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Innovation, knowledge management and learning

Bruce Britton

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24th Feb 2012

I’m currently working with Oxfam Novib on their approach to innovation. It’s fascinating examining the overlaps and interconnections between innovation, knowledge management and organisational learning. As a result of the research I am doing, I’m clearer now that there are three stages to the process that we often lump under the one word, innovation.

First there is idea generation which is the process of coming up with interesting new ideas. New ideas can be generated through invention, cross-pollination or by adopting good ideas from external sources.

Second there is conversion which is the process of successfully transforming new ideas into useable products or practices. This requires the selection of ideas with potential, and then the development of these ideas into practical products.

Third, there is diffusion which is the process of encouraging take-up of the products. This can be either in your own organisation or externally.

Each of these three stages seems to require a different mindset and different skills. Idea generation requires creativity and collaboration – the inventor role; conversion requires the ability to turn ideas into practical products – the innovator role; and diffusion involves marketing – the entrepreneur (or, inside your organisation, the intrapreneur) role.

From what I have discovered, in most organisations few people have an affinity for more than one of these roles and many individuals don’t feel comfortable with any of the three: inventor, innovator or entrepreneur. One of the key challenges facing organisations that want to be agile and adaptable is how to create the conditions for creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship.

According to some writers, the conditions that encourage innovation are also the conditions that foster good knowledge management. However, in their innovation strategy, IFAD make an important distinction between knowledge management and innovation, when they say “innovation may often be a higher risk venture and it depends on creativity and deviance from the established patterns and perspectives, whereas knowledge management encourages harmonization around proven practices.” They go on to say “while knowledge management thrives on communities marked by commonalities, innovation thrives on diversity, crossing boundaries, and challenging and questioning established knowledge.” I don’t agree with the IFAD analysis that suggests that two different cultures have to co-exist to encourage KM and innovation. In my view, at the root of both innovation and knowledge management is learning. We do know quite a lot about what encourages and discourages learning and if we can get that right then both KM and innovation will benefit.

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