Broad-based knowledge is the fuel for innovation. We create better conditions for innovation when information, both from within and outside the organization or system, is widely gathered, easily accessible, rapidly transmitted, and honestly communicated. Since we cannot know in advance what knowledge might stimulate an innovative idea, censoring, filtering or over-summarising information detracts from this dimension.
Liao’s (2006) research in Taiwanese manufacturing companies indicated that knowledge-sharing behavior, in addition to general communication, had a significant influence on firm innovation. Wan, Ong and Lee (2005) showed that “willingness to exchange ideas” was correlated to firm innovation in a data set from 71 companies in Singapore. Based on organizational studies in Europe and the US, researchers Hansen and Birkinshaw (2007) identified “cross-pollination” and “free-flowing knowledge” from a wide variety of sources as key elements in what they call “the innovation value chain”. Similarly, Robinson and Stern (1998) identified diverse stimuli, forums where such input is openly shared, serendipity, and within-company communications as features of all of the innovation events they studied at leading US and Japanese firms. Summarizing the literature, Smith and colleagues’ (2008) systematic review of over 100 papers found “knowledge management” to be a key factor in innovation management.
But how exactly does all this knowledge lead to innovation? Citing three studies, Madjar (2005) notes that the “…literature suggests that unique information and knowledge provided by dissimilar individuals may enable the employee to see new connections between concepts and issues and to approach problems from different directions”. Damanpour’s (1991) meta-analysis seems to supports this in its finding that the degree of organization members’ involvement and participation in extra-organizational professional activities was positively associated with innovativeness. Likewise, Root-Bernstein, Bernstein, and Garnier’s (1993) reviews of laboratory notebooks found evidence that creative scientists obtain information from a wider array of topics than less creative ones.
Expert opinion also supports the importance of the knowledge dimension in a culture for innovation. A forum of innovation experts assembled by the Harvard Business School recommended to leaders to “open your company to diverse perspectives” (Amabile and Khaire, 2008). The University of Birmingham’s Health Services Management Centre summarized their review of this topic in the innovation literature by recommending that the NHS “make it easy to find and share knowledge about innovation, learn from organizations that have a track record of innovation, and foster links with private sector organizations” (Williams, de Silva and Ham, 2008).
To be most effective, knowledge must flow to everyone in an organization. Anklam, Cross and Gulas (2007) suggest methods for promoting ‘democratic and lateral’ communication – newsletters, seminars, online forums and ‘brown bag lunches’ – and note that “…all are historically proven ways of creating and maintaining awareness of knowledge for working across organizational boundaries”. Kanter (2002) draws attention to the need for free-flowing information by suggesting that a good way to stifle innovation is to “make sure that requests for information are fully justified, don’t give it out freely”.
NOTE: All of the information on the Elements of a Culture of Innovation, Assessment, and Tips for Leaders were adapted from Maher, Lynne, Paul Plsek, Jenny Price, and Mark Mugglestone, (2010), “Creating the Culture for Innovation: A Practical Guide for Leaders” published by the National Health Service (NHS) Institute for Innovation and Improvement in the United Kingdom