Ive been wrapping up my dissertation this week and been reflecting on the use of language – and especially academic language in the innovation field.
There’s lots of research out there on innovation but is tucked away inside EBSCO and ProQuest and not everyone can get access to it, and when they do get access to it it’s written in a way that many people in business would find incomprehensible – full of jargon.
A classic one in the world of innovation is the term ‘absorptive capacity’ – what on earth does this mean?
It’s all about when you work with other people, how you absorb their knowledge, see the significance in what you find and then transform it into some kind of meaning that you can take back into your own firm and see it used. Seeing it ‘used’ means seeing it applied to build some kind of value – a commercial offering. People get romantic about innovation but it’s only innovation if it’s got use and has a commercial or societal outcome.
But in a world thats becoming collaborative, it’s not just about sucking in other people’s knowledge but also sharing your own knowledge, and so the academics come up with another term -‘desorptive capacity’ – the skill of communicating what you have so others can take it on board. It all makes good sense but the terms in themselves are obscure.
Easterby-Smith puts this in a much clearer way he says: “Good teachers make good learners, and good learners make good teachers”
People who can communicate a message, build a connection, amplify ideas and initiate some action. And it’s the action that is really important in absorptive capacity – compelling people to crack on and get things done and make things happen.
I had a conversation at Henley recently and heard about a guy from McKinsey who had recently started at Apple. The guy was a high performer and in McKinsey had been “The Man”. But when he initiated his first project at Apple, pulling together various experts from around the business, he became aware he was sat in a room with people who really didn’t need him – who were more than competent, understanding the significance and more than willing to crack on and get things done. He was asking “what am I doing here these guys are way more capable than I am?”
He ran his first meeting and people understood what was needed of them and what the vision was the project – even as he packed up his notes from the session he started seeing e-mails flying around as people left the room, picked up their actions and started to make things happen. This is a bit of absorptive capacity which is really key – when people really know how to get their shit together.
It’s not the process, it is not in a procedure, it’s in the culture – its in ‘the way things are done around here’. Apple might be a big company but from this guys experience it hasn’t forgotten what was that made it great in the early years. From my own research I can see there are many small companies in the UK which are just as focused and practical – with the need for speed and action coded into their DNA.
But does the term ‘absorptive capacity’ really help people in the real world understand what it is that researchers are finding inside these great companies?
It’s been great having the ‘obligation’ to be a researcher for a few months – jabbering away about tacit and codified knowledge and social ties and relational capital – but now I have got to transform that learning in a way that means something to other people – through a language that’s accessible. This stuff is great but its only useful if it gets used.
You know what I mean?