The Ecology of Innovation: Part 2 – Language

Idea Factories or ecologies of innovation?

Idea Factories or ecologies of innovation?

Although Innovation is about producing value through doing something new or different than before, the concept is far from simple when applied in practice by individuals and institutions. This second in a series of articles on innovation ecology looks at the way we speak of innovation and how what we talk about new ideas and discovery shapes what we do about it. 

“Language can be a way of hiding your thoughts and preventing communication” – Abraham Maslow

Innovation is one of the few concepts that offers little benefit contemplated in the abstract. We innovate on specific things with an eye to application, maybe even scaling that idea broadly. Humans innovate because the status quo is no longer satisfying, is unacceptable or has changed so we strive to come up with new ways of doing things, novel processes and tools to make the current situation a preferred one.

Thus, we are designers seeking our client, customer and creation through innovation and we do this through our words and actions — our language. Indeed, if one agrees with Marty Neumeier‘s assertion that design is the discipline of innovation and Greg Van Alystne & Bob Logan’s definition of design as “creation for reproduction” then our language of innovation is critical to ensuring that we design products and services that have the potential to reproduce beyond an idea.

Language matters in innovation.

To illustrate, lets look at how language manifests itself in the communication of ideas using an example from public health. In a paper entitled Knowledge integration: Conceptualizing communications in cancer control systems I co-authored with my colleagues Allan Best and Bob Hiatt, we looked at the way language was used within a deep and broad field like cancer control in shaping communications. This was not merely an academic exercise, but served to illustrate the values, practices and structures that are put in place to support communicating concepts and serves to illustrate how innovations are communicated.

Innovation as product

What we found was that there are three generations of cancer communications defined by their language and the practices and policies that are manifested in or representative of that language. The first generation of terms were traced up to the 1990’s and were characterized by viewing knowledge as a product. Indeed, the term knowledge products can be traced back to this period. Other key characteristics of this period include:

  • The terminology used to describe communications included the terms diffusion, dissemination, knowledge transfer, and knowledge uptake.
  • Focus on the handoff between knowledge ‘producers’ and knowledge (or research) ‘users’. These two groups were distinct and separate from one another
  • The degree of use is a function of effective packaging and presentation presuming the content is of high quality.

The language of this first generation makes the assumption that the ideas are independent of the context in which they are to be used or where they were generated. The communication represented in this generation of models relies on expertise and recognition of this. But what happens when expertise is not recognized? Or where expertise isn’t even possible? This is a situation we are increasingly seeing as we face new, complex challenges that require mass collaboration and innovation, something the Drucker Forum suggests represents the end of expertise.

Innovation as a contextual process

From the early and mid-1990’s through to the present we’ve seen a major shift from viewing knowledge or innovation as a product to that of a dynamic process where expertise resides in multiple places and sources and networks are valued as much as institutions or individuals. Some of the characteristics of this generation are:

  • Knowledge and good ideas come from multiple sources, not just recognized experts or leaders
  • Social relationships media what is generated and how it is communicated (and to whom)
  • Innovation is highly context-dependent
  • The degree of use of ideas or knowledge is a function of having strong, effective relationships and processes.

What happens when the context is changing consistently? What happens when the networks are dynamic and often unknown?

Systems-embedded innovation

What the paper argues is that we are seeing a shift toward more systems-oriented approaches to communication and that is represented in the term knowledge integration. A systems-oriented model views the design of knowledge structures as an integral to the support of effective innovation by embedding the activities of innovation — learning, discovery, and communication — within systems like institutions, networks, cultures and policies. This model also recognizes the following:

  • Both explicit and implicit knowledge is recognized and must be made visible and woven into policy making and practice decisions
  • Relationships are mediated through a cycle of innovation and must be understood as a system
  • The degree of integration of policies, practices and processes within a system is what determines the degree of use of an idea or innovation.

The language of integration suggests there is some systems-level plan to take the diverse aspects within a set of activities and connect, coordinate and, to some degree, manage to ensure that knowledge is effectively used.

Talking innovation

What makes language such a critical key to understanding innovation ecologies is that the way in which we speak about something is an indication of what we believe about something and how we act. As the quote from psychologist Abraham Maslow suggests above, language can also be used to hide things.

One example of this is in the realm of social innovation, where ideas are meant to be generated through social means for social benefit. This process can be organized many different ways, but it is almost never exclusively top-down, expert-driven. Yet, when we look at the language used to discuss social innovation, we see terms like dissemination regularly used. Examples from research, practice and connecting the two to inform policy all illustrate that the language of one generation continues to be used as new ones dawn.  This is to be expected as the changes in language of one generation never fully supplants that of previous generations — at least not initially. Because of that, we need to be careful about what we say and how we say it to ensure that our intentions are reflected in our practice and our language. Without conscious awareness of what we say and what those words mean there is a risk that our quest to create true innovation ecosystems, ones where innovation is truly systems-embedded and knowledge is integrated we unwittingly create expectations and practices rooted in other models.

If we wish to walk the walk of innovation at a systems level, we need to talk the talk.

Tips and Tricks

Organizational mindfulness is a key quality and practice that embeds reflective practice and sensemaking into the organization. By cultivating practices that regularly check-in and examine the language and actions of an organization in reference to its goals, processes and outcomes. A recent article by Vogus and Sutcliffe (2012) (PDF) provides some guidance on how this can be understood.

Develop your sensemaking capacity by introducing space at regular meetings that bring together actors from different areas within an organization or network to introduce ideas, insights and observations and process what these mean with respect to what’s happened, what is happening and where its taking the group.

Some key references include: 

Best, A., Hiatt, R. A., & Norman, C. D. (2008). Knowledge integration: Conceptualizing communications in cancer control systems. Patient Education and Counseling, 71(3), 319–327. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.pec.2008.02.013

Best, A., Terpstra, J. L., Moor, G., Riley, B., Norman, C. D., & Glasgow, R. E. (2009). Building knowledge integration systems for evidence‐informed decisions. Journal of Health Organization and Management, 23(6), 627–641. http://doi.org/10.1108/14777260911001644

Vogus, T. J., & Sutcliffe, K. M. (2012). Organizational Mindfulness and Mindful Organizing: A Reconciliation and Path Forward. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 11(4), 722–735. http://doi.org/10.5465/amle.2011.0002C

Weick, K. E., Sutcliffe, K. M., & Obstfeld, D. (2005). Organizing and the Process of Sensemaking. Organization Science, 16(4), 409–421. http://doi.org/10.1287/orsc.1050.0133

*** If you’re interested in applying these principles to your organization and want assistance in designing a process to support that activity, contact Cense Research + Design.

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