The Changing Innovation Process

How has the internet changed the innovation process? It has had a number of impacts, particularly on collaborative innovation, which is becoming increasingly important. Here is a short discussion on this topic from one of our previous Innovation Leadership Executive Education courses:

George Dyson has a nice metaphor for the changes involved in answer to one of the big questions from – how has the internet changed the way you think? (via Simon Bostock’s excellent blog)


In the North Pacific ocean, there were two approaches to boatbuilding. The Aleuts (and their kayak-building relatives) lived on barren, treeless islands and built their vessels by piecing together skeletal frameworks from fragments of beach-combed wood. The Tlingit (and their dugout canoe-building relatives) built their vessels by selecting entire trees out of the rainforest and removing wood until there was nothing left but a canoe.

The Aleut and the Tlingit achieved similar results — maximum boat / minimum material — by opposite means. The flood of information unleashed by the Internet has produced a similar cultural split. We used to be kayak builders, collecting all available fragments of information to assemble the framework that kept us afloat. Now, we have to learn to become dugout-canoe builders, discarding unneccessary information to reveal the shape of knowledge hidden within.

I was a hardened kayak builder, trained to collect every available stick. I resent having to learn the new skills. But those who don’t will be left paddling logs, not canoes.

This same process drives the shift towards distributed innovation. When the raw materials (great ideas) for innovation are relatively rare, it makes sense to try to control the source (creative people) as much as possible. So you hire as many innovative people as you can, and you retain all the resources inside of your firm.

However, when the raw materials are abundant, the problem isn’t finding them, it’s figuring out which ones are good. In this environment, it makes more sense to let idea generation come from anywhere, while you focus on getting very good at selecting and executing great ideas.

All of us are building canoes now.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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