Hargadon is the Charles J. Soderquist Chair in Entrepreneurship and Professor of Technology Management at the Graduate School of Management at University of California, Davis and a Senior Fellow at the Kauffman Foundation. Prior to his academic appointment, he worked as a product designer at IDEO and Apple Computer and taught in the Product Design program at Stanford University. His research focuses on the effective management of innovation, and he has written extensively on knowledge and technology brokering, the role of learning and knowledge management in innovation, and the strategic role of design in managing technology transitions. His research has been used to develop or guide new innovation programs in organizations as diverse as the Canadian Health Services, Silicon Valley start-ups, Hewlett-Packard, and the U.S. Navy. His most recent book is How Breakthroughs Happen: The Surprising Truth About How Companies Innovate, published by Harvard Business School Press in 2003. At UCal Davis, he teaches corporate executive programs and gives lectures on the creativity, design, and the management of innovation.
Morris: You co-authored with Robert Sutton an article, “Building an Innovation Factory,” that appeared in the Harvard Business Review. Can innovation be manufactured?
Hargadon: No single innovation can be manufactured meaning specified in advance and built to spec but the process of innovation can, like the process of manufacturing, be systematized and, as a number of companies have demonstrated, result in the continuous production of innovations. The challenge for anyone interested in organizing for such continuous innovation capabilities is in looking past the “novelty” of the innovation process and its association with great ideas and heroic inventors. In the same way that craft production and a reliance on individual artisans gave way to industrial production 200 years ago, we’re finding ways to make the process of generating innovative ideas less dependent on the individual genius. Or, more accurately, we’re finding ways to appreciate how the innovative process depends less on individuals and more on the networks that surround them.
Morris: In the same article, you and Sutton discuss what you characterize as a “knowledge brokering.” What specifically does this on-going process consist of?
Hargadon: The knowledge brokering process describes how breakthrough innovations are put together in organizations. More specifically, it describes how those innovations that revolutionize product and service categories, markets, and even entire industries, are rarely built from scratch. Indeed, they are rarely the first appearance of a new technology. Instead, such breakthroughs are the result of moving existing ideas from where they were known to where they are not. From Edison to Ford to modern innovations coming from 3M, HP, and Apple, revolutionary products and processes come from the recombination of existing ideas. The research that identified the knowledge brokering process revealed how these innovations came from the deliberate cultivating of networks that enabled firms to see what technologies already existed, even in vastly different industries and applications, to recognize the opportunities to bring them together, and to build the new networks in which these new combinations could thrive.