Sunday, December 15, 2013

Organizational ingenuity or systematic innovation: What is relevant in India?

“Organizational ingenuity or systematic innovation: What is relevant in the present Indian economic context?” – this was the  subject of a thought-provoking panel discussion I attended on December 14 at the third Indian Academy of Management (IAM) conference at IIM Ahmedabad.

About the IAM

IAM is the Indian affiliate of the Academy of Management (AoM) – a forum that brings together leading scholars in management covering areas such as Organizational Behaviour, Human Resource Management and Strategy. The AoM brings together thousands of scholars in its annual conferences held every August in North America and publishes some of the leading journals in the field. The IAM has been in existence only for the last 5-6 years, and this was the third IAM (biennial) conference. IAM is gathering momentum with a record number of participants at this year’s conference expertly put together by Professor Neharika Vohra and her team at IIM Ahmedabad. Good to see research picking up steam in India!!

 Backdrop to the Panel

While creativity and innovation have tended to hyped up in recent years and associated with “larger-than-life” figures like Steve Jobs, it’s good to see parallel efforts to recognize less demonstrative but perhaps no less important forms of change. One manifestation of this has been the interest in bricolage. [Wikipedia].

In the Indian context, bricolage has been popular in the form of jugaad, loosely translated as “creative improvisation” which stresses solving problems within resource constraints. All of us in India are familiar with such Jugaad solutions as the washing machine adapted to make large quantities of lassi or the truck knocked together using local materials on Indian farms.

 Organizational Ingenuity

But, I wasn’t familiar with the notion of organizational ingenuity till Rangapriya Kannan Narasimhan (Priya) from the University of San Diego invited me to be a part of this IAM panel. The panel itself appears to have been sparked off by a “Call for Papers” for a special issue of Organization Studies by Joe Lampel and Israel Drori a couple of years ago.

 Organizational ingenuity refers to the phenomenon of managers trying to solve problems under organizational constraints of lack of resources or authority. Organizational ingenuity is a creative response to organizational barriers and is thus closely related to organizational change.

Is this new?

Interest in these non-formal processes of change is not new. One of the most insightful writers on organizations, Karl Weick, wrote a paper titled “Improvisation as a Mindset for Organizational Analysis” in the journal Organization Science 15 years ago where he investigated the pre-conditions required for organizational improvisation to happen, drawing an analogy from improvisation in jazz music. [As an aside, it’s not clear to me why we need another concept in the form of organizational ingenuity – how is it different from improvisation?]

More recently, Radjou, Prabhu and Ahuja focused on the problem of large organizations getting too bureaucratic and slow, and urged companies to adopt more informal and intrapreneurial processes such as “Jugaad innovation.”

The Panel on Organizational Ingenuity vs Systematic Innovation

Unfortunately, Israel Drori couldn’t make it to the panel. Priya introduced his ideas on organizational ingenuity and then asked me to speak. I made the following key points:

  • India doesn’t do well on global innovation surveys. One of the main reasons for this is that Indian organizations have demonstrated a limited capacity to innovate on a consistent basis.
  • While in the context of a large MNC, the barrier to innovation may be overly-restrictive processes and delays caused by multiple layers of decision-making, Indian firms suffer from a different problem – they tend to use ad hoc innovation processes such as Jugaad rather than structured processes that could facilitate a smoother and more consistent stream of innovation.
  • I gave several examples of Indian organizations – Bajaj, Titan, Aravind Eye Hospital – to explain how such systematic innovation processes help Indian organizations meet the needs of Indian users effectively.
  • I ended by pointing out that multinationals are beginning to get their act together by using their more structured innovation processes to address specific needs of the Indian market (e.g. Gillette).
  • I concluded by saying that Indian companies could potentially lose out if they don’t quickly embrace a new paradigm of innovation.

Pushkar Jha’s Perspective on the Role of Ingenuity

Newcastle University Professor Pushkar Jha brought a different lens to look at the ingenuity vs. systematic innovation debate. Using poverty alleviation programmes as his context, he made several interesting points. The lack of success of poverty alleviation programmes is not due to lack of resources alone. The beneficiaries may be willing to engage with such programmes but may lack the ability to do so. This ability constraint could be cultural, but there could be other reasons too.  

Pushkar is evolving a framework to understand when ingenuity is likely to lead, and when systematic innovation is likely to be predominant. He argued that systematic innovation requires a stable environment and more stringent pre-conditions. His focus is on the role of what he calls “boundary spanning related resourcing constraints” which seems to refer to the costs and difficulties of coordination across organizational boundaries.

Some Concluding Thoughts

Pushkar’s thought process reminded me strongly of the debates we have seen in the “Bottom-of-the-Pyramid” movement. The emphasis of BoP 2.0 on co-creation with the community and embeddedness of solutions is intended to address the ability challenge that Pushkar refers to. In fact, the BoP 2.0 paradigm pays a lot of attention to training and education of the beneficiary community as an intergral part of greater acceptance and diffusion of new solutions.

 Systematic innovation in companies can be traced back to the German dye industry in the 19th century. This suggests that systematic innovation grew in the west much before the more stable environment we see today. In fact, I wonder what dimensions of stability are relevant here.

Is it possible that systematic innovation is a function of time and maturity and not the environment alone? Or is there a cultural element to it? Sociologists seem to inherently distrustful of cultural theories….

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