Taking advantage of emergence for discovery

emergence-and-discoverySo this week my research was moving around issues of complexity within innovation and I came across a great paper, written by Deborah Dougherty “Organizing for innovation in complex innovation systems”

Although she is addressing within this paper the bigger more complex social and economic challenges we are facing in healthcare, alternative energy, water scarcity, climate management, poverty and economic revitalization, she is attempting to reframe these into problem resolutions from breaking down discovery into four distinct channels. I liked this thinking.

The new innovating world we face in the 21st Century

Her opening insight is in the twenty-first century we are all requiring more reliance on social technologies that are designed to allow the different technologies to emerge and be allowed to integrate, due to the diversity and diffusion of knowledge. This is different from past practices found within organizations. Dr Dougherty points out much of what takes place today is still based on nineteenth-century practices where organizations were designed to stabilize, scale up and optimize, mostly internally, the scientific and technological knowledge into large working configurations.

Today, in the 21st century, we need to reply on social technologies that allow for emergence, anchor it far more into the region, or specific problems or challenge, and not so much scale up into large working configurations that might be limited and to integrate more than optimizing. She discusses as examples drug therapy, cancer cures, or developing a technology platform to integrate the creation, storage, and distribution of wind power.  Innovation needs to be more external in its outreach in creating, combining and recombining knowledge, so it can accomplish particular uses and can materialize all this gained knowledge into something new that actually works in the real world but can be dealing with different configurations in different situations. As she points out knowledge is fragmented, partial and widely dispersed, where we are constantly seeking out all the unknown, unknowns. This is why I value the absorptive capacity framework for knowledge.

The complexity today is being faced with any innovation challenge that spans the globe.

The success of extracting knowledge is in the connecting, capturing those unique insights and interdependencies in new contexts that capture the ‘nuggets’ of local knowledge applied in local situations or applied to solve and overcome situations and bring these together to accumulate all these diverse nodes of knowledge.

Today with technology, with platforms and the recognition of ecosystems we can really tap into these point of diverse knowledge and harness them in new innovative ways and deliver them far more specifically to closer customer needs by understanding these. The whole network and relationship building opens us up to discovery and the communication platforms and social types allow for a greater exchange, so new knowledge emerges.

The framework of discovery suggested

What I liked about her thinking was suggesting to “disentangle the ecology of complex innovation into distinct problems of discovery“. These were broken out into four: 1. the Project discovery Problem, 2. The knowledge integration discovery problem, 3. the strategic discovery problem and 4. the governance discovery problem.

This is suggesting these four discovery pathways can help develop a more robust 21st century for understanding and then managing innovation in a more social related way within organizations.

Let me describe the four discovery pathways as direct quotes from her paper as it does a good job of the why:

The project discovery problem is at the heart of innovation. It concerns building and materializing the product, program, or service so that it works to actually resolve problems. Project innovators ferret out specific elements that might constitute the emerging product and how they go together to generate desired functionality. Project work is very hands-on, concrete, embodied, iterative, and multi-functional, but occurs in large networks because emergent knowledge is noisy, fragmented, and far-flung”.

We need less work on general network structures among scientists based on patents (patents are inventions or inputs to innovation, but not innovation), and more work on how particular relationships enable the ongoing confluence of knowing and doing for innovation across many potential participants in concrete settings. We need less work on small teams and more work on how to collectively integrate noisy information, on the nature of experiments for particular kinds of problems, and on the reasoning processes, people use when deductive confirmation cannot work.

The knowledge integration discovery problem redefines R&D as an ecology-wide challenge of integrating diverse knowledge in ways that support project problem setting and solving. Knowledge integration brings together different technologies to solve problems, selects alternative paths as projects move forward, supports general questions that span projects, or sets up experiments and testing regimes.

We need less work on investing in science and technology in general and more on how these investments lead to actual innovation. Studies might examine the types of organizing that enable knowledge co-evolution among disparate knowledge communities for different grand challenges, how governments, universities, and publishing regimes may perpetuate the myth of the linear flow of knowledge from basic research into application, and how to make basic knowledge actually usable without thwarting the basic research goal of fundamental insight.

The strategic discovery problem involves creating the strategic direction to channel resources, focus efforts, and incorporate the new with the old. In complex innovation systems, the question becomes how to strategize across the ecology, and how to map forward into the long-term future so that innovators can persist with projects that take decades to develop, or with problems such as education or health care that will never be fixed once and for all, because these problems keep emerging.

We need less work on short-term collaborations or open innovation, and more work on ecology-wide strategizing over the long-term. For example, how can strategic managers use knowledge from projects and knowledge integration efforts to develop a variety of potential value creating opportunities? How can they use these potential opportunities to map the future, and how far into the future can they see? How can managers of individual organizations use this mapping for their own needs, and how can they work together with others and still compete? What alternate temporal structures and metrics enable managers to work toward very long-term goals, and how can these be organized?

The governance discovery problem involves creating mechanisms of interaction among organizations and agencies that sort out who gets what is accountable for what, and for how long. Complex innovation requires orchestrating collaboration among many organizations, institutions, regulators, and other agents. We already have many examples of non-market systems of interactions such as regional agglomerations, industry platforms, social movements, strategic alliances, or self-designing standards-setting bodies.

Research can consider how such existing mechanisms might evolve to enable people to come together for complex innovation. In addition, societies invest enormous resources into supporting commercial development, education, basic research, and so on. Research can consider the kinds of governance mechanisms that effectively leverage society’s knowledge resources for particular problems.”

In summary

We need to rethink our discovery pathways for innovation in our new socially connected world. We do need to integrate emerging knowledge in new ways

Deborah Dougherty is suggesting disentangling the ecology of complex innovation into distinct problems of discovery: generating new products and programs; developing and integrating knowledge across the ecology; strategically framing
innovation for long-term development across the ecology, and enabling new governance mechanisms in the ecology.

Each discovery problem is an essential part of complex innovation that involves many players. Each must be set and solved in its own right, yet each is entangled with the others. All four discovery problems encompass the entire process of problem setting and solving and in a more “connected” world, we do need to manage these to emerge and fragmented knowledge in new ways.

I think this outline of four discovery approaches helps us to think about this a little more. I am thinking about how to take this forward in my own thoughts



To cite this article: Deborah Dougherty (2016): Organizing for innovation in complex innovation systems, Innovation, DOI: 10.1080/14479338.2016.1245109

To link to this paper: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14479338.2016.1245109

This paper was published in late 2016 by Innovation: Management, Policy & Practice and © 2016 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.

Deborah Dougherty has written a more extensive book on this ” Taking Advantage of Emergence: Productively Innovating in Complex Innovation Systems”, published 25 Feb 2016, Publisher: Oxford University Press, ISBN: 978-0-19-872529-9






2 thoughts on “Taking advantage of emergence for discovery

  1. This is a long-winded but virtuous way of stating the obvious: firstly that much innovation is serendipitous (hence “emergent”); secondly, that there are only 4 questions (hat-tip to Steve Blank) – the problem, the solution, the customer and marketization. Our problem is that a) the legacy business model tends to be the killer (if the new idea doesn’t fit the current BM, we can’t do it) and b) organisations’ innovation models/ processes tend to be context-tied – which means the opportunity to get out of the innovation-defining context is restricted.


    • Hi Victor, thanks for your comments. Like you Steve Blank has been excellent at simplifying problems but when you do get into these more complex innovation challenges it does get harder. Actually Steve’s work on Hacking for Defense classes across the US – giving students the opportunity to perform national service by solving real defense/diplomacy problems using Lean Methods is chasing after complex problems so you are right in raising this to compare. Hat-tip back to you

      Yet what I felt came out of this paper by Deborah Dougherty was trying to determine where to place a change in emphasis on managing discovery in innovation complexity, emphasizing the greater need to network, collaborate, to step back and do different levels of evaluation by taking knowledge and exploring and reshaping it far more, maybe less for a specific purpose as the going in to solve a problem but to open up to alternatives and different ways to tackle these challenges and problems.

      One of the messages I got from reading this paper was exploring more, deeper and wider, with different lens and positions of insight and experience can open up to a wider set of possibilities. In Steves work, he is imposing time consciously in what actions to explore and undertake in scarce resource situations, constantly tightening the focus, adjusting step by step. The alternative is to take a longer time in evaluation and alternatives to unlock complexity and then, no question, you can employ the Lean methodology to that.


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