The benefits of being free

I applaud Orly for this excellent contribution.  There is much to praise and much to comment on.  I was particularly attracted to the interdisciplinary perspective of the book and its heavy reliance on and reporting of studies in economics, psychology, and other literatures—including but not limited to Orly’s original research.  The book provides an excellent discussion of various dimensions of innovation studies.  It also provides compelling descriptions of many different real world contexts where the lessons from the academic studies play out on the ground.  The combination is quite amazing.  I also think it is quite important that she focused attention on people, and the human, social and intellectual capital that actually drives innovation across sectors.  Too often, innovation studies lose sight of the actual people involved.  Orly’s book covers so much ground and connects with various topics I’m also interested in.  It is difficult for me to pick a particular topic of theme to comment on in this blog post.  (I’m tempted, for example, to push her to say more about technology transfer offices at universities and how they’ve evolved over time in terms of their approach to control.  I also would like to hear *much* more about the application of commons governance ideas.)  Instead, I’ll say something about the broad ambition of the book.

Orly presents the book as new wisdom – a “dynamic model” — to challenge conventional wisdom – the “orthodox model” – about the necessity of strict control over talented employees, ideas, and various other complementary resources that drive creative and innovative progress and economic growth.  I think the book does a wonderful job of pointing out the many ways in which theoretical and empirical work across many fields of inquiry combine to challenge if not completely undermine the conventional wisdom.  Controls on the flow of ideas and employees often backfire and are costly to the firm and the public.  Orly describes very well the substantial benefits – benefits all too often ignored or assumed away – in sustaining the freedom to operate, to move, to experiment, to tinker, and so on.  She effectively makes the case for a much more nuanced approach to thinking about innovation and the various ways in which freedom (to operate, to move, to think, to experiment, to ride, etc.) impact innovation and social welfare more generally.

That said, I don’t think the book supplies a fully formed alternative vision, theory or model about what degree of control/freedom may be needed to sustain innovation.  The Goldilocks nature of the problem, which Orly describes, surfaces throughout, and it is hard to know where or how to strike the right balances as a matter of public policy (law) and private strategy (corporate practice).  The book at times seems to suggest that it will offer a solution or that the solution might be absolute freedom / no control.  But that is not really what the book ends up saying, as I understand it.  In the end, we remain stuck with the problem of nuance and variety and context- or industry-specific balancing.  Frankly, I don’t think this is a bad result at all; it’s probably where we need to be if we’re basing our judgments in reality.

For some reason, I was surprised when the book ended.  I wanted more.  I expected more.  In a sense, this is a good thing because the book provoked me to think about and look for more.  But I wonder whether the final part of the book could have tied the themes together a bit more tightly and at least proposed a research agenda for developing a more nuanced approach to innovation.  Many of the pieces of the puzzle are in Orly’s book.  But the puzzle remains incomplete.

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