Managing Invention and Innovation: Technological Innovation Can Alter the Competitive Status of Firms and Nations but Its Purposeful Management Is Complex, Involving the Effective Integration of People, Organizational Processes and Plans

By Roberts, Edward B. | Research-Technology Management, January-February 2007 | Go to article overview

Managing Invention and Innovation: Technological Innovation Can Alter the Competitive Status of Firms and Nations but Its Purposeful Management Is Complex, Involving the Effective Integration of People, Organizational Processes and Plans


Roberts, Edward B., Research-Technology Management


When the Industrial Research Institute was founded in 1938, industrial research in the United States had experienced 20 years of dramatic growth, despite the shock of the Depression, and was poised on the brink of World War II expansion that gave it the form and scope we see today. MIT historian Howard Bartlett reported that from 1921 to 1938 the number of U.S. companies with research staffs of more than 50 persons grew from 15 to 120 (1).

Despite continued rapid increases in industrial R&D involvement and resource commitment over the following 25 years, in 1962, when we founded the MIT Sloan School of Management's Research Program on the Management of Science and Technology, we encountered an academic tradition that for the most part had paid little attention to the organization and management of large-scale technology-based programs. Indeed it was for the purpose of bringing academic research-based insights to bear on such technological enterprises that James Webb, the visionary administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, urged us with exhortation and funds to begin our research program.

Prior to our start, academics had concentrated largely on two themes: historical romanticism about the lives and activities of great "creative inventors," like Edison and Bell, and psychological research into the "creativity process." While those writings made interesting reading, in my judgment neither track contributed much useable knowledge for managers of technical organizations. Indeed with such rare exceptions as Jewkes et al. (2), the few university researchers who were focusing at that early time upon issues of R&D management were not paying much attention to organizational variables or to innovation as a multi-stage, multi-person, complex process. Perhaps not surprisingly, industry in the early 1960s appeared rather unenthusiastic about social science attempts to probe the underpinnings of effective research, development and technology-based innovation. In contrast, I sense broad acceptance in the 1980s of the results of many academic studies of RD&E, with the Industrial Research Institute especially noteworthy in its efforts to advance collaboration in the field of management of technological innovation.

Invention and Innovation

Roundtable discussions at the 1970 annual IRI spring meeting provide a useful starting point for this review--a set of definitions of the invention and innovation process:

Innovation is composed of two parts': (1) the generation of an idea or invention, and (2) the conversion of that invention into a business or other useful application ... Using the generally accepted (broad) definition of innovation--all of the stages from the technical invention to final commercialization--the technical contribution does not have a dominant position (3).

This leads me to a simple definition of my own, but nonetheless one that I feel is critical to emphasize: Innovation = Invention + Exploitation.

The invention process covers all efforts aimed at creating new ideas and getting them to work. The exploitation process includes all stages of commercial development, application and transfer, including the focusing of ideas or inventions toward specific objectives, evaluating those objectives, downstream transfer of research and/or development results, and the eventual broad-based utilization, dissemination and diffusion of the technology-based outcomes.

The overall management of technological innovation thus includes the organization and direction of human and capital resources toward effectively: (1) creating new knowledge; (2) generating technical ideas aimed at new and enhanced products, manufacturing processes and services; (3) developing those ideas into working prototypes; and (4) transferring them into manufacturing, distribution and use.

Technologically innovative outcomes come in many forms: incremental or radical in degree; modifications of existing entities or entirely new entities; embodied in products, processes or services; oriented toward consumer, industrial or governmental use; based on various single or multiple technologies. …

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