Semantics of Innovation

Peter Jones Innovation

“That’s a great deal to make one word mean,” Alice said in a thoughtful tone. “When I make a word do a lot of work like that,” said Humpty Dumpty, “I always pay it extra.”

Lewis Carroll (1872) Through the Looking Glass

What twists and turns we put to the word “innovation .” We make it mean everything from original invention to “good design,” to creativity, to product development. We all think we know what it means, from our own experience. But we rarely do the rather churlish academic thing of stopping someone and requesting “What do you mean by innovation?”

I like primary research, so I tend to go with definitions that support Rogers’ (1962) Diffusion of Innovations. Innovation differs from invention in that adoption is implied. An intentional invention must end up somewhere useful to qualify, or at least be “overlooked” by the market of the time – the implication being that its adoption failed due to poor timing.

In 2002 I wrote in the DMI Review: When Successful Products Prevent Strategic Innovation

First, let’s define innovation, a misused concept assigned to a range of meanings from “creativity” to the vendors’ “making new versions of the same product.” I express innovation as significant invention with the capacity for transformation. Strategic innovation sustains business strategy through significant invention, designing new or breakthrough products to fulfill strategic intent. And not all innovations are successful. Market success also requires fulfilling user intent; innovations must map to known user needs or emerging user desires.

Another definition I like is clear and yes, academic: Garcia and Cantalone (2001). A critical look at technological innovation typology and innovativeness.

“Innovation’ is an iterative process initiated by the perception of a new market and/or new service opportunity for a technology-based invention which leads to development, production, and marketing tasks striving for the commercial success of the invention.”

So what seems to be happening today? First, business culture and then popular culture has held an extended love-in with the very idea of innovation. So back in 2001, when I was wondering whether we would see (e.g. early forecast) the Next Big Thing coming our way, I admit I did not think it would be the Same as the Last Big Thing. Where other late-90’s trends peaked and expired, Innovation came back to stay. (So maybe it made sense after all to study and get the doctorate in Design and Innovation Management in 2000.) After all, Knowledge Management didn’t survive the purge very well, and now isn’t Web 2.0 and user participation the height of innovation?

Maybe, maybe not. There’s a principle in socionomics (social macroeconomics) forecasting that suggests that when pop culture picks up a tech or business trend and exploits it to the extent that it appears on magazine covers, your 15 minutes may be up. Market timers use such indicators to call tops (and bottoms). Innovation may be due its morph into its next phase as soon as the business cycle changes (resulting in disappoint with the last cycle’s memes). And we’ll we looking for the NBT again. Hint: Look for those disappointments to reveal the next trend. Is the new Transparency already an early indicator of the disappointment with the technology-driven lifestyle? Or will it morph into more of the same?