How to Give Up the I-Word, Pt. 2

This is the second part of a two-part essay, which I originally presented at conferences in the spring of 2014. The first part is available here. The full version of the essay, which I’m happy to share with anyone interested, included a section on the place of innovation speak in the academic sub-discipline of business history.

Innovation as the Self-Image of an Age

In the last section, I examined some general drivers of the rise of innovation speak. In this section, I would like to narrow my analysis to focus on how a specific sector responded to these trends. Business schools have played a significant part in promulgating talk of innovation, both within academia and in popular discourse. During the last half of the twentieth century, business schools increasingly became core institutions of cultural production. Business professors often aspire not only to produce works, like case studies, that will only be read and used in academic settings but also to create products, whether books or articles or consultancies, that will have broader appeal. In this context, the trend towards innovation speak can be seen easily enough by tracing the publications of individual writers based at business schools. Michael E. Porter, a professor at Harvard Business School and the dean of competitive strategy analysis, used the word innovation 46 times in his 1980 book, Competitive Strategy, but 123 times in his 1998 book, On Competition.

One person whose work nicely illustrates a relationship to the drivers mentioned in the previous section is William J. Abernathy, like Porter, a professor at Harvard Business School. Abernathy’s 1978 book, The Productivity Dilemma: Roadblock to Innovation in the Automobile Industry, was written at a time when the automakers were suffering from a well-known decline. Chrysler, especially, was in bad financial shape and would be bailed out a year later. In The Productivity Dilemma, Abernathy examined the trade-offs of adopting rigid but highly effective production techniques: while it won productivity in the short term, the adoption of such production techniques made it difficult, if not impossible, to internalize new innovations. Abernathy made a distinction between incremental and radical forms of innovation, arguing the the latter tended to interrupt settled production. Thus, we have our dilemma. How do we balance innovation and productivity? The historical context for The Productivity Dilemma—falling profitability in the auto industry and a general sense of industrial degeneration—was hardly mentioned at all in the book but acted only as the backdrop. This silence about current events was not true of Abernathy’s following works.

In 1980, Abernathy published a co-authored essay, titled “Managing Our Way to Economic Decline,” in the eminent Harvard Business Review. Abernathy and his co-author, Robert H. Hayes, argued against the assertions of supply-side economics that declining productivity in the U.S. was the result of high taxes, energy crises, and too much regulation. The authors instead put the blame on shifting managerial experiences and priorities, including a lack of “hands-on” knowledge and “short-term cost reduction rather than long-term development of technological competitiveness.” Later in the essay, the authors characterized this latter priority as a choice between “Imitative vs. Innovative Product Design.” By casting the economic decline of the 1970s as a problem of management, Abernathy and Hayes described the problem as something that could be solved through a change in mindset or an acquisition of fresh knowledge. The framing encouraged scholars to find and communicate lessons for how to foster innovation. Their analysis also implicitly built on the back of long traditions in the West, contained in volumes like Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography and Poor Richard’s Almanack, that condemned actions that favored short-term gain, which was too focused on the opinions of the market, over wise long-term growth.

In 1983, along with Kim B. Clark, another professor at Harvard Business School, and Alan M. Kantrow, an associate editor of the Harvard Business Review, Abernathy published Industrial Renaissance: Producing a Competitive Future for America. In a sense, the book brought together Abernathy’s previous insights, including the “productivity dilemma” and the problem of managers overly focused on short-term profits, with a new theme, namely the puzzle and threat of Japanese productivity, especially in the auto industry. The lesson for Clark et al was clear. As one summary of the book puts it, “Examines the failure of American companies to compete under conditions produced by new technologies.” Abernathy and his co-authors described technologies that vastly changed conditions as “disruptive.” Abernathy no doubt knew about Schumpeter, though he did not spend much time in his writings meditating on Schumpeter’s thought. Yet, once Schumpeter was re-discovered by others in the 1980s (which I will discuss in a moment), the basic ideas of Industrial Renaissance would be recast in Schumpeterian terms: the “gale of creative destruction.” Abernathy contracted cancer in 1979 and died in 1983, the year Industrial Renaissance was published, at the age of only fifty. Abernathy’s untimely death cut short a brilliant career. In the context of this essay, it is hard to resist counterfactual questions. If Abernathy had lived, how would his subsequent work have fit into the innovation speak that followed? Would he have continued down the path he laid? Or would he have eventually turned down some other road?

The academic focus on Japan continued after Abernathy’s death. Cambridge, Mass., both at Harvard Business School and at MIT, was home to many studies of Japanese production techniques. The most famous product to come from these studies was The Machine that Changed the World by James P. Womack, Daniel T. Jones, and Daniel Roos. The book bore the subtitle “Toyota’s Secret Weapon in the Global Wars that is now Revolutionizing World Industry.” Like many pop business books, it hinted at forms of secret knowledge and promised to initiate the reader into its ways. The covers of the first edition of the book proclaimed, “Based on The Massachusetts Institute of Technology 5-Million-Dollar 5-Year Study on the Future of the Automobile.” Womack and Jones followed up this book with Lean Thinking: Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation, an even more explicitly pop business book. In 1997, they founded a consultancy, Lean Enterprise Institute, Inc. (“Compared with traditional ‘think’ tanks, we are a ‘do’ tank.”) The team behind The Machine that Changed the World coined the term “lean production” to describe Japanese production, and that term has taken on a life of its own. Even though we are only a little over twenty years on from the term’s coining, it is easy enough to make out its ideological baggage: worries about national competitiveness and the coming Japanese hordes (of businessmen), long-held cultural taboos against waste, and—in the case of Lean Thinking—words, notions, and desires that could just as comfortably fit a fad diet book.

US preoccupation with the international scene went well beyond Japan, no doubt partly due to the discourse of globalization that was also ascendant during this period. Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon was the academic concept of “national innovation systems.” The history of innovation speak is properly an international and transnational history, though this essay cannot yet aspire to that level of completeness. Like industrial policy before it, the idea of national innovation systems was a product of European intellectuals. Christopher Freeman and Bengt-Åke Lundvall began using the term in the mid-to-late-1980s, and Lundvall published an edited volume on the topic in 1992. Again, this work arose, in part, from an effort to explain Japan’s economic boom, and, again, it was focused on the role of technological change in economic growth and international economic competitiveness. Perhaps the primary contribution of the innovation systems literature was to move the discussion beyond an emphasis on individuals, whether managers or entrepreneurs, to an examination of institutions that fostered certain kinds of activity. The early literature on entrepreneurs especially concentrated on the psychological and characterological makeup of risk takers. Put bluntly, the work on innovation systems made the field more social scientific.

Attention to place went well beyond the national level to “regional innovation systems” and “innovation clusters.” In some ways, the roots of this thinking lay in an awareness of economic growth in Silicon Valley. By the early 1980s, books on Silicon Valley were beginning to hit the market. But by the mid-1980s, Silicon Valley had become a model—perhaps the model—community with supposed implications for how other places should shape their policies. Books, such as Roger-Emile Miller’s and Marcel Cote’s Growing the Next Silicon Valley: A Guide for Successful Regional Planning (1987), tried to impart the teachings of the place. The notion of “innovative” locales was further valorized and given a stamp of legitimacy when Michael Porter published his 1990 book, The Competitive Advantage of Nations, which focused on the role of regional “clusters” in fostering economic growth. The locality theme was heightened in Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class (1992), a work that mentions “innovation” over ninety times while heavily idealizing Silicon Valley. And in general, studies of economic geography, often looking back to places like Detroit and Hartford, Connecticut, flourished during this period. This mode of thinking led to the popularity of certain policies, such as science parks, business “incubators,” and other forms of so-called “technology-based economic development” (TBED).

Attempts to learn from Silicon Valley have never really relented; nor apparently has the (book) market for such lessons. To give a small sampling: Success Secrets from Silicon Valley: How to Make Your Teams More Effective (No Matter What Business) (1998); Relentless Growth: How Silicon Valley Innovation Strategies Can Work in Your Business (1998); The Silicon Valley Boys and Their Valley of Dreams (1999); Understanding Silicon Valley: The Anatomy of an Entrepreneurial Region (2000); The Silicon Valley Edge: A Habitat for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (2000); Champions of Silicon Valley: Visionary Thinking from Today’s Technology Pioneers (2000); TechVenture: New Rules on Value and Profit from Silicon Valley (2001); Clusters of Creativity: Enduring Lessons on Innovation and Entrepreneurship from Silicon Valley and Europe’s Silicon Fen (2002); Once You’re Lucky, Twice You’re Good: The Rebirth of Silicon Valley and the Rise of Web 2.0 (2008); Secrets of Silicon Valley: What Everyone Else Can Learn from the Innovation Capital of the World (2013). Once again, just as in the case of Michael Crichton’s Japan-fear classic, Rising Sun, which was published around the same time that the Japanese economy faltered, it’s easy to see that a publishing boom on Silicon Valley came around the year 2000, just as the bubble was set to burst. It’s a lesson we should keep in mind today.

The late 1980s and early 1990s was also the moment of the “rediscovery” of Joseph Schumpeter. Again, this trend was international, and European, especially Scandinavian, scholars played an important part in it. Schumpeter’s model of entrepreneurship, innovation, and economic growth is now so well-known it hardly bears rehearsing. I will deal with his thought a bit more substantively in the next section, but here I just want to ask, Was the rediscovery of Schumpeter driven by new readers seeing his previously, largely unrecognized genius? Or was it driven by ideology, that is, did Schumpeter’s ideas merely fit the self-image of the age of his rediscovery? The answer is no doubt both/and, but Schumpeter’s fans have insufficiently accounted for his ideological valences.

In conversation, some Schumpeterians have told me that the popular, ideological meanings of “innovation” can be held at bay by remaining true to Schumpeter’s original definition of that that idea: that innovation is the successful exploitation of new ideas, that there are five basic types of innovation, that there is a need to focus on the entrepreneur is a special kind of actor in society, etc., etc. But almost all academic thought vitiates against the idea that any kind of definitional purity can be maintained in the face of the kinds of linguistic waves depicted (in the Ngrams) at the beginning of this essay. If you are using a buzzword during one of those waves, you are falling prey to a fad. What could be more obvious?

But Schumpeter’s thought is more than a mere fad, as cat videos and Bronies are mere fads; Schumpeter’s thought serves and glorifies particular interests. Schumpeter wrote a lullaby for the business class. Or, perhaps it was more a fairy tale, because there were some scary parts. You could be blown away by the gale of creative destruction. Or, maybe most of all it was a myth, a hero’s tale, the “entrepreneur with a thousand faces.” A business historian friend put it to me like this: (at least the popular version of) Schumpeter justifies American-style capitalism, which has forsaken hope in full employment, which sees jobs lost to “innovation” as natural and unavoidable, which has taken technological novelty as its ultimate end.


A Google Ngram for the word “Schumpeterian” from 1800 to 2000

Just like reflections on the “lessons” of Silicon Valley, neo-Schumpterian thought has gone far beyond the ivory tower, most famously in Clayton M. Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book that Will Change the Way You Do Business (1997). Christensen’s writings are the culmination of much of what I have described in this section: he is a professor of Harvard Business School who combined Abernathy’s ideas about radical innovation with a basic Schumpeterian vision. He put it into a neat package that could be sold to aspiring leaders out of airport bookstores. He has consulted, opened up the Innosight Institute, and calls himself a “Disruptive Innovation Expert.” Meanwhile, Christensen’s works have resulted in flocks of Silicon-Valley-brained college students, all hopped up on TED Talks, going around wanting to “disrupt” everything by creating the next “Killer App” or whatever.

A core part of the Western tradition is the idea that serious thinking should resist the self-images of the age, the easy, widespread opinions that Plato called doxa and Francis Bacon named the “idol of the marketplace” and Karl Marx described as ideology. But participants in innovation speak have done precisely the opposite of this. They have celebrated and legitimated the reigning orthodoxy.

InnoAnon: A Twelve Step Program

I believe that we should give up—or at least drastically curtail—innovation speak. I believe this for multiple reasons. The foremost reasons to my mind are moral and political, but I realize that many people will simply not go along with my thinking here. Many will find these moral and political reasons tendentious. So, before turning to the moral reasons for abandoning “innovation,” I will focus first on the social scientific reasons for doing so.

For historians, one worry should be that “innovation” is not an actor’s category. It’s an analytical one that we import into the past. This kind of presentism risks obscuring historical actor’s thoughts, cares, and wishes. We lose sight of the notions that guided their actions. Presentism and lousy historical method might seem unimportant to some scholars, however. A greater concern is that a focus on “innovation”—which often is a stand-in for a narrow conception of technological change—concentrates too much on the technological cutting-edge and on the value of change. This focus draws our attention away from so many other factors that contribute to organizational vitality. Moreover, we shouldn’t be interested only in vital organizations because, let’s face it, most aren’t. If we focus on vital organizations, then our social science does not account for much. David Edgerton tried to draw attention to the historical profession’s overemphasis on cutting-edge and high technologies in his book, The Shock of the Old. Edgerton argues that old and mundane technologies are the norm, not novel ones. It remains to be seen if scholars will follow his advice and broaden their purview. But his challenge holds also for those who have chosen to write about “innovation.” We have put too much energy into such writings, and it has left our accounts thin, narrow, hollow. I believe that these inadequacies also have moral implications.

If in the grand scope of social science, asking what factors encourage innovation is incredibly narrow, in the context of our society’s problems, it’s myopic. As a society, we have come to talk as if innovation is a core value, like love, fraternity, courage, beauty, dignity, responsibility, you name it. I do not believe, however, that, if you asked people to name their core values, innovation would appear on most of their lists. Innovation speak worships at the altar of change, but it too rarely asks who those changes are benefitting. It acts as if change is a good in itself. Too often, when it does take perspective into account, it proceeds either from the viewpoint of the manager or the shareholder, that is, from the perspective of people who are interested in profits, or from the viewpoint of the consumer interested in cheap goods. Other social roles largely drop out of the analysis. To give an example from the historical profession, Christophe Lecuyer’s Making Silicon Valley: Innovation and the Growth of High-Tech, 1930–1970 contains 75 instances of the word “innovation” but exactly zero instances of the words “poverty” or “inequality,” even though that region is famously unequal. Christophe is a nice and good guy. I do not mean to besmirch his reputation. What I mean to point out is that we have so narrowly defined our studies that we have left out the most important parts. Since the 1970s, Silicon Valley has become the image and model of an innovative locality, with many other places around the United States and the world hoping to imitate it. But what would successful imitation mean for the local population?

As I was writing this essay, a new publication, the Journal of Responsible Innovation, was released. The journal will house the increasing literature on “anticipatory governance,” which tries to foresee potential risks in emerging technologies and make policies to preempt them. I have qualms with this literature, not least because it puts too much emphasis on emerging technologies and not enough on the mundane technologies that fill most people’s daily lives. Yet, the title of this journal contains an insight largely missing from most writings on innovation, namely that not all innovation is responsible. The introduction of crack cocaine in American cities in the mid-1980s was a major innovation in Schumpeterian terms, but for some reason scholars in innovation studies have not focused on that case. The same goes for how landlords in Hoboken, New Jersey used arson to burn tenants out of rent-controlled apartments and make way for the gentrifying yuppies who were increasingly interested in the real estate just across the river from Manhattan. Very innovative. Of course, William Baumol realized that innovation had many moral faces when he wrote his essay, “Entrepreneurship: Productive, Unproductive, and Destructive,” but few have followed his lead. This paucity partly explains why Assaf Moghadam’s “How Al Qaeda Innovates” was so heavily passed around between scholars last year. Scholars wonder about “the challenge of remaining innovative.” To what end? To whose end? To counter the amorality of innovation speak, we might return to a slightly older notion and go along with Lewis Mumford who, following Nietzsche, insisted that technological changes should be aimed at enhancing and serving life. And we should broaden the (phenomenological) perspectives taken into account. If, as social scientists, we wish to produce work that is morally and politically salient, this broader scope is our only option.

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