April 13, 2010

What is "innovation"?

Sunday night, as I waited for feedback on a draft chapter about open innovation — part of a volume on innovation for the Wiley Encyclpedia of Marketing — I saw an interesting headline on the Wall Street Journal website:
APRIL 12, 2010
What Is Innovation? Defining and Measuring a Nebulous Concept


Everyone agrees innovation is desirable but few agree on its exact definition, especially in a business context. But as companies chase it and governments attempt to promote it, the need to define innovation and, in particular, measure it has become increasingly pressing.
This was an intriguing headline and lead paragraph, because it seemed to overlap a concern I’ve had about open “innovation” and user “innovation” research — and one that I hinted at in the chapter — but because I was on deadline I saved a link to the article and set it aside.

By the time that I retrieved the article Monday (from the university’s Factiva subscription since I dropped WSJ.com due to price increases), it had a new headline, although the lead paragraph remained identical:
APRIL 12, 2010
Blueprint for fostering innovation
Defining and measuring what can be a nebulous concept poses conundrum for businesses, governments
The new headline was perhaps more accurate, since the bulk of the article was about how various governments (UK, Russia, Singapore) and the OECD are seeking new ways to promote innovation. However, I searched in vain for a reference to open innovation, user innovation, or other new concepts in innovation.

It included a plug for the recent book The Silver Lining by Scott Anthony, president of Innosight, the innovation consulting company founded by Clay Christensen. (Anthony apparently heads a VC firm called Innosight Ventures).

Anthony and others were quoted talking about alternatives to valuing companies to the traditional idea of counting patents. Private equity investor Saul Klein — whose firm Index Ventures made out like a bandit dumping open source startup MySQL on Sun Microsystems
It's thriving at a level that it probably never has before because so much of the infrastructure of the Internet and the software which runs the Internet has been commoditized and is freely available. All major software is now open-source.

"A lot of the heavy lifting software developers would have done in the past is now freely available to them to tinker with and adapt. That gives massive potential for innovation and really allows anybody at very low cost to develop new goods and services.
Of course, commercial open source software companies are practicing a form of open innovation, but this didn’t answer my question.

The issue I’ve been wrestling with in my O/U/CI research is that not all “innovation” in OI, UI or CI papers really qualifies as innovation. Marcel Bogers & I talk about this in our current O/U/CI papers, and it’s also something I mention in this week’s chapter on OI:
There is the open question (cf. West & Lakhani, 2008) as to whether a typical open source project generates “innovation” as normally defined in the literature— particularly for projects like Linux that are freely distributed imitations of existing technologies.
I don’t have time to say more today, because I have to finish a presentation for my work on engineering entrepreneurship in the San Diego Telecom industry. But I’ll come back to the topic — and my overview chapter — at another point soon.

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