Innovation is a collision of learning

There are as many definitions of innovation as there are new ideas themselves. At its core, innovation means finding a new idea or approach to doing something. Rather than adding yet more to the Pantheon of definitions that already exist, I’m interested in finding out when innovation happens and working to create that magic more often.

There are two different forms of innovation that we see in organisations. The first is the breakthrough through breakout thinking in the way something is done or a new invention. The second is a step-change through an evolution of an existing capability. More often than not, both forms of innovation occur when an idea from another field or area is juxtaposed with existing knowledge.

Consumers see innovation of the first type in radically new solutions such as a biodegradable packaging and creative ways of accessing credit. They see innovation of the second type in product packaging that is easier to open and financial services that are more readily understood.

In business we similarly see both breakthrough and evolution. Email is a great example breakout thinking which fundamentally changed the way we work whereas hotdesking is a demonstration of the evolution of workplace flexibility.

Even with evolutionary innovation, typically it is the association of learning from more than one field that needs to come together. Energy innovation is drawing on research for electric vehicles. Business is increasingly relying on data science which draws its foundations from
science and statistics.

Over time organisations adapt to their changing environments. This change can be characterised as a form of learning.

In nature, change can also be characterised as a form of learning, the learning can be biomechanical (a plant adapts itself to a climbing frame) or conscious (a pet learns to be ready when scraps are salvaged from the dinner table). Business is the same. Change can simply be a mechanical response to shifting markets (forcing store closures or alterations in product lines) or through innovation (adapting stores or inventing new products to take to market).

As individuals we also constantly learn. Some people simply track with their employer’s learning journey, attending proscribed training sessions. More creative staff, though, have wider interests and are looking to new things that interest them all the time. Harnessing this discretionary learning of the latter group is key to the success of organisations seeking to own their own fate rather than simply following the fortunes of the economic environment.

It seems to be when the personal learning and interests of staff collide with their organisation’s learning journey that innovation is most likely to happen. It is the journey of discovery that enables both the breakthrough ideas and the willingness to try incremental advances that supports an organisation’s innovation.

A customer service staff member who learns about design at the same time as the organisation is thinking differently about business processes is more likely to improve the front-of-house experience. A finance team member who learns about artificial intelligence at the same time as the organisation is thinking about robotic process automation is likely to think of new ways of revolutionising the back-office.

If the association between learning and innovation is strong, there should be a role for universities in the process. To-date, though, universities have struggled to support business in their innovation activities. Understanding that innovation happens through the collision of learning journeys, they can stop trying to sell applied research as a product and start doing what they do best, create environments that enables learning to happen.

This fits with the evolving role of further education (see Universities disrupted but not displaced). Moving from “set and forget” education that finishes when graduates start work to ongoing education including “micro credentials” provides a more sustainable business model for universities and the potential for them to add far more value supporting innovative change across the economy.

We probably still don’t really know what innovation is, but we can be confident that it is important to the future of business. By focusing on learning, exploration and discovery rather than artificially trying to force innovation to happen, organisations are more likely to see the sparks of magic that are needed to make large and small changes alike. Doing it as a learning partnership between the organisation, its employees and, potentially, universities creates a sustainable environment which can propel any business into an unknown future as the owner of their own destiny.

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