Innovating-by-Doing: Skill Innovation as a Source of Technological Advance

By Nilsson, Eric A. | Journal of Economic Issues, March 1995 | Go to article overview

Innovating-by-Doing: Skill Innovation as a Source of Technological Advance


Nilsson, Eric A., Journal of Economic Issues


Technological advance often involves a mix of discrete innovations in products, machines, tools, organization, and skills. An extensive literature has investigated innovation in products, machines, tools, and organization [e.g., Schmookler 1966; Chandler 1977]. A literature on innovation in skill also exists, but it is much smaller. Particularly notable in this literature on skill innovation is the notion of "learning-by-doing" by production workers: increases in skill that follow from direct experience with producing a particular good [e.g., Alchian 1963].

However, the literature on learning-by-doing invariably presents skill innovation by workers as minor and passive and as occurring after the introduction of the (really important) innovations in products, machines, tools, and organization. While early writings on learning-by-doing emphasized the development of increased skill by production workers, more recent writings have placed greater emphasis on improved products, machines, tools, and organization introduced by managers as a consequence of their learning-by-doing [Dutton, Thomas, and Butler 1984; Adler and Clark 1991]. This change in emphasis has further depreciated the role of increased worker skill in technical advance.

This paper claims that, contrary to the existing literature, skill innovation is not always minor and passive and does not always occur only after innovations in products, machines, tools, and organization. Indeed, I argue that some product and process innovations can be directly attributed to innovations in worker skills. I also argue that, in other cases, particular technical innovations could not have been achieved without some particular previous skill innovation.(1) As these new skills are often acquired while workers are actively engaged in production, I label this process "innovating-by-doing" by workers.

To show that skill innovation is not limited to particular industries or periods, I consider case studies from a variety of industries and periods. Further, to ease the drawing of a contrast between my claims and the existing literature, I have selected incidents of technical advance that have direct links with the already-existing literature on technological change.

The Rise of the American System

The United States rose to world economic power in the twentieth century on the foundation of mass production. In turn, the technological basis for mass production was laid almost a century earlier by the development of the so-called "American system of manufacture" in U.S. government armories. Developments in government armories during the early 1800s led to the first large-scale factory production of complex mechanical devices using interchangeable parts. Not only was the particular set of innovations that occurred within these armories "important in itself, but it has been hailed as marking the point at which America ceased to be a net borrower of technology from other nations and became a key initiator of technological change. . . . [T]he American system of manufactures represented a radically new direction for technological progress" [Pacey 1990, 146].

Because of its importance, I use the American system as a test of my claim that skill innovation had an active role in technological development. This is a particularly good test case for this claim because the American system is often presented as the first success in the widespread elimination of worker skill from the production process through the systematic use of specialized machines [e.g., Hounshell 1984].

Before the American system came to U.S. government armories in the early 1800s, gun production involved skilled craftsmen. Sometimes these craftsmen fashioned each gun individually. However, in government armories a group of skilled craftsmen worked collectively (via the division of labor) in the factory production of guns. For their day, the guns produced in these armories were highly complex mechanical instruments. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Innovating-by-Doing: Skill Innovation as a Source of Technological Advance
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.