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.

Defining Innovation in the Context of Studying Hive NYC

One of the challenges of studying innovation here in Hive Research Lab is that the word has become so loaded in our discourse. Its ubiquity often Sprout Lightbulbrenders it meaningless, and so as researchers working with this idea we need to be clear on what exactly we’re talking about when we say innovation.

The first thing to say about innovation is that, like many other words, it exists in our language in various forms. For example, take these four ways of using the word in context:

  • “Our organization needs to produce more innovations!” (noun form)
  • “Our organization needs to do more innovation!” (verb form)
  • “The thing that organization made is totally innovative!” (adjective form modifying a noun)
  • “The experimentation that organization does is so innovative!” (adjective form modifying a verb)

So when we say we’re studying innovation, we have to be clear about which form of the word we mean, because that has implications for how and what we track as part of our research process. For the purposes of this post, I’ll focus on the noun form, i.e., the “things” that we might call innovations. (In a future post, I’ll discuss the the verb form, which comprises the actions and processes that lead to those things.)

In reviewing the academic literature, we’ve found five dimensions that are usually referred to in some way when characterizing an “innovation”:

  • “Value Added”/Beneficence of an Innovation – this dimension speaks to the normative qualities of an innovation. Is a given practice/technology/idea “better” than what came before it? This begs the questions of according to whom, and by what measure? Definitions that focus on “value added” imply an evaluation of some sort.
  • Novelty of an Innovation – almost all definitions focus to some degree on whether something might be considered new, though novelty is acknowledged as variable based on context (“absolute” vs “relative” novelty). New to an individual, new to a team, new to a firm, new to a field, etc. can all be considered and specified within a definition of innovation. Also referenced here is “perceived” novelty by a given actor.
  • Form of an Innovation – innovations are often grouped according to some form that they take, such as product innovations, process innovations (which refers usually to innovation processes themselves, eg – a rapid prototyping approach, assembly lines, supply chains, etc.), or organizational model innovations. This can be extended in other ways, delineating various forms like technologies, practices, program models, design principles, etc.
  • Origins of an Innovation – was the innovation internally conceived or externally adopted, or some combination? Obviously, on a micro level, all innovation is some combination, but various ways of operationalizing and measuring could likely determine whether an innovation has an external or internal basis in relation to the unit of analysis (individual, team, organization, field, nation, etc.).
  • Degree of an Innovation – is an innovation a radical departure from existing approaches within a unit of analysis, or an incremental improvement? Again, degree can be contextually determined. Something might be a radical departure from existing practice in one organization, but is considered just an incremental improvement from the level of the field.

In getting to a definition of innovation, each of these dimensions is something we think about, with a general rule of thumb being to ask ourselves the questions “Is that aspect of innovation something that actually matters to us in studying Hive NYC? Does it do work for us in our investigations?”

While I’ll talk more in later post about innovation processes and practices, one emerging hypothesis concerning innovation and Hive NYC is that membership in the network mediates exposure to, circulation of and experimentation with ideas, technologies and practices relating to learning. Because of this hypothesis, we’re looking to operationalize innovation in a way that allows us to identify innovations in order to investigate the nature of that mediation. The focus on the practices/processes of circulation, exposure and experimentation for us imply a need to use a definition that focuses on perceived novelty and, potentially, perceived beneficence (value-add), rather than some sort of “objective” evaluation of novelty or beneficence. This allows for a greater focus on the processes surrounding an innovation, given that it is easier to decide that something is an innovation and then track how it’s treated and related to without having to conduct an extensive evaluation of the internal qualities and/or efficacy of a given innovation by some objective measure.

Based on these considerations, the working definition we’re using here at Hive Research Lab for usage within the context of studying innovation within the Hive is the following: An innovation is an idea, practice, principle, technology, or other mediational object perceived as new and of value by an individual, team, organization, field or other entity.

Given that definition, there are a variety of things that might then be considered innovations in the context of Hive NYC:

  • Learning technologies, some developed outside of the network and then adopted (like MIT’s Scratch) and others developed within member organizations (like The LAMP’s Media Breaker).
  • Disciplinary oriented pedagogical practices, like youth game design, citizen science, youth journalism, etc.
  • Program Models and/or Curricula, like NySci’s C3 citizen science work, or Global Kids’ NYC Haunts series of programs.
  • Design principles, like creating learning environments that are interest-driven, or production centered.

The key here is that according to the definition we’re using, none of the above are innovations by default – it’s always contextual. Does a given organization or individual we’re looking at see one of these are novel and of value? Because we’re looking at a network where there’s lots of experimentation with and circulation of ideas, we wanted to make sure that we could focus on the contextual nature of innovations for different actors, and see how the network intersects with those.

We’ll post soon on innovation processes and practices, which we see as a central part of understanding how Hive NYC operates.