View Thread > ISIE Fall 2004: Symposium > Culture of Innovation > Formal or Informal, Institutions Don't Innovate
Professor Robert Austin of Harvard Business School poses the following question:
Breakthrough innovations seem to happen with surprising frequency in surprising places. I'm thinking, for example, of how the blues came out of Mississippi, or how the deep south in the US--in some ways a seemingly inhospitable environment for deep culture (I say this as an Alabama native)--has nevertheless produced some of the greatest literature in the 20th century. If we look into more technological areas, we can also find examples: Harvard was not that involved in the early Internet research, and resisted the idea that applied Internet research was a legitimate field of study (in a now infamous instance, faculty from Harvard refused to pass Bob Metcalfe on his dissertation defense, the work that became Ethernet). Instead, much of the early Internet work went on in places that were then more upstart, including Carnegie Institute of Technology and University of Utah. Why is it that breakthrough innovation often seems to arise far from the supposed epicenters of creative activities?
First I'll assume by the phrase 'supposed epicenters of creative activities' that you mean universities, research centers, non-profits, government agencies and community organizations.
These 'epicenters of creativity' are either formal or informal institutions, subject to all natural institutional socio-political tendencies. Institutions are of course run by leaders who appropriately advocate the institutional raison d'Ítre and seek patrons and disciples who support them in expanding their institution's influence and authority.
I think that both formal and informal institutions function well when it comes to applying concepts, advocating for applications of these concepts and creating structures that support and attract individuals and organizations who are in alignment with the institutional raison d'Ítre.
The difficulty becomes, I think, that once the institution is established, it ossifies and becomes less flexible. Additionally as institutions age, I'd argue that they also become much less of a meritocracy and much more political, further reducing their attractiveness to the outsiders who are typically the innovators.
All stakeholders at all levels inside these institutions will have status and material reasons to resist disruptive innovative outsiders. At a bare minimum institutions will not embrace outsiders and, much more commonly, tend to put up barriers (so-called 'qualifications,' certifications, endorsements and structural hierarchies based on the existing institutional raison d'Ítre) that discourage innovators.
I argue that institutions within greater institutions (the Harvard example of Bob Metcalfe, community organizations that receive a great deal of single source grant or government funding) probably have the hardest time with disruptive change.
Institutional leaders and the coterie of higher placed acolytes risk their current and hoped-for material and social status in the larger body if the raison d'Ítre of their institution is threatened with dilution or irrelevancy. Even when these institutions state that they wish to support innovation, the reality is that they tend to remain relatively inhospitable to new folks and new ideas-even when the leadership pays lip service and/or marginal financial support to a new idea.
Disruptive innovation takes root best when it is supported by institutions and individuals who have little or no stake in the status quo and/or when it is ignored (in the case of Southern literature, I'd argue) or under the radar of existing power structures. In a sense, innovation is best supported when it is seen as relatively irrelevant to the existing power structure--either because it is unseen or because it is unthreatening to it. Even institutions whose raison d'Ítre is fatally threatened have a very poor track record of resuscitating themselves through innovation; their existing socio-political structures impede them.
I basically agree with the statement that institutions can stifle innovation. However, innovation doesn't always take place in one fell swoop. I will use examples from Strogatz' book *Sync* since I am reading it now. Strogatz traces the development of chaos theory, which has evolved over many years. One contributor to its development was Josephson, who was a grad student at Oxbridge at the time. So there's one piece of the puzzle. Then other folks made other discoveries, and others started looking at the big picture. Some of this work can and does take place at the major research institutions.