I had the opportunity to speak to a group at a university recently about innovation. In fact, I’ve spoken to four universities about innovation in the last few months. There’s a growing awareness that innovation needs to happen in university settings. This would include innovation on the administration of the university, in the teaching methods and in what is taught. But that’s a sideline to what I want to write about today.
In my most recent speaking engagement I was confronted by a senior faculty member who argued that all this talk about “innovation” was pointless, and missed the main target, which was that we needed more focus on science and engineering education. In his mind, innovation was equated to technology, and only scientists and engineers could bring new technologies to life. While I agree that scientists and technologists can bring innovations to market, I’d argue that that definition of innovation is awfully narrow. It seems to me that innovation can occur in many avenues that have little or nothing to do with technology, engineering or science.
In fact we have recently worked with a financial services institution, a health care insurance firm, a life insurance firm and several other firms in the services industries where there are no physical products developed and few if any engineers or scientists. Yet these firms are innovating. Innovating their service models, customer experiences, processes and business models. Apple, held up as the ultimate innovator, is a technology firm but innovates instead more around user experience, linkages, partnerships and content.
There are a number of firms that innovate around technology and science, so I don’t want to downplay the importance of technology in innovation. However, we do need to understand the balance between product innovation and all other kinds of innovation, and the importance of engineering and science to innovation. It’s really a question of set theory. Technology innovation is a subset of innovation generally, and while all technology innovation is innovation, all innovation is not technology innovation. As much as it may pain my engineering friends to say it, there’s a lot of innovation happening that has little or nothing to do with technology. Conversely, there’s a lot of technological research that will impact our lives through new innovations as products and services.
This dichotomy also explains a lot of angst in the intelligentsia about the termination of NASA’s return to the moon program and the decreasing amount of federal research generally. The belief is, and I agree with this, that we learn more and capitalize on that knowledge when we explore space flight or invest in primary research. But curtailing space flight does not necessarily make the US less innovative. It leaves us in a situation where, from a governmental point of view we may become more dependent on the Russians or Chinese to put vehicles in space, or perhaps it makes available a private enterprise approach to space flight. But reducing investment in these areas doesn’t mean we are less innovative, it just spreads out the responsibility for innovation more broadly. But that had already happened in the 70s and 80s, as private enterprise took on more direct research and investment and the federal government’s role declined.
OK, enough of the tangent. Innovation depends on creating and developing new ideas. Some of those insights are based on new technologies or improvements to existing technologies. Some innovation, however, is based on insights about services, processes or business models, and don’t rely on technologists or engineers for insights. To claim that all innovation is technology innovation, and that without engineers and scientists no “real” innovation can be accomplished is to view the world of innovation with a very narrow lens.
Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.