A few weeks back I was sharing with you the highlights of HYPE’s recent Forum in London, an event that brought innovation managers’ hopes and fears into the spotlight, and encouraged idea campaign/ innovation project issues to be openly discussed. I took a lot of notes that day and as I was leafing through them over Sunday coffee cake, I remembered a great conversation about the main sources of external knowledge used by heads of innovation practice in their day-to-day work.
To get inspired, the London event’s attendees were happily browsing the contents of this very blog in addition to whatever caught their eye in The Economist, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, HBR, Fast Company, Inc. Magazine, Wired, The Verge, expert blogs or even LinkedIn. At this point I really had to ask: What about academic knowledge? (= that amorphous body of indecipherable knowledge resulting from collective, ultra-rigorous academic inquiry). How much scholarly content goes into your mix? The answer: “Practically none”.
As a young social sciences researcher that hopes to see her articles read, used and spread one day by this dynamic, no-nonsense, brutally honest crowd, I found the answer demoralizing and energizing at the same time.
Admittedly, there is a wealth of good reasons as to why scholarly content is still not part of innovation managers’ inspiration streams. Among them:
- accessibility - most academic articles hide behind paywalls;
- decipherability – academic jargon can make reading difficult, if not impossible;
- applicability – academic articles offer excellent bases for debate/discussion but usually not much else;
- and entertainment – academic rigor often comes at the expense of savoury text.
But honestly, I can easily imagine a wealth of even better reasons as to why it should be included. And this brings us to the topic of today’s post: using scholarly content to enrich and streamline innovation management work.
Academic know-how: use as directed
When seeking inspiration for an innovation project, there is no right and wrong in terms of approach. As the saying goes, if we value the pursuit of knowledge, we must be free to follow wherever that search may lead us. All that really matters is that we keep the quality, utility and variety of the sources at the highest possible level as we go. So when asked what I’d recommend in terms of further innovation management reading, I gladly adopt Scott Anthony’s approach but also think about what’s most useful to the reader.
In fact, I only recommend academic articles when:
- a) I am explicitly asked to do so – e.g. essential reads like Innovation Management in Context: environment, organization and performance;
- b) there is an area of knowledge (or stream of specialized literature) that the innovation manager would like to learn about – e.g., intrapreneurship, the resource-based view, alliances and networks, the open innovation strategy, etc. or;
- c) the person is interested in adapting or fully adopting an innovation framework.
Scholarly content is by definition highly specialized knowledge and should be treated as such. It is all about emerging concepts and definitions, problem statements, hypotheses, empirical testing, endless referencing and, if everything goes well, generalizations and theory building. Hence, if you are looking for bite-sized content and entertaining anecdotes an academic journal is probably not the best place to start (although the California Management Review is known to publish excellent stuff – e.g. the case of Chez Panisse).
If you are, however, looking for the source of a framework, trying to understand where a field is coming from and where it is headed, or are just plain curious about peer-review procedures and how innovation managements scholars think you are definitely in the right place.
Problems with access or jargon? Collaboration can solve’em
So the need for academic know-how should ideally be substantiated in one way or another. Let’s assume you have your recommendations and have started to search on the Academy of Management Review’s website for example. Before you can truly enjoy all that academic articles have to give, two main hurdles must first be overcome: academic jargon and access restrictions. Nothing a little industry-academia collaboration cannot solve.
The jargon calls for a translator or interpreter; ideally, a PhD student or post-doctoral researcher with some prior working experience in your field. The access problem calls for an on-going subscription, and this is where a partnership would work well. In case you had any doubt, academics are always in search of industry collaborations so either posting an announcement about your intention or simply arranging a visit to meet some scholars will make a lot of people happy.
Research and innovation staff exchanges are also increasingly frequent so it’s best to discuss internally what type and extent of commitment works best. Once the arrangements are made and the academics come into the picture, your organization will benefit from an infusion of fresh content, viewpoints or methods. Just what you need to overcome your current innovation hurdle, I bet!
Something for the Do-It-Yourself crowd
If using grafting for academic knowledge acquisition is not really your thing, and you’d rather learn on the go, here are some tips (or hacks) to get you started:
Academic articles can be difficult to navigate so once you have your subscription to the main journals in place, begin by browsing for key phrases in the title and abstract. Everything starts with the key word (whatever it is that you find out – e.g. how to create interdisciplinary teams for the next innovation project) and/or a specific author.
No budget for a subscription? No problem. Some alternatives include ResearchGate, where you can download materials and message authors directly. They will be delighted to hear that industry experts like yourself are interested in their work. Also bear in mind that the best business / innovation books – e.g. Ron Adner’s The Wide Lens or Alexander Osterwalder’s Business Model Generation are often preceded or published in tandem with a series of scholarly articles.
My advice: use Google Scholar, look them up and get the main insights that contributed to the writing. If you do this exercise, you will soon come across Adner’s 2009 publication in the Strategic Management Journal called: “Value creation in innovation ecosystems: how the structure of technological interdependence affects firm performance in new technology generations” They did a better job with the book title, right?
For Osterwalder, you would find the article he jointly wrote with Yves Pigneur and Christopher Tucci for AIS in 2005. The title is: “Clarifying Business Models: Origins, Present, and Future of the Concept”.
Academic articles are peer reviewed, which means their quality is high. If you have the time and disposition, use journals’ impact factors as a variable in your search too; this will lead to great outcomes, I guarantee.
Finally, another way of finding relevant articles for your business is to look for articles that have managers as co-authors. If you are in the FMCG industry then an article that has Graham Cross as a co-author (I’m working on one of those by the way!) may be more relevant for you than an article that features academic authors only.
Onto the analysis
Having secured your articles (with or without a subscription / collaboration model), read through the titles and abstracts more carefully and shortlist what you need. Next, browse through the academic papers (articles), one by one, using the “newspaper approach”. Look for interesting headlines, drawings, case boxes in the appendix and read on from there.
- The introduction is the place where the paper’s contribution is laid out (what are the authors bringing to the table) and where you are given some context.
- The method section will tell you all about how the study was run (operationalized); pay attention to sources of data, sample sizes, efforts to ensure validity.
- The analysis is where you will find the core of the argument (the main story), so this is the place to look for in-depth investigation of a phenomenon.
- The conclusion & discussion sections summarize findings, convey (again) the main leanings, address limitations and offers avenues for further investigation.
- Finally, the references will point you to additional sources. And then the process starts again.
All in all, you should by no means read everything top-to-bottom so always consider the special technique. Be smart about your time, and use a PDF marker, insert comments, and store everything safely in a knowledge vault. Build up your knowledge stock, combine it with other sources (news, media) and tap into it with confidence time and time again. There is nothing more satisfying that anticipating your future knowledge needs, especially in the context of a long-term innovation project. Last but not least, a quick software tip: to tackle your notes like a pro and even run content analyses I recommend Pocket (web content only), ReadCube or NVivo.
- Sorting Through the Management Tools and Trends
- Collaboration overload: when the outcome of your innovation effort is less than the sum of its parts
- What we can learn from the Arthur D. Little Breakthrough Innovation Survey