Alternative explanations to innovation success

All too long since updating the blog, but the moving from Oslo to Berkeley together with wife and four kids, and then handling all the bureaucracy and other things in this place where we will spend the next year has been demanding. Now things have started to get in order, and it is time to get back in business.

Today, I just wanted to mention something we probably should get back to more in-depth later. It is about explanations of success. In the social sciences it is most often easier to explain failures than successes. To identify barriers that hindered success, or to pinpoint the things that led to failure, is not often controversial. However, if someone claims to have the explanation to success in a complex social/technical/economic task of innovation, then there is good reason to be sceptic. Still, most of us like success stories, and would – if we are given a choice – prefer learning from success before learning from failure (just look at all the heroic success stories of innovators and entrepreneurs in business media and airport literature).

Today, we (me and three colleagues: Bjørn Erik Mørk, Margunn Aanestad and Eva Maaninen-Olsson) had the great message that we had an article accepted for the Human Relations journal. In this article we try to provide an alternative explanation to what many people have considered an impressive success story:

The Intervention Centre at Oslo University Hospital (...) has
received recognition, both nationally and internationally, for its capability to develop
and transfer new practices. The success of the Centre is often explained with the
availability of high-tech equipment and technical support, the personal relationships
between individuals working in physical proximity, motivated staff sharing a common
vision and their relatively sheltered role as a R&D department rather than a production
department. However, by analysing the Centre with a practicebased
framework we will provide yet other explanations (...)

Basically, we suggest that it is not (only) these commonly used explanatory factors that best can explain this success. Instead we develop a framework for analysing organizing practices at boundaries. We argue that innovation activity, by definition, will challenge and sometimes alter established boundaries, and that the ability to handle this is critical to succeed with innovation. This means that there are a set of relatively controversial and political activities going on in the realization of innovations, such as alliance building, disciplining of alliance partners, and cross-mobilization of support (using one partner to mobilize support from another, etc). While these are hardly practices that an innovator will put on the top of their organizational or personal CVs, they seem to be critical to innovation success.

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We are recruiting (innovation in healthcare)

I am now writing the job advertisements for two interesting new positions in our research group at BI (particularly Prof.Håkan Håkansson, Assoc.Prof.Per Ingvar Olsen and myself). Both projects provide ample opportunity for collaborating with leading national and international researchers. This fall we are recruiting:

(1) A postdoctoral fellow (2 years) for a research project (VRI) on innovation networks related to three industries: healthcare, construction and energy. We are looking for a researcher to work closely with me and our research partners, preferably with experience from healthcare research and/or innovation studies, in addition to experience with qualitative methodology, and a pro-active attitude. The project is run in collaboration with Østfold Research, and Østfold University College.

(2) A PhD scholarship (4 years full-time) for a research project (KINT) supporting the cross-professional development and implementation of a novel and high-tech heart surgery procedure at Oslo University Hospital. The project is run in collaboration with the Department of Informatics at the University of Oslo (2 PhDs and 1 Postdoc + senior faculty). Note that the successful candidate will be part of a strong research group, and the Norwegian PhD scholarships are quite generous (approx. €40-45k per year). A strong academic orientation is required.

Please do not hesitate contacting me for more information if you are interested in one of these opportunities. I would also be grateful for helping us spreading the word to relevant candidates.

Posted in healthcare, innovation process, knowledge and learning, research | 8 Comments

Innovation ethnography

As a spinoff from the methodological efforts that went into my research on innovation between agri- and aquaculture (Hoholm, 2009; 2011), I have written a paper together with Prof.Luis Araujo (Lancaster University) on the promises and challenges of ethnography for studying innovation processes. It has been accepted for publication in Industrial Marketing Management, and I will put out a notice here on the blog when it is available (I can also email it to interested readers). (Update 19 July: The paper has now been made available here, contact me if you lack access). An earlier version (presented at the IMP conference) can be found here. Our basic argument for the use of ethnography to study ‘innovation in the making’ iterates on the following three points:

(1) ‘Follow the actors’ to untangle the complexity of innovation. We have learned this particularly from the works of Bruno Latour.

(2) Ethnography reveals uncertainty as it is experienced before outcomes are settled. This is different from historic accounts that always have to struggle with post-hoc rationalizations, and from quantitative studies that may give evidence of patterns, the importance of certain factors, etc. But in the heat of action, what we tend to see as obvious in retrospect, are experienced as hard and uncertain decisions in practice.

(3) Following from (1) and (2), ethnographic data enables the theorizing of innovation as process and practice. Examples of such theorizing can be found in my food innovation ethnography, and another conceptually oriented paper (again a conference version, as the latest version is in for a second review in a journal).

Other opinions and experiences on this?

Posted in food industry, innovation process, method, process philosophy | 1 Comment

Facilitation of network innovation

Yesterday we got the message from the Norwegian Research Council that we had another research grant application approved. This time together with researchers from Østfold Research and Østfold University College. This means that we are gradually moving towards building a considerable research group on innovation studies related to a number of sectors, but with a particular focus on healthcare.

From before we have done a range of studies within the food industries (agriculture, aquaculture, retail, etc), that I will comment on as we get the papers published. We will continue working with the food industry, which provides interesting cases in the interfaces between nationally protected markets and internationalization, science and business, as well as raw material markets and highly industrialized consumer goods.

In this new project, our second research grant this spring, we will study conditions for interaction and innovation in three different networks in the Østfold region in Norway:

Healthcare. In the healthcare network, we will study what they call the ‘Independent living’-strategy, where welfare technologies and service innovation are developed in interaction between users, private suppliers, and local and specialist healthcare providers.

Energy. In the energy network, we will study a group of companies and R&D institutions developing and commercializing ‘smart energy’ solutions, utilizing the increasing capacity and intelligence of energy grid systems. This is a kind a infrastructural innovation that demands collective efforts, while providing a range of new business opportunities when the infrastructure – or the ‘platform’ for services’ – is established.

Construction. In the construction network, there are initiatives to develop and implement more energy efficient solutions and products for rehabilitation of buildings. This industry is often seen as investing relatively little in innovation, while recent regulatory changes are creating a push towards developing ‘green’ solutions.

Posted in healthcare, network, research | 1 Comment

Research that challenges established assumptions

Sandberg and Alvesson (2011) discuss two approaches to good research questions in a recent article in Organization. In a time where researchers are increasingly measured and evaluated based on the number of published articles, the tendency seems to be that research is also becoming more conform. To justify the value of research questions and findings by the ‘gaps’ in the research literature, i.e. that relatively narrow questions are not sufficiently investigated within a field of research, may lead to complement established theory, or the insight about a particular phenomenon. But one will also then implicitly confirm mainstream. The alternative to ‘gap-spotting’ is what Sandberg and Alvesson call problematization; is this really the best way to understand this phenomenon, or is it based on wrong (or insufficient) basic assumptions? Many interesting and important insights have come from the latter approach to research, but it still seem to be on the decrease. While the authors have investigated the literature on organization, there is little reason to be more optimistic on behalf of other research areas.

Let me mention a few examples of problematizing research within the field of entrepreneurship that has led to interesting and challenging questions and finding recently:

Hvide og Møen (2010) finds that the profitability drops for the 10% richest entrepreneurs. Contrary to what one could expect based on economic theory, the case is that entrepreneur with too much own capital is bad for the venture’s performance. Perhaps this is because the evolution easier can pick out the low potential entrepreneurs if they are poorer, or perhaps it is because poorer entrepreneurs have to be more creative and effective in their use of their resources. The latter alternative seems to fit well with what we can observe among many successful entrepreneurs.

Spinosa, Flores og Dreyfus (1997) (recommended reading!) starts out with the philosopher Heidegger when developing their theory of entrepreneurship. They criticize traditional models of entrepreneurship, and argue that good entrepreneurs are characterized by a wish to change the world, an insisting curiosity related to problems and frustrations, and by their ability to shape strong visions and innovative solutions through interaction with other people.

Sarasvathy (2004) has done interesting studies of the characteristics how successful and experienced entrepreneur approach their work. Challenging the focus on entrepreneurs versus non-entrepreneurs in established entrepreneurship research, she suggests that one rather should get a better grip on what distinguishes different entrepreneurs from each other. For example, she shows how good entrepreneurs typically not starts out with a grand plan about a big goal, which they then seek to realize  (‘causation’). Instead, they typically start out by exploring what they have, and then gradually find out/learn what kind of venture that may be built (‘effectuation’).  See Sarasvathy’s website here.

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Yes! First project funded

I am excited to announce that we yesterday got the message that we have got funding from the Norwegian Research Council for a project on innovation in healthcare. Together with the Intervention Centre at Oslo University Hospital and Department of Informatics at the University of Oslo we will study the implementation of a technically advanced new treatment procedure for serious heart diseases. The methods that we will develop in the project will then be used for strengthening the implementation of other similarly high-tech medical procedures in hospitals.

Many breakthroughs in scientific and technological knowledge are not translated into practice in the healthcare sector, despite their potential for improving patient treatment. The reason is often lack of relations between the new technology and the established practice, and that such innovations often go beyond established ICT systems, disciplinary boundaries, and power structures (see Orlikowski, 2002; Newell et al., 2006; Mørk et al., 2010). To succeed with innovation against these challenges, interaction across heterogeneous groups of actors (e.g. clinicians, industrial researchers, management, and practitioners) is necessary. Practice has to be based on complex socio-technical infrastructures, while still be flexible enough to enable change (Aanestad and Olaussen, 2010). Change of practice is even more politicized within healthcare than in most other settings (Dopson, 2005; Nicolini, 2009). Constellations of technologies and actors will gradually become more interdependent, and the innovation process is therefore completely contingent on the relations between the involved actors.

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Healthcare innovation research, time to scale up

While there have been a number of interesting studies of innovation in the British and the US healthcare sectors, and still more to come, this is still an under-researched area in Norway and Scandinavia. The public funding by wealthy social democratic governments and the dominant public organizing of services have for decades kept the sector safe from too harsh economic and operational pressures.

But now this is gradually changing. The speed of technical innovation (globally), the increasing budgetary pressures, and the adoption of private sector organizational models and tools are together pushing hard for new solutions even here in the north; of governance, management, technology, and of organizing expertise. With the new ‘coordination reform’ in Norway (2011), the pace is increasing even more.

With such dramatic changes in such complex organizational and institutional settings, the need for scientific research – systematic investigation and evaluation – is critical and urgent. In a significant effort to establish an agenda-setting research group in this area, we are now developing projects to investigate questions related to how we can organize for inter-organizational interaction and coordination to facilitate improvement and innovation in healthcare, what governance structures promote innovation, and how we can facilitate collaboration across professional groups to promote innovative efforts. There is a great need for better in-depth understanding of the innovation dynamics, there is a need for indicators and evaluation methods, and there is a need for new models of inter-organizational interaction.

From a practice-based perspective we have addressed aspects of these questions in publications related to technology innovation, cross-professional collaboration, and organizational innovation in hospitals in recent articles. Now we think it is time to scale this up, and investigate interactive organizational and technological innovation that involve both specialist and local healthcare service providers, as well as end-users (patients). We have got the team, the partner network, and the research tools. Let’s hope that we can also get the necessary economic resources committed, so that we can get this started.

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