How to Measure Innovation?

I’ve just read a July 2008 report of a National Science Foundation conference, that brought together a panel of experts to try to figure out a way to measure innovation (click here for the full report).  They started with the observation that we don’t know very much about how to measure the outcomes of innovation, and we don’t know very much about what characteristics make the difference between a successful or failed innovation.

Briefly, they identified four areas that businesses and governments could measure.

  • Measure what innovation is. Determine the rates of return over a project’s lifecycle, and how this looks different for different kinds of innovation.
  • Study how and why innovation takes place, by examining the organizational structures and cultures of successful innovations (this is the focus of my own research).
  • Figure out how to capture the complete range of consequences of innovation, including the downsides of “creative destruction”– unemployment, regional winners and losers, and social responsibility.
  • We need a better understanding of the complete environment of innovation, from globalization to government IT law to tax policy to technological change, all is interconnected.

And then the panel had four recommendations:

  • Pursue new directions in data gathering measuring the net outcomes of innovation. This includes data on innovation processes within organizations.
  • Pursue new directions in measuring the net inputs (costs) associated with innovation.
  • Gather data on innovation processes that span across organizations.  (I like this one, because it acknowledges my claim about “collaborative webs”: that innovation is rarely bounded within the walls of one company.)
  • New information gathering and management techniques could allow us to confidentially aggregate data from many companies, and share it with everyone.

I looked at the list of participants and they all seem very qualified–with expertise focusing on economics, consulting, workforce and human resources, computer science, and business strategy. I didn’t see any of the top creativity or innovation experts, however, which was a bit puzzling. Innovation experts absolutely must be deeply involved in all of the steps recommended by this report, I’m not sure why they weren’t involved at this early stage.

Also see my post of March 4, 2008 about the panel of experts.

Savannah College of Art and Design

How do you assess artistic creativity?  That was the theme of a three-day conference at the Savannah College of Art and Design last week, where I was one of the keynote speakers.  One hundred and thirty arts educators, from all over the U.S.  (and several other countries as well), were there to learn how they could assess the creativity of their students, and also the success of their programs.

I had to work hard at my presentation…because the problem is, there isn’t really a good assessment of creativity, creative thinking, or creative potential.  Of course I mentioned the Torrance Tests, because Paul Torrance spent most of his career up the road at the University of Georgia.  But I have a problem with any test that claims to measure general creative potential, because there’s so much research showing that creativity is always specific to one or another area.  The creative painters aren’t the same people as the creative writers.

As a result, I chose to focus on what learning scientists know about the kinds of knowledge that support creative, adaptive behavior.  This research has practical implications for teachers because it gives them advice about how to teach and how to assess, if they want their students to be prepared to use what they learn creatively.  A few key points:

  • Teacher deeper concepts, not memorization of superficial facts
  • Teach integrated knowledge–show how each concept is connected to other concepts
  • Teach in a way that builds on prior knowledge and directly confronts deeply held misconceptions

The implications for assessment are complex and not immediately obvious, but one thing is clear: tests that simply assess how much you’ve memorized are not going to tell you anything about creative potential.  Tests that assess whether you know a specific isolated piece of knowledge won’t tell you whether a student understands the connections to other important and related knowledge.  And researchers have known for years that students can get very high scores on tests, even when they retain very deep-rooted misconceptions that ultimately detract from their real-world performance.

While preparing for the event, I learned that my colleague Mark Runco (editor of the Creativity Research Journal) has left his long-time home at Cal State Fullerton, to become the E. Paul Torrance Chair at the University of Georgia, and Director of the Torrance Center.  Congratulations, Mark!

The Road to Economic Recovery

The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland is always an opportunity for big-picture thinking (see my post about the 2008 Forum here).  And this one comes right in the middle of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.  In a deep crisis, innovation can be perceived as optional; “we have to focus on survival”. So I was delighted to read when Dr. Paul Stoffels, company group chairman of pharmaceutical research and development at Johnson & Johnson, advocated innovation as the way out of the crisis in the Boston Globe this week.  And not just any innovation, but open innovation–the kind of networked co-creation that I advocate in my book Group Genius.

He writes:

“Our scientists are taking a networked approach across internal organizational disciplines and geographies, including Asia and other emerging markets, and increasingly with external public and private partners to generate ideas and intellectual property. By working with experts at other companies, universities, and research institutes, we tap a wider range of expertise, capabilities, and resources. Together we share in both the benefits and costs of innovation that will yield more useful technologies and solutions that will contribute to new advances in healthcare.”

Innovation is necessary for survival.  And Johnson & Johnson gets it.