Coevolving Innovations

… in Business Organizations and Information Technologies

I’m a big fan of Disclosing New Worlds by Charles Spinosa, Fernando Flores and Hubert Dreyfus. Its practice perspective, rooted in Dreyfus’ reading of Heidegger, is complementary to the social theory of Pierre Bourdieu, who provides a foundation for the research into communities of practice by Etienne Wenger and John Seely Brown.

Thus, I was thrilled to read an article by Peter J. Denning and Robert Dunham on “Innovation as Language Action” in Communications of the ACM. (To make the social network link, Dunham was at BDA with Flores). This article appeared in a special issue on “Two Decades of the Language-Action Perspective“.

Working from the conclusion to the article, Denning & Dunham make the main claims that:

  • Innovation occurs when a group or community adopts a new practice.
  • Invention and innovation are two different skill sets.
  • The language-action perspective helped identify seven practices that constitute the innovation skill set.
  • Anyone can learn the innovation skill by mastering the seven personal practices. [p. 52]

I like the first three claims, but have some reservations on the fourth!

Denning & Dunham are helpful to clarifying innovation research by making the distinction between theoretical, empirical and generative frameworks:

One of the ways we understand a practice or skill is through a framework that offers a high-level view of how it works. The vast literature on innovation offers three main frameworks: theoretical, empirical, and generative.

  • Theoretical frameworks, such as Drucker’s principles of innovation or Klein and Rosenberg’s chain-linked process model, and
  • empirical frameworks such as Rogers’s diffusion model,

are good for revealing the overall structure of innovation process and the areas most deserving of the innovator’s attention. But they are not good for telling the innovator what skills to build, how to practice them, or how to deal with breakdowns that will be encountered in the process.

In contrast,

  • a generative framework tells the innovator exactly what actions are needed to cause innovation and specifies them in a way they can be learned and executed.

These actions are the focus of practice for improving one’s skill at innovation. Generative frameworks have been used in other areas. For example, Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Robert Kelley’s How to be a Star at Work, and Daniel Goleman’s Working with Emotional Intelligence are generative frameworks for workplace success. In Recapturing the Spirit of Enterprise, George Gilder offers a generative framework for innovation, but it is incomplete. [p. 49, editorial paragraphing added]

Consistent with the Disclosing New Worlds approach, Denning & Dunham focus on: what the skill of innovating?

We set out to discover what the innovator’s skill is and how to teach it to our clients and students. We found that the key is to understand innovation as adoption of new practice. It is distinct from invention. Language-action, which shows how action is initiated and shaped by conversations, eventually led us to the interaction patterns at the core of the innovator’s skill and the practices needed to master them. We have been teaching these personal skills successfully to our clients and students for over 15 years. The “culture of innovation” so ardently sought by organizational leaders arises from the collective behavior of individuals who are competent in these practices. [p. 48]

Terry Winograd provides a description of the language-action perspective:

The language-action perspective, as its name suggests, rests on two key orienting principles. The first is its focus on linguistic communication as the basis for understanding what occurs in information systems. Ultimately all information is communication: not an abstract system of bits and bytes but a means by which people interact. The second principle is that language is action. Through their linguistic acts people effect change in the world. [p. 73]

The core of the Denning & Dunham article is a “distinctive, recurrent pattern of generative practices driving every innovation”. I’ve supplementing their Table 2 with an extra column to the left that summarizes some of the text in the body.

Structure of Conversations and Actions Practices Key Aspects Characteristic Breakdowns
The heart of invention Sensing
Sensing and articulating opportunities and their value in a community. Seeing possibilities in breakdowns. Being sensitive to disharmonies. Blindness. Inability to move from sensing to articulation, to hold the though, or to see opportunities in disharmonies.
New Realities
Speculating about new worlds in which an opportunity is taken care of; and means to get there. Inability to tell vivid, concrete, compelling stories or to design plans of action.
Innovator proposes to bring the idea into the world, and generates trust in his or her expertise to do so Offering
New Outcomes
Proposing new rules and strategies of play that produce the new outcomes. Listening to concerns then modifying proposals for better fit. Establishing better credibility in one’s experience to fulfill the offer. Missing awareness of and respect for customers. Inability to listen, to enroll people, to articulate value, or to see people as fundamental in the process. Unwillingness to modify proposals in response to feedback.
The main work of adoption Executing
Plans and Actions
Building teams and organizations. Carrying out action plans for reliable delivery. Failure to manage commitments, satisfy customers, deliver on time, or build trust.
New Practice
Demonstrating value of proposed adoption so that others can commit to it. Aligning action plans for coherence with existing practices, concerns, interests, and adoption rates of community members. Developing marketing strategies for different groups. Recruiting allies. Overcoming resistance. Forcing adoption through compulsion. Failure to anticipate opposition, to anticipate differing adoption rates of segments of community, or to articulate the value from adopting. Lack of enabling tools and processes for adoption.
Developing supporting infrastructure. Aligning new practices with surrounding environment, standards and incentives. Assessing related innovations for negative consequences. Abandoning bad innovations. Discontinuing after end of useful life. Failure to plan for support and training to change enabling tools and systems, or to align incentives with the new practices.
(Recruiting followers, articulating guiding principles) Leading Declaring new possibilities in the ways that people commit to them. Moving with care, courage, value, power, focus, sense of larger purpose (destiny), fluency of speech acts. Inability to listen for concerns, offer value, work with power structures, maintain focus, operate from a larger purpose, or perform speech acts skillfully.
(An eighth, deeper practice that surrounds the other seven) Attending to Somatics Work with the somatic aspects of communication and commitment. Ascending the ladder of competence. Connecting with people. Producing trust. Developing an open and inviting “presence.” Blending with concerns, energies, and styles of others. Inability to read and respond to body language, gesture, etc. Inability to connect and blend. Failure to recognize and overcome one’s own conditioned tendencies, to appreciate differing levels of skill and their criteria, or to engage in regular practice in other practice areas.

The whole idea of a generative framework for innovation is appealing to me. I’m not totally satisfied, though, because my interest in communities of practice tends to lead more toward Bourdieu — with “reproduction of social practice” — than towards Heidegger and “being in the world”.

On that fourth concluding point of “Anyone can learn the innovation skill by mastering the seven personal practices”, I am more comfortable with a team-oriented approach, with a premise that at least one person in the group has innovating skills, and the legitimacy for others to listen to him or her.

P.S. If all of this research into innovation wasn’t enough, I was entertained to discover an interview on Reflections on Blogging with Fernando Flores, where he says “the main feature of my blog is to disclose worlds ….”


  • Peter J. Denning and Robert Dunham, “Inovation as Language Action”, Communications of the ACM, Volume 49, Number 5, (May 2006), pp. 47-52.
  • Hans Weigand, “Two Decades of the Language-Action Perspective”, Communications of the ACM, Volume 49, Number 5, (May 2006), pp. 45-46.
  • Terry Winograd, “Designing for a New Foundation for Design”, Communications of the ACM, Volume 49, Number 5, (May 2006), pp. 71-72.

December 17th, 2006

Posted In: by David Ing, innovation, practices

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