who has innovative ideas?

JC Spender (’s first guest blogger) has a nice piece in the Wall Street Journal about innovation: “Who has innovative ideas? Employees.”


Written by teppo

August 23, 2010 at 3:14 pm

11 Responses

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  1. Sure, but read the article and we discover that it’s those employees who cultivate seeds planted by “senior management”, and (this is the kicker) that the value of these “innovation communities” is gauged by their measurable output. And guess whose “measurement is key”. That’s right: senior management. So what’s really the alpha and omega of innovation? Senior management.



    August 23, 2010 at 5:35 pm

  2. Thanks for the link Teppo. Interesting article. It struck me that Spender and Strong’s notion of “innovation communities” seems very much like old “community of practice” wine (ala Wenger, Brown & Duguid) in new Innovation bottles?

    I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with this if it draws some attention to these idea. Community structures are interesting empirical ground within organisations. For instance, understanding how they act as a mechanism for knowledge governance within the firm.

    re: Thomas’ point. I wonder what percentage of interviewees came from senior management…



    August 23, 2010 at 11:57 pm

  3. Yeah, CoPs again. Not quite. Wenger never did grasp their essence. Our piece, for all it’s many shortcomings (including non-academic length) attends to the process of creating a CoP. CoP authors tend to stress ‘shared practice’ without telling us what practice is actually about or how it comes to be. Our intent, in this little snippet of a complete theory or organization, is to draw attention to ‘the conversation’.

    And yes, Thomas is right on the money, it’s all about senior management and what they determine. Why else would we study strategy?



    August 24, 2010 at 2:14 am

  4. I think I was reacting to the vaguely populist (folksy, even) title of the piece (which I imagine the WSJ came up with?). I agree with JC that we need to study what senior management can do (and does do and does not do) to foster innovation. The title, however, seems to shift responsibility downwards in the organization, which is a familiar move among some theorists (and consultants). When things go wrong, of course, senior management also makes that move.



    August 24, 2010 at 3:58 am

  5. Thanks for the reply JC. I think your article does a good job of highlighting the “community” issues and bringing more of an orgtheory/strategic management angle to the conversation.

    One source that I’ve seen deal well with how to create a CoP is Wenger, McDermontt and Snyder(2002). I am not sure if you’ve seen it, but it might be of interest. The suggestions within are largely in line with those of your article. For instance, see chapter (#4) on the process involved in developing a CoP. Other examples within the text that might be of interest include:

    On getting a variety of viewpoints, see pg. 72.

    On creating a conversation between senior management and participants, see pg. 213-215.

    On the importance of pulling vs. pushing participants, see pg. 85-86.

    On the importance of measurement and how to do it, see pg. 167.

    This is what led to my “old wine” observation. Best wishes. Sam.


    Sam MacAulay

    August 24, 2010 at 8:15 am

  6. OK Sam, no question your reading of W, M & S seems to suggest old wine. This is no place to debate the differences between our position and theirs fully but if you look at the early pages of their book you see CoPs are conceived primarily as a ‘knowledge-management’ strategy for managing in the new ‘knowledge intensive age’. This is fine in itself, but suffers from their insecure grasp of ‘knowledge’, likewise I’m inclined to be suspicious of any comments by non-managing academics about ‘what managers have been missing’ (p.11).

    In this respect our comment about managers’ ‘signal lack of strategic courage and resolve’ says just what we meant it to say, not to presume we outsiders could ever know more than the managers in the field, rather that all too often we can observe managers dis-trusting those who most probably do know what might be possible – for no supportable reason beyond their own psychological and ‘political’ concerns.

    WM&S’s treatment suffers in particular from their insecure notion of ‘tacit knowledge’ (p.9). Yes, whatever it is it is ’embodied’ and ‘social’ – so presuming the very phenomenon they seek to analyze (socially distributed unarticulated ‘knowledge’). But what does this actually tell us, beyond replacing one puzzling term with another equally puzzling?

    What we miss in Wenger’s work, as I indicated previously, is a secure notion of ‘practice’ and this drives right to the heart of their epistemology.

    My intellectual heritage here goes back to Sylvia Scribner and Jean Lave and their notions of ‘practice’ as the distinct form of human knowing developed during the process of establishing the Self in a life-world – somewhat along the lines of Heidegger might have suggested.

    As I read WM&S they presume CoPs are about ‘organizing’ and ‘managing’ a relatively fixed body of knowledge – i.e. the focus is on communication and the transfer of that knowledge around the community they define into existence. The talk of ‘learning’ is not grounded in anything more substantial that our everyday use of that term i.e. there is no theory of learning and, in particular, no theory of whether it is individuals or CoPs that learn. Nonaka & Takeuchi are notably more secure on these matters.

    Note also that when WM&S argue ‘knowledge is dynamic’ they presuppose a ‘required baseline of knowledge’ (p.11). I have no idea what this means, but it smacks of an essentially positivist epistemology. Scribner et al would not recognize this interpretation. For them the questions are epistemological and psychological – principally about the nature of the acting Self. Their project was a critique of positivist psychology and an attempt to build a psychology of practice.

    Our piece hides the distinctly non-positivistic proposition that ‘innovation communities’ bring together selves that have been re-constructed in the process of engaging a life-world. Managers are not engaged in the same life-world and cannot, therefore, ever have or share the products of innovative practice.

    As we propose them, innovation communities are allusions to an organizational process that transforms such ‘knowing’ into corporate strategic practice – a process that must (a) pass through senior management and be mediated by their strategic choices, and (b) work through an inter-subjective language, in particular the complex but highly specific language which actually is the organization. To outsiders this is just ‘jargon’, but it is like any community’s language – without penetrating it, one cannot enter into the life-worlds of those whose activity one is observing, nor grasp how it changes.

    Thus innovation communities are nothing like CoPs, a technique for managing the ‘organization’s body of knowledge’ – presuming that could be identified. On the contrary, they are a linguistic term for drawing senior management’s attention to the fact that it is others’ exploratory practice under conditions of uncertainty that drives organizational practice forward.

    We return to two well-known knowledge-management theorists – Adam Smith and Fred Taylor. In line with Smith, Taylor repeats over and over in ‘Principles’, that nine tenths of the innovations come from the workforce. He saw that gathering them into management’s strategizing was crucial.

    As you say, our comments are indeed ‘old wine’ – but nothing to do with what WM&S have produced. Smith offered mangers no guidance about how to link the operative’s discovery processes to corporate strategy. There is no ‘knowledge-based’ theory of the firm. Taylor, in contrast, is quite specific. Our critique of his methods is that they were over-structured and that conversation is more effective than his specialized planners who collected, parsed, analyzed and redistributed new practices – especially in today’s more language-intensive contexts.



    August 24, 2010 at 2:56 pm

  7. Thanks for such a substantial reply JC. There’s a lot for me to digest here. I’ve spent much of my PhD fieldwork studying how individuals search through social networks within an organisation. This organisation uses CoPs to help connect technical capabilities that span sites. So, I’ve seen some of these ideas in the field and made a point of reading a bit of the literature that inspired these efforts and some other related work (e.g. Lars Hakanson’s work on epistemic communities). I’d be very interested to read your work on innovation communities in more detail. Do you have any longer (e.g. academic) articles or books forthcoming on innovation communities?

    To my mind, the CoPs I’ve seen in the field seem very similar to what you describe as innovation communities: senior management plays a strategic role; knowledge is not only stored, shared, but also created; they’ve influenced strategy and so forth. But from your above comments I can see how some of the theoretical foundations might differ in the approach you take.

    One thought: it’s possible that the managers involved with introducing and running the CoP system I am familiar with (which is very sympathetic to Wenger’s work- they even had Wenger work with them on it at one point) have actually adapted their original system towards a model more in line with yours. I see these people regularly so will look into this. If you’re interested, I can let you know. Thanks again for the conversation.



    August 25, 2010 at 8:31 am

  8. Yes, Sam. I would be very interested. The critical issue is Knightian uncertainty. Theorists tend to ignore it. Especially those of a positivist disposition – if only because it destroys their theory!

    Practitioners (an ugly neologism), of course, live with uncertainty all the time. Indeed are inclined to agree with Simon that management is only necessary because of knightian uncertainty / bounded rationality.

    Thus practitioners synthesize uncertainty-coping practices into their thinking as they take up the uncertainty-ignoring notions advanced by academics.

    I would be MOST interested in your empirical observations of this practice.

    When I earlier argued that few CoP authors give us a robust notion of ‘practice’ I am pointing to the distinction between uncertainty-ignoring practice, which is simply the instantiation of a cognition (i.e. acting on the basis of a rational analysis), and the agentic practice of uncertainty-resolution. Practitioners know all about the latter.

    We fail them when we ignore this distinction – which is simply our way of talking about a matter they ‘feel’ – and thereby illuminate their fundamental task. This is not rational decision-making, as we teach our students, but its very anti-thesis, the development of reasoned action in uncertain circumstances. Management is ultimately about the second. Communities of practice are thus NOT about shared reasoning – which is what is left of the WM&S definition when you take all the fluff and undefined notions out – but IS about collective agency.

    In the main, the CoP literature simply assumes people come together in this way. Were this the case, it would amount to proposing employees are ‘self-managing’, so denying the managerial task.

    The key here is to see the merging of (a) action under uncertainty – what goes on every day for every person, and (b) the purposive achievement of multi-person collaboration. The result is ‘organization’. From this point of view organizations do not ‘exist’ with a distinct epistemology and ontology – in particular they are not ‘systems’ with systemic characteristics. On the contrary they are simply our way of labeling a social phenomenon – collaborative agency – a phenomenon that is the result of effective contextualized managing. Thus managing is defined in the way practitioners define it – the creation of some kind of order under circumstances that are inherently un-ordered. Doing this makes profit possible, as Veblen noted in his 1904 Theory of the Business Enterprise – alas too little read.



    August 26, 2010 at 2:42 pm

  9. Sounds good JC. I’ll update you via email.


    Sam MacAulay

    August 27, 2010 at 6:09 am

  10. “But what does this actually tell us, beyond replacing one puzzling term with another equally puzzling?”
    The essence of social sciences captured: replacing terms with other equally puzzling ones!

    “distinct form of human knowing developed during the process of establishing the Self in a life-world”
    This is not just another, more puzzling phrase for “learning from experience”?

    My reading of the comments really suggests there is a huge need for a more honest and thorough discussion on the role and necessity of meta-theory. JC sounds like the nightmare reviewer who insists not only that what is said is justified in terms of the data and prior substantial findings but that it utilizes vocabulary aligned with some preferred philosophical stance. I am not sure that is really good pragmatism. The same question of course relates to Teppo’s interest with methodological individualism and the endless critical realism vs. constructivism debates. Even though positivism is a stupid mistaken failure it seems seriously problematic to brand someone or a claim positivist. It is like calling things ‘socialist’ – we should be able to do better and point out why the claims in question are wrong or unhelpful in the context of the phenomenon we study.

    Since uncertainty (Knightian in economics) is a topic I have spent some nights thinking about, I tend to agree with all JC said. The pragmatic (and practical) question is though: how should this affect what we write? Uncertainty is like power: it is everywhere in what we study, yet insisting everyone to always mention it would have very little substantive contribution to our field. (I don’t know about you but my reviewers have asked me to add trivial trope paragraphs in order to “acknowledge power”).

    So what is the role of ‘meta theory’? Perhaps paradoxically, my reading of the post-positivist philosophy (e.g. Kuhn, Rorty) rather suggests that discourses that stay close to empirical data and phenomena are actually more helpful than grand theoretical systems that closely guard the purity of immensely complex concepts they conceive. The added value of IC over CoP ought to be phrased in terms of actionable claims that both theories can produce. Would this be overly simplistic?



    August 28, 2010 at 9:47 pm

  11. Wow Henri, right on the money! And yes, I’ll confess to being a nightmare reviewer! I served the SMJ in this role for several decades – having now handed back my poison pen.

    Anyway, back to meta-theory and pragmatism. I have no idea what meta-theory means so let’s deal with pragmatism. It is simply a philosophy, one that stands alongside others such as positivism, subjectivism, constructivism, and so on.

    The most painfully learned part of being a researcher is understanding what comes with adopting any of these. It turns out each has merits and weaknesses, there is no comprehensive philosophy – bar dogma itself. In this sense each is a tool – but for what task? We know this cannot be about understanding ‘reality’. Instead, one might choose to make understanding managers and their thought and practice the task. If this is the task – which is certainly not the only one of interest to our ‘discipline’ – why would we choose positivism as our tool kit?

    I could not agree more with your intuition that Knightian uncertainty is the core issue. The only uncertainty positivism admits is ‘ignorance’ of ‘the knowable real’. This does not seem a very profitable way of looking at what managers do. Anyone who has spent a moment with game theory senses that much of management is about competition under circumstances that are not open to rigorous game-theoretic solutions. Some situations may indeed be open to such solutions, but much of the time management is about screwing up others by being ‘innovative’ or otherwise leveraging off the uncertainties facing the various actors. Surprise is a key notion. Thus management should be framed as action under a kind of uncertainty – indeterminacy – that cannot be admitted by positivism. Constructivism might be more appropriate a tool-kit, though it too has many weaknesses.

    There are other management-framing uncertainties, and each demands attention to the epistemological tool-kit to be adopted – as I discussed several decades ago in Industry Recipes (1989).

    The point here being NOT that I got it right – by definition that goal is not attainable except as dogma – but rather the methodological point that every researcher needs to come to terms with their position’s advantages and weaknesses.

    Methodological individualism is an important example. It makes a point few other approaches can make. Is this all there is to be said? Of course not. We all inhabit webs we ourselves spin. Research – once we abandon the dogmatic search for ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ – is about conceptual house-keeping, finding which ideas belong with which like arranging one’s stores in a larder. Once arranged, then our sense of the theoretical language is that everything is defined in terms of everything else. Take Boyle’s Law relating pressure, volume and temperature. Each term is defined in terms of the other as concepts and so released from the arbitrary constraints of empirical practice. Temperature is on the Kelvin scale, not defined in terms of when the steel glows yellow-red. Science stands on concepts, not artisanal practices.

    Perhaps meta-theory is a term that is at the metaphysical level of our pre-assumptions only – ontology, the nature of knowledge, or the notion of human responsibility? In terms of my comments here there is clearly a metaphysical distinction between ignoring versus dealing with uncertainty when considering management. After a number of years in this game, I have absolutely no understanding of why anyone would want to start off by ignoring it. But there you are, horses for courses, as we Brits say.



    August 29, 2010 at 2:05 pm

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