Lock Up Your Innovators: The Academics Are Loose

Wooden model of academic


An “alarming trend” sees stodgy academics, turgid papers in hand, descending slothlike on the fast-paced but unsuspecting innovation domain.

Writing in Bloomberg Businessweek, G. Michael Maddock and Raphael Louis Vitón claim major corporations are turning to academics to institute innovation programs, but should be looking elsewhere for advice. According to the authors,

“No one disputes the irony: Professors, who have chosen a safe, pragmatic, low-risk occupation and tenured career, are teaching companies how to innovate, a skill that almost always rewards the best risk takers.”

Do academics kill innovation? Or are the two guys  trying to be deliberately provacative? I think it is the latter, with Maddock and Vitón being wrong on a number of fronts.

The first is their equation of innovation with risk. They are not the same thing. Look at something like Thesaurus.com and check both words. Neither referenced each other. There are elements of risk in bringing new products or services to market, or in implementing new binnovate word mapusiness models, or process improvements. But innovation and risk are not the same.

Secondly, what is wrong with academics studying stuff? Isn’t that what they are supposed to do? And who else has the time to do it?

Go to Google Scholar and enter in a phrase like “entrepreneurship in a large corporation,” the thing Maddock and Vitón claim academics are no good at. Some of the seminal papers on this topic were published in the 1990s — almost 20 years ago.

The insights from that literature have worked their way from seldom-read, peer-reviewed, academic journals to high-brow business magazines like the Harvard Business Review down to mass-market publications like Businessweek. It then gets rehashed and beaten to death by bloggers and other social-media types.

Maddock and Vitón say the attraction for large, process-driven companies is that academics can offer — for “a six-figure check” — a process on innovation amking the whole thing seems safe. Instead, corporations should look to entrepreneurs for inspiration. Again, the authors conflate two concepts that are often not related: innovator and entrepreneur.

Nevertheless, their advice is worth a mention:

  • Get to Beta quickly: i.e. test your product on the market in “small, controlled launches.” Facebook lives that with its Fail Harder, Move Frisk word mapast & Break Stuff principle. Serial entrepreneur, Jonathan Siegel, calls it “non-destructive testing.” It’s easier to do in web environments, but elements of it can be copied with physical products.
  • Acquire Mojo: Think and act like a small company. Tough to do in a huge company, so the authors suggest buying a small firm and staying out of the way.
  • Take ideas from anywhere: Some of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs never went to college, so professors don’t have a monopoly on good ideas, the authors say.

Photo courtesy Tim Ellis on Flickr.com.

Word maps are partial screen shots of the Visual Thesaurus on Thesaurus.com.