The Sources of Innovation: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: September 8th, 2013 by bobmorris

Sources InnoThe Sources of Innovation
Eric von Hippel
Oxford University Press (1988)

In the “cave” of innovation shadows, here is a primary source of light

To those of you who are unfamiliar with Eric von Hippel, here is an introduction: “I am a Professor of Technological Innovation in the MIT Sloan School of Management, and am also a Professor in MIT’s Engineering Systems Division. I specialize in research related to the nature and economics of distributed and open innovation. I also develop and teach about practical methods that individuals, open user communities, and firms can apply to improve their product and service development processes.”

* * *

I first read this book when it was first published (1988) and recently re-read it while preparing to review more recent books and then interview their authors. Countless books and articles about innovation have appeared during the last 25 years and authors of the best of them duly acknowledge (as they should) their substantial debt to von Hippel. To paraphrase Bernard of Chartres (a 12th century French monk), they stand atop the shoulders of this giant. If anything, the insights provided in The Sources of Innovation are even more relevant and more valuable now than ever before.

Long ago, I realized that the true value of most (if not all) breakthrough innovations is best determined by the nature and extent of the disruptive impact they have on the given status quo. Von Hippel focuses on several specific industries and discusses the data set for each:

o scientific instrument innovations
o semiconductor process innovations
o pultrusion process machinery innovations
o tractor shovel
o engineering plastics
o plastics additives

Major breakthrough innovations have occurred in each of these industries. As von Hippel explains, “Novel ways of categorizing innovators are only interesting if they open the way to a new insight. The first clue that the functional source of innovation is a potentially exciting way to categorize innovators comes with discovery that the source of innovation differs very significantly between [and among] categories of innovation.”

For me, some of his most interesting and valuable material is provided in Chapter 3 as he examines “Variations in the Functional Source of Innovation,” citing manufacturers as innovators (e.g. tractor shovel, engineering thermoplastics, and plastics additives), suppliers/manufacturers as innovators (e.g. wire termination equipment), and suppliers as innovators (e.g. process equipment utilizing industrial gases and thermoplastics). Three key points concerning this material should be stressed: during the collaboration process, those involved made countless modifications and adjustments; the source of innovation really does vary between and among those cited; and throughout, now matter who were involved, there was a process (albeit a flexible and resilient process) in place to achieve basic innovations and related major improvements.

This is by no means an “easy read” but it will reward generously those who read it and (hopefully) re-read it with appropriate care.

Head’s Up: There are free downloads of this book and of Democratizing Innovation here.

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