The Evolution of Innovation

By Smith, Roger | Research-Technology Management, May-June 2008 | Go to article overview

The Evolution of Innovation


Smith, Roger, Research-Technology Management


This is the first of an occasional column exploring principles, models and theories of innovation in business and management. Readers are invited to respond with their own commentary to The Editor, mwolff3877@aol.com

In 1856, William Henry Perkin was an 18-year-old student at Britain's Royal College of Chemistry. He was working toward an antimalarial drug that was important to the British empire as it expanded into Africa. But he stumbled onto a coal-tar derivative that was particularly effective at staining silk material into a rich shade of purple. At a time when dull, earthen colors had dominated clothing for two centuries, Perkin realized that a vibrant and stable purple dye was a very valuable product. He quit the university against the protests of his professors and established a factory for producing the dye. His father invested the family's entire fortune in the endeavor and his brother quit a job in the building trades to manage the new business. By 1857, Perkin's factory was producing "Tyrian Purple" for sale to commercial silk dyers and he was working on new dyes for wool and cotton (1).

The success of Tyrian Purple as a commercial venture led chemists across Europe to focus on this market in the hope of making their own fortunes. Over the next 50 years major companies like Bayer, Hoechst, BASF, and AGFA built their fortunes on the creation of new dyes. The sustained demand for dyes built new factories, created a demand for educated chemists, raised the importance of a university education, and provided employment for thousands of workers. The plot of this 19th century story closely matches that of current Silicon Valley computer, software and web services companies--the curiosity, hard work, and good luck of one person leads to the creation of one unique product, followed by the invigoration of an industry.

Formal Study of Innovation Is New

The creation of the aniline purple dye was an invention. The application of that dye as a commercial product was an innovation. Both invention and innovation are very old processes. The history of weaponry, machinery and transportation are all filled with instances of invention and innovation that transformed individuals, companies, countries, and economies. But, as old as these practices are, the formal study of innovation is relatively new, tracing its roots back to the works of Burns and Stalker in 1961 (2) and Rogers in 1962 (3).

In The Management of Innovation, Burns and Stalker clearly separated mechanistic from organic environments. In a mechanistic environment it is best to create standard processes, rules and hierarchy to improve the efficiency of the organization. But organic environments require a different approach, one which recognizes the importance of unique skills and knowledge, as well as the means to stimulate these toward solving new problems and creating new products. Organic working environments require employees to use their own knowledge and judgment to solve a continually changing set of problems.

In Diffusion of Innovation, Rogers investigated the means by which new ideas propagate through a society. He was most interested in the social factors that allowed ideas to prosper, and identified five variables that determine the rate of adoption of a new idea or product: the attributes of the innovation itself, the type of decision required to adopt an innovation, the communication channels through which the idea is carried, the nature of the social system into which the idea is introduced, and the extent of a specific change agent's promotional efforts. These ideas, published 45 years ago, were some of the first models of innovation.

It could also be argued that the ideas of Fredrick Winslow Taylor in 1911 (4) and Joseph Schumpeter in 1942 (5) were about innovation. Taylor may have invented new shapes and sizes of shovels to implement his ideas about labor productivity, but the real innovation was in recognizing that traditional methods of factory work were inefficient and could be improved if a scientific mind were allowed to enforce practices on the working hands of laborers. …

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