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OPINION

Creating a culture for breakthrough innovations

Professor Joseph Lampel

Professor Joseph Lampel illustration

As the University celebrates the tenth anniversary of the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research, Professor Joseph Lampel asks: how can we embed a culture of breakthrough thinking into business?

In a hyper-competitive world where strategic advantage is temporary, creating breakthrough innovations has become the gold standard of organisational strategies. Today’s business managers seek not only to launch breakthrough innovations, but also to develop a culture that fosters breakthrough thinking.

Inevitably, managers look to celebrity firms such as Apple, Google, or Tesla for inspiration but, in truth, we can find breakthrough thinking in many lesser-known companies too.

Researchers have been actively looking at innovation and breakthrough thinking since the 1960s, if not earlier. We now have a very large body of research, as well as multidisciplinary institutions such as our Manchester Institute of Innovation Research, exploring the dynamics of innovation. 

Many universities – including Manchester – have used this research to introduce breakthrough innovation thinking into their curriculum and to engage in highly active executive education and outreach programmes.

Distilling the rich body of knowledge about breakthrough cultures into a set of principles is difficult. However, we can point to two areas that are proving increasingly crucial in the contemporary economy: connectivity and the ability to absorb knowledge.

While ideas for breakthrough innovations may start with individuals or small groups, the ability to quickly take these ideas from conception to success depends on connectivity within and across organisations.

This should be easy in our digital age, but while the Internet has made connectivity a prerequisite for breakthrough culture, it has also made effective use of connectivity much harder.

Knowing hundreds of people on a casual basis used to be a social feat, but with LinkedIn and other social media it’s now commonplace. Quantity of contacts does not necessarily bring quality; in fact, it may even make it harder to put contacts to good use. 

Connectivity that fosters breakthrough achievement is based on knowing which of your contacts will have the missing piece of knowledge you need. This in turn depends on what researchers call ‘absorptive capacity’: the knowledge base needed to understand the value of knowledge generated elsewhere, and to integrate this into your work. 

Research suggests that organisations with a diverse knowledge base are more likely to have the high level of absorptive capacity needed for breakthrough innovations.

Many organisations don’t have the resources to maintain the diverse body of knowledge needed to develop strong absorptive capacity. Fortunately, they can often offset this problem by making use of the knowledge base that surrounds them.

Businesses based in the north-west of England are fortunate in this respect. The region has a strong publicly funded knowledge ecology, including world-class research universities such as Manchester.

But the role of a university is not only to create knowledge; it is also to develop talent. Organisations, both public and private, understand that knowledge and know-how are often inextricably linked. This is why they look to universities to supply cutting-edge knowledge, as well as informed and skilful researchers and graduates, to create the breakthrough culture they need to prosper. 

Professor Joseph Lampel

The Eddie Davies Professor of Enterprise and Innovation Management at Alliance Manchester Business School

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