What Sort of Innovation?

Professor Lobel’s book raises many questions. That is a good thing. I like books that connect to ideas that have been pinging about my brain and that spur new ones. Talent Wants to be Free does those things. For now, I will look at something that always lurks in this space for me: What type of innovation are we talking about?

I wonder about most discussions about innovation and disruption that focus on the private sector. Something, which for want of better or less exhausted words, we call innovation or disruption occurs at the firm level. But slowing down, we should parse these ideas. Marianna Mazzucuto has done some great work on the way the state is needed and has contributed to the innovations we all celebrate. Again, there are distinctions, as it may be that the work occurs at the state level (basic research), or that the state funded the core research. The counter-punch is that states may make big bets that pay off and they often make big bets that fail. That they fail seems a silly critic (though the linked Economist article makes it). I wonder whether any large institution struggles with two things. On the one hand, placing big bets at all takes bravery and/or vision. And on the other, what parts of the state or private sector carry forward that work is a big issue.

In other words, how much do market incentives skew focus for any of these outfits? Did Bell Labs or Parc do work that Mazzucuto would say was analogous to the state work? I think so. Today is Google doing some of that work? Microsoft Research? Sure. But in what way? The need for short-term payoffs is a problem for the core work that may then be transferred under Lobel’s ideals. Companies talk of moon shots and at the same time want them to occur within a year. Big leaps on the moon take years, perhaps more than a decade, of work to get to the wow moment.

Now it may be that an overall sector leads to great outcomes and breakthroughs, and thus the talent movement within a sector is needed as part of that process. Still I wonder at whether many of the areas the book considers and the issues about talent mobility relate more to applied innovations rather than bedrock work fueling a shift at a national or global economic scale. Remember Schumpeter drew on work that looked at long cycles and breakthroughs in fields that spawned many companies and sub-industries. So although I think it is wise to let talent be free, I wonder about whether that leads to better small steps (e.g., tweaks to phones, social networking, etc.) more than the sort of innovations that spur massive shifts in industry.

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