Researchers from Case Western Reserve and Temple University conducted an analysis of how innovations are created among multiple parties within a project at the Frank O. Gehry architecture firm. What they discovered is that networks of people and communities of interest are remarkably adept at creating innovations through an iterative process.

Researchers from Case Western Reserve and Temple University recently conducted an analysis of how innovations are created among multiple parties, within a project at the Frank O. Gehry architecture firm. What they discovered is a phenomenon they call “wakes of innovation,” analogous to waves in water.

A project and network of players had created multiple and distinct innovations in a self-propagating system of innovations that fed back onto itself and created more innovations. New activities and processes were created for this project and were to be carried forward in other, new projects. Each innovation responded to the evolving surfaces of “wakes” and set the stage for future ones due to the turbulence of them.

Much current strategy and innovation research is pointing to the increased importance of networks and the limitations of studying innovations in a single, vertically integrated firm. This research found that increased network diversity promoted new combinations, fostered learning and enabled faster diffusion among the network participants.

Use of software/network technology was found to increase knowledge permeability across boundaries enabling new knowledge to be created and distributing in new ways.

New interactions were created among previously non-related actors/entities in two main ways:

1. Path creation: Willfully and entrepreneurially sample new experiences, explore new forms of practice, and create new resources).

2. Trading zones: Due to a series of abrupt and unexpected breakdowns in established, systemic relationships, parties expanded trial-and-error search for new relationships; sporadic patterns take shape based on specific challenges or localized tasks.

Community boundaries were found to be critical in shaping the trajectory of innovation creation and adoption, and these boundaries are permeable. When boundaries overlap, trading zones are created. Unique language was created in these zones and allowed knowledge to flow in both directions between different parties. The stronger the trading zone, the easier it was for knowledge to travel.

A distinct pattern of creation evolved first by complementing and empowering existing practices. Then, new creations disrupted the traditional patterns of interaction. Finally, increased boundary spanning and knowledge trading activities, with knowledge flow in both directions, accelerated and diffused innovations due to active trading of knowledge across the community.

Innovations at community borders challenged key organizing practices and encouraged new interactions leading to new knowledge. The various actors were not collaborating or co-creating on purpose, but rather were pursuing their own individual economic interests and there was no organizing, synchronized plan.

The implication is that networks of actors will innovate in sporadic, messy, ambiguous ways and that each actor will do so in their own way supporting their own economic agendas. The results benefit multiple parties, however, and are leveraged and grow over time.

Another interesting aspect of this research showed that none of the parties were coerced into cooperating, and they did not imitate one another by following “best practices.” Autonomous, vibrating nodes that create complex sets of connections form relatively simple interactions taking place in trading zones. Innovations were then more rugged and colorful over time. The more porous the boundaries, and the more active the knowledge trading among communities, the more multiple wakes of innovation were spawned in each organization’s unique requirements.

The research findings defined that the driving forces of the cooperation and co-creation between the parties was based on:

Design vision and mindfulness:

  • Actors were mindful of each other and shared among each starting from the project’s vision.
  • Players were intrigued by the possibilities of the new and consistently pushed to expand their expertise.

Trading zones:

  • A strategic intent and vision was inherent (in this case for increasing communication and coordination with all players in the project). This was key to establishing the environment for creativity.
  • Actions of each actor impacted the other actors and influenced one another’s innovation actions with iterative development.
  • Innovation did not take place from a single heroic innovator or company.
  • Separate innovations actually connect in time and space.
  • Pockets of productive communication within trading zones emerged over time. People learned to negotiate, argue, invent and thereby to innovate in a mutually supportive manner.

The full paper may be found at “Wakes of Innovation in Project Networks” – Organization Science (Vol. 18, No. 4) July/Aug 2007, authors: Boland, Lyytinen, and Yoo.