Teaching foundations

I just finished teaching part of a course called “From innovation to operations”, where I talk to engineering students about the tensions that can exist between operational excellence on one hand and innovation and/or flexibility on the other. It’s all very short, with only four actual teaching sessions (and very enjoyable because the students are really good, especially in light of this being their only real contact with social science in their master’s program).

It’s interesting as a format though, because what do you include when you have so little time to work with? I don’t know if it’s the right way to approach such a course, but the aim has been to cultivate a ‘minimum viable conversance‘*: what are the ideas – related to innovation, in this case – that an engineering graduate should be able to have an informed discussion about with, say, an MBA in a company’s R&D department? Or, if scrolling through their LinkedIn-feed, to assess the quality of ideas being parsed off there? Or, if said engineering graduaet was to start on a Ph.D. in management studies, what should they at the very least be knowledgable about to have a conversation that is not overly specialized, with a senior scholar? What are the foundational ideas and concepts that they should be knowledgable about?

I ended up organizing the course around March’s idea of the trade-off between exploitation and exploration, because it is such a powerful metaphor and pretty much organizes a lot of the academic research in our field. Working from that metaphor, we took a fast-paced tour through what I would think of as foundational ideas about technology and the organization of innovation. Not all of it is super recent, but my thought would be that those interested in the ideas at the bleeding edge of the academic state-of-the-art could seek that out in electives.

First class, I have them read (a little bit of) Schumpeter’s work on Creative Destruction (and listen to an interview with the late Thomas McGraw on Econtalk) as a preamble to March, to set up a discussion of how March’s trade-off can be seen as a feature of capitalist entreprise. I talked about the rise of the corporation (Chandler) and the productivity dilemma (Abernathy) in class as well, but didn’t assign it. We also read a piece on innovation strategy and discuss the viability of strategy as a means of handling the challenges of innovation.

Second class, we moved onto technology and the ideas around technology and how technology relates to innovation and industry development: technology s-curves, cyclical models of technical change, dominant designs and rates of improvement. We link this back to Schumpeter and March, respectively by talking about how new technology upends established industries and how exploration and exploitation unfold over the technology life cycle. For good measure, we also talk about disruptive innovation (in the narrow sense that Christensen talks about it and with Ezra Zuckerman’s excellent commentary) and general purpose technologies – highlighting that both ‘dramatize’ the challenges of exploration because they are associated with even greater uncertainty and even more distant payoffs than ‘normal’ innovation. This time round, we discussed bitcoin as a case of a technology and what to make of it.

Third class, we move into organizational issues. That means Henderson & Clark’s idea that the organization of firms impedes innovation, because firms build their organization to reflect dominant technology and product architecture. Again, we link this back to Schumpeter and March. It also means the idea of ambidexterity – we read a symposium that discusses perspectives on the productivity dilemma, with contributions from some big contributors to the area. I encourage students to watch a couple of hour-long youtube videos with Paul Adler and Michael Tushman to help them understand the issues at stake. We touch (quickly) on stage-gate systems and how March would interpret them, before closing with Morison’s lovely history of naval ordnance technology and the notion of resistance to innovation within organizations. It’s a bit much for a class (of four hours) and especially the symposium was a bit of a mouthful, but they pulled it off really well.

Fourth and final (!) class, we talk about the open future of innovation management practice under the headline ‘The sources of innovation’, so we read about von Hippel’s ideas of user innovation and Chesbrough’s of open innovation. We also read a chapter by Altman and her colleagues on the implications of falling communication costs on innovation in organization (it’s a really good chapter – warmly recommended). This year I also included a paper on supplier innovation, but I don’t think I will in the future – it added something, of course, but I think I’d rather talk more about markets for technology or crowdsourcing or overlooked sources of innovation within the organization.

I feel like it turned out to be a good set of readings to introduce students to some of the headline ideas in innovation management. The students definitely came away with a solid grasp of most of the ideas (judging from the exams), even if some of the readings were a bit hard for an introductory course. They were master’s students so I think that was reasonable, as was the amount of material (more or less).

I provide pretty extensive reading guides for the students as well as questions for them to prepare before class and the one for this class is available in this document. At the evauations, several students expressed that these had been really helpful, especially in light of the ‘exotic’ nature of the material and the extent of it (reading four papers in a new discipline without an idea of what to pay attention to can be a bit overwhelming).

Also, I try to pick material that is available through open access when I can, so if you’re interested in reading more, use the links in the reading guide. Over the coming months, I’ll try to write some short and concise posts about the individual readings and how they relate to each other, so that in time the blog will be an open access ‘textbook’ for the course.


*) Over on his blog, Thomas Basbøll has written about some interesting ideas about teaching, including the idea that instead of focusing on what people should learn, perhaps it also makes sense to think about what we want them to unlearn. Generally,  perhaps there is an unacceptable level of incompetence for people educated to certain level (in the sense that there are things you, as the holder of a degree in an academic subject, should know to be true and untrue). The idea of a Minimal Viable Conversance for a course would reflect the things that, at the very least, you at the end of the course should be able to engage in a good quality, non-absurd (written or spoken) conversation about with a knowledgable person.


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