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The Coming of Age of the Innovation Discipline

The Coming of Age of the Innovation Discipline

A few weeks ago, I participated and presented a paper at the International Society for Professional Innovation Management (ISPIM)’s Innovation Conference in Stockholm. While listening to the keynote talks and academic paper presentations, actively participating in workshops and hot topic sessions, and observing the hustle and bustle of the conference, a thought suddenly struck me: “Innovation has come of age — both as an academic discipline and as a business service.” Why would this be?

1. Innovation has transformed from a cool niche to a hot vogue in business

In 2003, I entered the worlds of creativity and innovation as a highly passionate and talented domain novice. At that time, creativity and innovation were “cool” domains within the wider area of management studies:

  • Creativity was a domain largely dominated by psychology and the artistic fields, while business creativity was viewed as an offbeat niche within management studies. 
  • In contrast, innovation largely emphasized more left-brain directed, managerial approaches and perspectives, thus making it already a more established academic track in management.  

From the Seventies to the Noughties, marketing used to be the hot “go-to” domain for the hip kids in town studying business. While marketing continues to be a popular choice today, it is no longer hot and sexy as it used to be. Innovation is the new cool kid on the block. It is the rising star within the functional directions in management studies. I believe it will continue to do so over the next couple of decades.  

2. The academic domain of innovation is growing

By regularly presenting at one to three ISPIM conferences a year, I couldn’t fail to notice how the academic discipline of innovation has been transforming and growing in importance:

  • Looking through the profile details of fellow delegates of the ISPIM conference in Stockholm, I see that in recent years, a lot of new professorship positions in innovation have been created — especially in Scandinavia, Central Europe and the Anglo-American countries. 
  • Likewise, the number of doctoral students in innovation is also on the rise, fueling the next wave of innovation initiatives in academic research and teaching. 
  • In the past years, new master programs specifically emphasizing innovation have been set-up at the more progressive business school — even in some developing countries, where most universities continue to embrace traditional MBA programs. For example, my main academic home at present, the Institute of Knowledge and Innovation, South-East Asia (IKI-SEA), Bangkok University, launched a new Master in Business Innovation program in 2016 that since has been growing in popularity. 
  • The dynamic growth of innovation within management studies can also be tracked by the numbers of publications. In an interesting paper titled “A Review of Research Methods in ISPIM Publications” presented at ISPIM Stockholm, Teemu Santonen, Marcus Tynnhammar and Steffen Conn  reported a sharp increase in the number of published ISPIM conference papers (from 25 in 2003 over 188 in 2008 to 345 in 2014).

3. Innovation has started to solidify to make inroads into the establishment

Like any other “product” or concept, the academic domain of innovation (and the related industry) has also moved along the “adoption curve” (and goes through the seasons of the business cycle): 

  • In his diffusion of innovation theory, Everett Rogers describes how a new innovation is gradually adopted by more and more segments of a population. A few innovators create a new concept, which the early adopters promote and endorse. Once the idea reaches the early majority, it becomes a success. Eventually, it is also embraced by the late majority, who eventually also convinces the laggards to see the value of the concept. So where on the adoption curve is the innovation domain now? 15 years after I first caught fire, innovation is a now has talked about by the “late majority”.
  • Not only the innovation domain in toto progresses along the adoption curve, but so does —albeit at a much faster pace— the “hot topics” that dominate current research interests and academic debates. For example. at ISPIM, fresh topics appear and get introduced by a few delegates; in the following year, other delegates have picked up some of those topics and ran with them; yet another year later, those topics become central conference themes, attracting many paper contributions and much debate; finally, the once “hot topics” start to lose their glow and brilliance. For example, at ISPIM Stockholm, “digitalization” appeared new on the scene as a fresh topic, “design thinking” plateaued, while formerly hot topics such as “open innovation” or “social innovation” have already lost their appeal. 
  • As the innovation domain has reached the late majority (or in the business cycle moves from summer into autumn), new topics emerge and vie for leadership: For example, some academics and consultants advocate “establishing firm innovation management standards” and certifying “best innovation practices”. I predict that such new systemic and administrative initiatives on innovation will not meet resistance in well-established, mature corporations. Why? Many executives in bluechip organizations in mature industries have psycho-static mindsets (and tend to profile in TIPS as Systematizers, Organizers or Technocrats). So, they have a natural affinity for initiatives aiming to systematize, standardize, quality-certify and benchmark things — probably even innovation. 

So how do I personally feel about all of this? I am deeply passionate about creativity and innovation. So, I am happy to see how much the innovation domain has grown in importance. Moreover, as a creative person, I acknowledge that as many roads lead to Rome, there are many pathways to reach innovation. At the same time, I am a fervent advocate of more fluid innovation methods and tools to arrive at tangible innovation results.

Conclusion

Clearly, innovation has come of age. It’s hot, growing in importance and scope, and even shows initial signs of solidifying — of becoming an established domain in business. Together, these factors have attracted an increasing number of players in the innovation field advocating a myriad of different approaches, methods, platforms and events that promise to bring you into innovation heaven. 

As an industry, innovation has become big business. But in view of an ever growing number of innovation methods and tools, events and conferences, academics and consultants contesting for “the innovation dollar”, a company eager for producing innovation may wonder: “What’s the best approach to get good returns from our innovation investment?” Let’ see. In the end, it will all come down to what approaches are able to produce tangible innovation results, and what impacts those make on customers.

Have you become interested to become part of ISPIM? Do you agree —or disagree— with my views? Or are you interested to learn more about TIPS or our other innovation methods that we suggest using to produce innovation results? We like to hear from you. Contact us  and tell us more about you and how we may help you.

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2018

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