What are the “practices” of innovation?

Previously we’ve written about how we define the “stuff” that might be considered innovations within the Hive – ideas, technologies, program models, and design principles are all the “things” or “nouns” that are the results of other activities. But what about the activities that bring these innovations about? These are what I refer to as  innovation practices. These practices operate on the level of verbs – they’re not things, but rather actions, activities, and processes. They make up the evolution or life-cycle of innovations, from brainstorming and iteration to implementation and scaling. Innovation practices are often so invisible and taken for granted that we thought it might be useful to name and offer some definitions here on the blog. Part of the idea in doing so is to let people in on the process we’re going through to theorize innovation in the Hive, but another goal is to give language to Hive members so that they might better recognize and call out things they do every day, activities that are central to how Hive works together as a network.

Sprout bulb in interative cycle

To offer a framework, we’ll draw on the work of James March, a scholar of organizational learning who famously offered [pdf] that the process of innovation can be broken up into two primary sets of activities – the work of exploration, and the work of exploitation. According to March, exploration “… includes things captured by terms such as search, variation, risk taking, experimentation, play, flexibility, discovery, innovation”, while exploitation “… includes such things as refinement, choice, production, efficiency, selection, implementation, execution.”

Put another way by the scholar Kwaku Atuahene-Gima, exploration encompasses a set of innovation practices that aim to develop new knowledge (broadly defined – ideas, technologies, program models, design principles, etc.) within a given context, and supports greater departures from current knowledge that exists in that context. And exploitation encompasses a set of innovation practices that aim to hone and extend current knowledge. Exploitation, rather than departing greatly from existing knowledge, hews closely to it in order to further and deepen it. It “exploits”, or makes the most of on an area that’s already familiar.

So what, more precisely, are the actual activities that make up these two areas of innovation? Based on what I’ve seen in Hive, on my own work experience, and on what the literature discusses, I’ve broken down a set of innovation practices I see as belonging in each of these buckets.

Exploration might include the following:

  • Exposure – the act of encountering an innovation or information about an innovation without specifically seeking it out.
  • Search – the act of actively seeking out an innovation or information about an innovation in a directed and intentional manner.
  • Sense-making – the process of coming to understand the nature of an innovation and/or the innovation’s potential relationship to a given actor’s goal(s). Sense-making can be intentionally undertaken as a practice, or more organically occur without specific direction on the part of an actor.
  • Ideation – the practice of intentionally generating ideas for potential innovations that might be further developed by a given actor.
  • Prototyping – the practice of creating early-stage pilots or models of a given innovation for the purposes of gaining information that would further the design.
  • Experimentation – the practice of engaging in early-stage implementation of a prototype within a variety of contexts with the intention of gaining information that would further the design.
  • Refinement – the practice of using information gained through prototyping and experimentation processes in order to change central aspects of an innovation’s design.
  • Iteration – the practice of repetitively engaging in cycles of prototyping, experimentation and refinement for the purposes of systematically improving an innovation. 
  • Recontextualization – the practice of adapting a given innovation to a particular context to better meet the needs and priorities of said context.
  • Reinvention – the practice of re-conceptualizing a given innovation such that it takes on a substantively distinct new form.

Obviously, many of these practices are overlapping or encompass one another. For instance, “iteration” is a sort of meta-practice that subsumes prototyping, experimentation and refinement. The processes of “recontextualization” and “reinvention” imply that exposure or search must have occured, as well as some sort of sense-making. Each of these practices though offers a distinct lens into the larger process of exploration.

Exploitation, on the hand, includes a very different set of practices such as:

  • Production – the creation, manufacturing or design of a given innovation at a degree of refinement and scale such that it is ready to be implemented in its intended context of use.
  • Implementation – the execution and/or release of a given innovation within its context of intended use.
  • Establishing Efficiencies – refinement to non-core aspects of an innovation or the processes surrounding the production or implementation of an innovation for the purposes of making its continued production or implementation less resource intensive.
  • Institutionalization – the development of increased capacity, knowledge and expertise vis-a-vis a given innovation within an organization or system.

We could possibly leave the story of innovation practices at those two buckets of exploration and exploitation, but as I looked at the Hive and considered the networked nature of innovation that occurs here, two other linked practices seemed to be important: documentation and circulation, defined below:

  • Circulation – formal or informal sharing of an innovation and/or information relating to an innovation across multiple actors (individuals, organizations, systems). Actors engaged in circulation may or may not be associated with development of the innovation.
  • Documentation – the practice of creating artifacts and reference materials relating to a given innovation to help achieve a variety of functions across the spectrum of innovation practices.

In terms of “networked innovation”, these practices are central to the ways that innovation is captured, spread, and accumulated throughout the network, operating as a sort of connective tissue in terms of innovation. They speak to the process of “diffusion of innovations“, made famous by innovation scholar Everett Rogers.

So what do we make of all this when we think about studying innovation in Hive NYC? In general, part of why we go through the process of developing such layers of theory is so we can get a better sense of what activity is actually going on, and where to focus our energies and attention as researchers. In the context of the Hive, the practices of exploration and circulation seem to be the most relevant. In terms of exploration, the discourse of the network is generally oriented towards experimentation with new ideas, technologies and programs, something encompassed by exploration practices. And in terms of circulation, many Hive-supported activities, including partnerships, meet-ups, learning lab and community calls are heavily oriented towards sharing what people are working on and spreading knowledge across the community. These circulation practices in the network also feed back into such central exploration processes as search, exposure, sensemaking, recontextualization and reinvention. Exploration and circulation practices both inextricably tied to one another in a networked context, and as such are central as we study what Hive is up to.

Where do we go from here then? Two things have emerged for us as critical as we’ve started to conceptualize innovation practices, both of which have emerged from our fieldwork.

The first is that it’s become increasingly clear that the real value here is in understanding the particular ways that organizations string all of these different practices together. If these individual practices are the innovation equivalent of walking, we want to understand and be able to talk about how Hive organizations dance, whether it be on their own, in pairs, or in epic choreographed ensembles (if that makes sense!). This means being able to speak to how the different innovation practices I’ve talked about here are coordinated into larger patterns of organizational behavior and strategy, and how being part of a network intersects with that.

The second thread we want to pull here is about language. A lot of the literature on innovation isn’t really native to the educational world, and some terms (like exploitation, for instance) don’t really resonate with the culture and ethos of the Hive. While such terms might be useful analytically, we’re curious to learn more about how Hive organizations talk about the ways they engage in the activities we described here. Some things we know have become common parlance – prototyping, iteration, playtesting – but we’re sure that there’s a lot of other ways that Hivers talk about how they engage in innovation, and we’re curious to hear from people on this front.

What’s your organizational “interface” with the Hive?

As we’re coming towards the end of our preliminary fieldwork phase to get a snapshot of Hive NYC, we’re starting to see that member organizations “interface” with the Hive in very distinct ways. For example, we’re noticing that in a number of larger organizations, the relationship to the network and its associated opportunities is managed by one individual within a specific programmatic department, with development (i.e., fund raising) folks coming into the picture when the organization responds to a Hive RFP. In some smaller ones, we’ve seen a range of set ups, from executive directors being the only one in the organization that even knows what Hive is (common with some of the newer small organizations), to others where teams that span leadership and programmatic roles attend Hive community meetings together. In still other cases, we’ve seen “hand-offs”‘- an instance where someone moves on from a position and was a “point person” to many Hive-affiliated relationships and activities, and then moves out of that role, explicitly giving it to another person in the organization.

This brings up the fact that there are so many things that we might count as an “interface” with the network (and what the network actually *is* from an analytic perspective is a whole other post). Any of the following might qualify:

  • being on monthly community calls
  • attending monthly in person Hive meet-ups
  • participating (or just lurking) on Hive’s mingroup email list
  • running an activity station at a one-day Hive-affiliated pop-up event
  • submitting an application with other Hive members to the bi-annual Hive RFP
  • running a Hive funded program or partnership
  • taking part in “learning lab” calls that occur for each cohort of funded Hive projects
  • …and probably a whole bunch of things we’re either forgetting or don’t know about yet.

So why does this all matter? Well, as a project that’s studying the way that Hive NYC can improve its ability to be an infrastructure for innovation, knowing how each member organization interfaces with the Hive becomes really important because it gives us insight into a range of related questions. Who’s bringing ideas and technologies into this community? How does organizational interface mediate who participates in the broader Hive NYC community and who doesn’t? How do innovations travel within and across organizations based on the nature of that organization’s interface? How does an organization’s knowledge and understanding of the Hive NYC community and its ethos, values and educational approaches change over time depending on how it interfaces with network activities? All of these questions are consequential to the broader goal of supporting Hive as a context for educational innovation, and so we’re paying close attention to these issues in the ground.

One of the questions we’ve asked some older Hive NYC members is if there are things they’d recommend to new Hive member organizations. One member recently spoke directly to this point of organizational interface, saying that he felt it was critical that an organization find a Hive point person (or people) who is both really interested in the network and the ideas that are associated with it and at the same time has some degree of power to capitalize on that participation and the opportunities that stem from it in a way that benefits the broader organization. Adding to that point, another member recently mentioned that while she’s the active liaison now, that’s a role that someone else (originally from their development department) used to occupy, and it gradually shifted as it became clearer to the organization that Hive NYC was not just another funding opportunity but rather largely about educational practice, and that from that perspective having a programmatic-oriented staff member engaging made good sense.

There’s plenty more than we’re finding about this issue, but I thought I’d take the opportunity to open this question up for any Hive members that might be reading (folks from other Hives aside from NYC are welcome!). How does your organization “interface” with the Hive? Are there recommendations you have for other orgs about what’s worked for you, or what hasn’t? And what are the things you consider most as you’re making these sorts of decisions?