation. Etc. Etc. From one perspective it is a good place to have a focal point. But from the other, as you suggest, it lets people assume that "someone else will do it" and they can continue operating as they have always done.

Democratizing Innovation takes the discussion a different direction: where can companies find sources of innovation and ideas outside their own walls. In some cases, this means upending decades of formalizing "research" under the roof - or at least acknowledging that there are more smart people beyond your organizational borders than within them.

Enjoy the book.

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