Innovation A case for multi level research Essay

This essay has a total of 4490 words and 21 pages.


Innovation A case for multi level research





It is now generally recognised that we are in the midst of major economic upheaval, with
the kind of ramifications not seen since the industrial revolution of the early nineteenth
century. Products of the human mind, such as software, pharmaceuticals and
microprocessors, are replacing those of the earth and the blast furnace as our primary
measure of economic power, and information technology is set to become the world's biggest
industry within the next decade, displacing the automobile as the primary barometer of
economic activity (Mandel 1997). As a recent editorial in Forbes has pointed out, in an
international economy built on new technologies that are free from many physical
restraints change "goes into overdrive" (Forbes 1997, p.130).


It is no surprise, then, that innovation is fast becoming the central preoccupation in
management and related studies. "Innovate or fall behind: the competitive imperative for
virtually all businesses today is that simple", is how Leonard and Straus (1997, p.111)
see it, and their view is widely shared (Peters 1990, Beck 1992). Yet, in spite of this
increasing attention, we still have much to learn about the process of innovation in
organisational and institutional settings. Questions such as why some firms are more
innovative than others in the same industry, why some regions or countries are more
innovative in certain industry sectors than others, and why innovation of the more radical
kind most often tends to come from outside of existing industries are still being pursued
with little resolution in sight.


To date, most studies of innovation and its link with competitiveness have tended to focus
on a single level of analysis. Industrial economists, evolutionary economists and
institutional theorists have all tended to focus on the nature of innovation at sectoral,
regional/national or even global levels (Nelson 1992, Jacobson 1994, Niosi and Bellon
1996), while management theorists have tended to focus on factors governing innovation at
the level of the firm (Quinn 1985, Sinetar 1985, Drucker 1986, Kanter 1988, Cohen and
Levinthal 1990, Leavy 1997). This paper argues that the time is now ripe for a move
towards more multi-level, interdisciplinary research. The early part of the paper reviews
the literature on innovation and finds thematic and conceptual convergence across levels
and disciplines around the relationship between innovative activity and institutional
context and the nature of the innovation process itself. This convergence, the paper
concludes, indicates the opportunity for multi-level, interdisciplinary research and
points the way towards the kind of framework based on systems thinking, learning theory
and dynamic analysis, through which such research might be pursued.


The institutional context for innovation

Among the most prominent themes linking the literature on innovation across levels and
disciplines is the growing interest in the relationship between institutional context and
innovative activity.


There is a strong tradition associating innovation primarily with rare entrepreneurial or
inventive talent. This tradition has its roots in the early literature on economic
development, particularly with the Schumpeterian (1912) characterisation of the process as
one of 'creative destruction'. As Baumol (1958, p.64) pointed out nearly forty years ago,
the entrepreneur is "at the same time one of the most intriguing and one of the most
elusive characters in the cast that constitutes economic analysis". Attempts over the
years since to pin down the definitive attributes of this elusive character have continued
to meet with little success (see Burch 1986 for a typical example).


There is no doubt that rare talent plays its part in innovation activity, often in the
most dramatic ways. History continues to demonstrate the impact that scientific and
commercial genius can have on the growth of firms and the transformation of industries.
Chester Carlson of Xerox, Edwin Land of Polaroid and Bill Gates of Microsoft, are
well-known cases in point. Throughout the scientific community itself there are those like
Howard Schneiderman (1991, p.55), the former vice-president of research and development at
Monsanto, who remain convinced that "outstanding researchers are a rare breed" and that
"most seminal discoveries are made by a handful of outstanding researchers". However, many
are sceptical about the critical role of rare talent in innovation, and about the
existence of a distinct entrepreneurial personality. According to Drucker (1986)
innovation is essentially "organised, systematic, rational work" (p.40) in which "everyone
who can face up to decision making can learn to be an entrepreneur and to behave
entrepreneurially" (p.65). Furthermore, Collins and Porras (1996), in their recent study
of companies that have survived and thrived for more than 40 years, have found that
neither great ideas nor great and charismatic individual entrepreneurs were necessary in
the building and sustaining of great enterprises.


While we can never discount the often dramatic role of rare talent in innovation, the
indications from the literature, and from everyday empirical experience, are that such
talent is not the definitive factor in any attempts to understand why some firms are
consistently more innovative than others in the same sector, why some sectors are more
innovative than others, or why innovative activity can vary so much across regions and
countries. The literature across levels and disciplines is increasingly interested in
understanding the characteristics of the institutional context that affect innovative
activity and can help to explain these firm, sectoral and regional variations.


One of the central issues relating institutional context with innovative activity is the
question of institutional form. For example, is innovative capability related to the size
of firms? There is evidence that the upward trend in the average size of firms that had
been an enduring feature of economic development since the industrial revolution
(Galbraith 1956, Chandler 1977) has slowed down or even reversed itself since the 1970s
(Peters 1992, Acs 1996), calling into question the view that there are increasing returns
to scale - internal to firms - that drive successful firms to increase in size. Focusing
on technology and innovation in particular, Acs and Preston (1997 p.2.) posit the
question: "Is the apparent resurgence of smaller firms due to the emergence of a dynamic,
vital innovative entrepreneurial sector, or is it due to the inability of large incumbent
MNEs [multinational enterprises] to prevail in a technologically dynamic global
environment?"


There is some evidence that small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are better innovators than
their larger counterparts. This is suggested, for example, by the US data associated with
Federal research funding which indicates that SMEs spend less on R&D than large firms, yet
generate more new knowledge (Acs and Preston 1997). How can this be explained?


The research to date clearly indicates that the internal institutional context is an
important variable. Researchers trying to understand why, often tend to start with a
closer look at the more salient characteristics of the innovation process itself (Quinn
1979, Quinn 1985, Kanter 1988, Peters 1990). Most now agree that the process, in whatever
organisational context, large or small, is essentially a probabilistic one, that even when
well managed can best be described as one of "controlled chaos" (Quinn 1985). As Peters
(1990, p.17) put it, "innovation, in the end and no matter how well thought out is a
numbers game". It requires variety in idea generation, and multiple independent approaches
help to improve substantially the odds for success. It further requires a high degree of
personal or group obsession to see the innovation safely through the initial period of
high risk, high frustration and modest reward, since few begin as obvious commercial
winners, even such classics as xerography. Successful innovation also seems to require a
fair degree of personal and financial slack, the closest possible link between marketplace
and technology, and a context that can tolerate and learn from failure (Quinn 1985, Kanter
1988, Peters 1990). Finally, it requires a context that values diversity, generates a
marketplace for ideas and harnesses 'creative conflict' (Eisenhardt et al 1997, Leonard
and Straus 1997).


Few large firms have found it easy to institutionalise such a process within traditional
organisational contexts, and many entrepreneurial firms seem to lose their capacity for
innovation as they grow and develop into more formal organisations over time. Quinn (1985)
identified a number of very significant barriers including top management conservatism and
isolation from the innovation process, intolerance for fanatics and 'non-conformist'
talent, short time horizons for expected payback, excessive rationalisation and
routinization of the process, excessive bureaucracy and inappropriate rewards. More
generally, the traditional organisation has found it difficult to accommodate the more
creative and non-conformist types who like to immerse themselves in technical challenges,
often for the sheer intellectual pleasure of the chase, and whose preferred working habits
tend to "contradict organizational expectations and mores" (Sinetar 1985, p58). Larger
organisations are often poorer protectors of the property rights of innovators, where the
gains from innovation are more diffusely distributed (Acs et al 1997), and the reward and
control systems in the larger organisation are too often designed to minimise surprise,
yet in the innovation process "surprises are the name of the game" (Schneiderman 1991,
p.54).


However, some large firms have been able to rise to the challenge better than most, and
have earned well-deserved reputations for innovativeness that have been enhanced over
time. They have done this mainly by trying to recreate many of the salient characteristics
of the SME within a larger organisation context. Take the example of 3M, which is
increasingly being used as the benchmark by many established firms hoping to revitalise
their capacity for corporate entrepreneurship. Among the most prominent features of the 3M
approach is the explicit strategic commitment to competing on innovation,
institutionalised in the company's ongoing formal aim that at least 25% of its sales
should come from products introduced within the most recent five-year period. Furthermore,
3M has developed a corporate culture that celebrates as heroes those enterprising
individuals whose persistence and commitment have triumphed over management indifference
or bureaucratic rejection. The company's '11th Commandment' is 'Thou shalt not kill a new
product idea'. Its internal institutional context encourages experimentation and accepts
failure as a productive stage on the road to success. It also creates structures (like the
Technical Senate and the Annual Technology Fair) that facilitate grass roots scientific
communication across horizontal and vertical organisational boundaries (Bartlett 1995).


Differences in internal institutional context alone will only go part of the way towards
explaining why SMEs are often better innovators than their larger counterparts. There is
also evidence to suggest that SMEs tend to be more actively and extensively networked into
their locality/region, with implications for innovative capability. Evidence for this is
provided by Almeida and Kogut (1997). Focusing on patents in the semiconductor industry in
the US, they show that small-firm start-ups "are unusually oriented toward the exploration
of diversity by targeting less crowded technological fields", and that the exploration of
small firms "has a strong local character: they are more sensitive to, and contribute more
to, the innovations of spatially-contiguous firms" (p.24.). This greater diversity among
small, start-up firms is related to their 'embeddedness' (Grabher 1993) in localities.
Proximity facilitates contacts between individuals that evolve into social and
professional networks; these networks develop the common stock of knowledge in the
locality that becomes the foundation for further innovation by starts; this is more
beneficial to SMEs because the people in these firms are more likely to have had recent
experience in other firms and therefore better links to other firms than personnel in
large firms, which tend to be more vertically integrated and self-sufficient (Almeida and
Kogut 1997). This seems to be reflected in the findings of Saxenian's (1994) ethnographic
study in which she notes that there is more inter-firm knowledge exchange in Silicon
Valley than in the Route 128 region around Boston; the former has a higher share of starts
while the latter is dominated by larger firms that inter-relate much less either with
surrounding institutions or other firms in the region. This difference is believed to be
part of the reason why Silicon Valley remains vibrant while the Route 128 region has
experienced a recent decline.


There is counter-argument and counter-evidence, to the effect that MNEs continue to
dominate the global economy (e.g. Strange 1991, Amin 1993, Harrison 1994). Much of the
research showing the advantages of SMEs is location and/or sector specific. Rothwell and
Dodgson (1994, p.310), editors of the Handbook of Industrial Innovation, argue that "the
role played in innovation by... SMEs is strongly sectorally influenced; ...the relative
innovatory roles of large and small firms can vary over the industry lifecycle; and...
dynamic complementarities frequently exist between the technological change activities of
large and small firms."


This is a warning against generalising in the debate on the relative advantages of large
and small firms. At a level of analysis above this debate, some generalisation is however
possible: for both large and small firms the influence of the institutional context on
innovative activity is played out on a canvas that stretches well beyond the internal
culture, structure and processes of the individual firm. As Andréosso-O'Callaghan and
Jacobson (1997, p.6) have recently put it:




the decisions, strategies and actions of any firm evolve in a specific, regional or
national, technological context, affected by a whole range of private and public
institutions, and by the relationship between those institutions and firms, in short by a
geographically and historically specific innovation system.




While the systems of innovation research is still in its relative infancy, and the
literature remains underdeveloped, clear strides have been made in establishing the link
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