Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Innovation and Philosophy

Santiago Montenegro

University of Miami
Project Syndicate

Is it possible to learn to innovate? Is innovation something that can be taught at school?

After reading literature by some of the world’s leading experts on innovation – Clayton Christensen, Henry Chesbrough, John Kao, James Andrew, and Harold Sirkin – I was fascinated, but, alas, also frustrated. Innovation is the production of new knowledge that generates value. It is about fresh ideas that give rise to novel products, services, and processes, new management methods, and original designs and inventions that generate greater profits for firms, regions and countries.

Most experts agree that there are no ready-made formulas or recipes for how to innovate. But is it possible to create the appropriate conditions – to filter ideas and execute plans, and thus to facilitate creativity – under which innovation may flourish?

Managers can perhaps be taught how to nurture innovation by creating an environment that stimulates and encourages individual freedom, creativity, and constructive criticism. Innovation is more likely where it is possible to defy restrictions and authority; where individuals and groups are allowed to ignore conventions; where a mixing of ideas, people, and cultures is permitted and stimulated; and where management techniques enable firms and industries to acknowledge, identify, and learn from errors as quickly as possible.

Above all, innovation will blossom wherever it is recognized that innovation must be open to the physical world and to the world of ideas, and that, because no firm, no process, and no invention has a guaranteed future, everyone should be prepared for uncertainty. Innovation may increase even more when firms and managers realize that even the most successful firms – those that “have done everything right” – may languish and disappear. In brief, innovation will only truly take off with the understanding that the world is rapidly changing, extremely dynamic and volatile, and that the future is unpredictable.

These are great ideas, but as I went through these texts I found them to be rather familiar sounding – I had the feeling that somehow and somewhere I had already studied them. I soon realized that these clever ideas had already been developed by the theory of knowledge and the philosophy of science. Indeed, innovation is simply a subset of scientific knowledge.

According to the school of rational criticism, when existing theories can neither explain nor solve current problems, the formulation of new hypotheses – and thus new scientific knowledge – is, like innovation, more likely to flourish when constructive criticism is openly allowed and encouraged. Here, too, the formulation of new ideas and hypotheses quite often takes place at a far remove from the authority of experts, because experts, like business managers, often become prisoners of their specializations and backgrounds.

Scientific knowledge is more likely to emerge in environments where it is accepted that there are no prescribed or logical methods for formulating hypotheses; that they may be the result of sudden inspiration; or that they may come from dreams, from other disciplines, or from people that belong to different professions or have different backgrounds.

Once a plausible hypothesis is formulated, it must be tested against all existing theories and against all available experience and information. It has to be subject to open criticism from all directions, and only if it survives these tests and criticisms may it be adopted as tentative and conjectural new knowledge. Science and knowledge are made up not of winners, but of survivors of continuous and systematic efforts to refute. Theories are never certain and must always be prepared for an uncertain future. Or, as Karl Popper put it, truth is never definitive and error is always probable.

No book on innovation that I have read makes the connection between innovation and the theory of knowledge and philosophy of science. This is unfortunate, because the theories of innovation may be subject to all the questions, conjectures, and answers that these disciplines have developed with respect to scientific knowledge. Should business administration students and future business managers immerse themselves in the philosophy of science, they would not only become more knowledgeable and have greater respect for science; they might also become more rigorous and more competent, have greater respect for other disciplines, and be more humble.

At the same time, philosophy professors and students might also profit from the questions that challenge firms and industries. They might broaden their scope and find that they, too, can contribute to the productivity of firms, industries, and the economy in general. But it is past time that some basic principles in the theory of knowledge and of philosophy of science be introduced into schools of business administration.

Santiago Montenegro, a visiting fellow at the Center of Hemispheric Policy, University of Miami, was Director of Colombia’s National Planning Department (2002-2006) and Dean of the School of Economics, Los Andes University (1996-2000).
Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences, 2009.


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