Innovation and change: ideas, networks and communities
Innovation and change is as essential to the public sector as continuity. Innovation is both a creative and a collaborative process, in which new ideas are generated, tested, refined and embedded in practice. New knowledge emerges from a shaking-up of the established order, followed by a synthesis between old and new: first dialogue, then consensus. Social networks and communities of practice and action are central venues for the emergence and diffusion of new knowledge and practice. Knowledge mobilisation helps to lower the barriers to innovation by bridging organisations and network levels, supporting social learning, making connections and fostering dialogue.
The challenges facing twenty-first-century government – meeting increasing demand with reducing resources, addressing seemingly insoluble policy problems, restoring trust and confidence – demand a radical innovation in the shaping and delivery of public policy and services. Meeting these challenges adds up to far-reaching changes: rethinking what government should aim to achieve and who it should work with, as much as the processes by which it works. These changes go well beyond improving efficiency – aimed at squeezing more value out of an established framework – towards, at times, questioning and reworking the basic assumptions that underpin those frameworks. If regulation tends to focus on the ordering and systematising of knowledge, holding it within established bounds and focusing on consensus and corporate objectives, innovation seeks to liberate knowledge to challenge those boundaries through dialogue and to seek a new balance.
This does not negate strategic management: the case is not to substitute a free-for-all struggle in place of overall governance and direction. Rather, it recognises that strategy sets the overall aims and the conditions in which (we believe) they can best be achieved, but may be flexible about the means for reaching them; and that governance now operates at multiple levels. Innovation draws strength from those with most experience of, and close engagement with, the issues at each level: drawing, for example, on the insights of those at the front line of public services concerning ‘what works’ on the ground. It also draws on different sources of knowledge – lessons from other sectors, the knowledge of other professions, the lived experience of service users – comparing and contrasting with accepted wisdom to adapt, refine or supplant current ideas. These sources bring with them their own knowledge structures, frames of reference, assumptions and understanding, ways of thinking and working, which are unlikely to have evolved a close fit with each other. This is fertile ground for innovation, but one which calls for some relaxing of the institutional rules to prosper.
The previous chapter stressed the role of institutions as a force for stability and continuity, but they are also themselves part of a change process. Institutional change tends to be slow and stately, but sometimes finds it necessary to break decisively with the past or to respond rapidly to quickly changing circumstances. For example, the adoption of a Supreme Court to replace the House of Lords as the final court of appeal in the UK broke away from a centuries-old tradition by formally separating the judiciary from the legislative power – not as the result of some scandal, but because the elderly institution no longer fitted with the expectations of the modern world. New institutions are invented, others fade away; and others must adapt to remain sustainable.
Institutional entrepreneurs: for example, the last few decades have seen the appointment of chief executives from the private sector as heads of government agencies, with an explicit remit to introduce new management practices and cultures.
Structural overlap between participating organisations: the boundary between public, private and voluntary sectors is increasingly blurred, bringing in new participants with different backgrounds and interests to old-established territory.
External shocks from the working environment, such as radical changes in economy or technology: for example, new networking technologies not only provide new capabilities and opportunities for public sector institutions, but their use is so taken for granted by other sectors and the public that they cannot but be deployed, fundamentally altering information and communication flows.
Competing institutional logics that guide choice and decision-making: changes in the practices, beliefs and underlying values that shape behaviour and actions growing out of changing social and economic conditions in society as a whole – a different set of accepted ideas about what should be done and how.
Private companies in a competitive market must innovate to survive, but public sector innovation is historically more difficult to promote, perhaps due to differences in workforce incentives, organisational structures and judgements of performance. Since the purpose of government is to promote economic and social value, innovations must demonstrate a contribution to improved public value: the purpose of innovation is not just to be more efficient in what is done, but to find innovative ways to add value to the public sphere, ways that are also efficient. Some barriers to change stem from this distinction:
An over-riding focus on efficiency disadvantages innovation: if there is no space to try out new ideas, then the prospects for change are poor, yet the financial pressures and public oversight do not encourage this.
Knowledge and records are a fundamental underpinning for innovation and change, but can also have negative effects. If the rationale for a staff member to create a record is to ensure against possible future criticism, rather than as a step towards successful delivery, then the activity of records management finds itself in a dysfunctional relationship with its own organisation: an understanding of ‘how government really works’ may give useful insights, but what should a professional response be to such a situation?
Innovation is a creative process that needs space and freedom to thrive, but it is also a collective process that needs engagement and dialogue to mature. In a report on public sector innovation, the Sunningdale Institute (Bessant et al., 2010) points out that the ‘lightbulb’ moment of having a good idea is only the first step; a good idea may not necessarily work in context, and working through the issues of development and widescale adoption is the most powerful determinant of success or failure. Although the vocabulary varies with the definition, the three broadly agreed stages of innovation are:
invention: the generation of a new idea or approach, that often challenges current assumptions, understanding and accepted wisdom, which can come from frontline staff, partner organisations, service users, suppliers, external researchers or professional colleagues;
It is clear that both knowledge and records are relevant to all four of these stages, from providing knowledge inputs in the initial creative phase through to implementation and communication of lessons learned. The knowledge and records professional has unique skills to offer here: an ability to map the whole landscape of information and knowledge-based activities and expertise across the organisation, and link them to categories of records; an understanding of which information is important and which less so, and of its currency. She has the ability to connect people and knowledge in different parts of the organisation that are unaware of each other, to stimulate the synthesis of explicit knowledge and potential learning in new ways, and to design diffusion systems.
transfer: adopting and adapting ideas from other similar organisations, often other governments, as part of a continuous learning process; but with pitfalls if differences in context are insufficiently understood;
co-production: user-led innovation, enabling service users to make independent decisions through choice, and participate by voice, working collaboratively with professionals in developing new approaches.
Understanding of the innovation process is changing from seeing it as a linear production process which progresses from initiation through development to implementation, to one in which a web of connecting flows of knowledge and information through social networks generates each of these stages. Innovation is essentially a social process, in which the bright ideas of individuals are only one part.
Ideas generation may start with an individual, but many others will be involved in its evolution to maturity. These range from participants in a knowledge transfer programme engaged in science-based work, through collaborating practitioners (for example, social workers and healthcare staff jointly working on adult social care), to the recipients of services themselves. The most far-reaching innovations have a multiplier effect, acting as a platform from which many variants can be launched.
Where are such new ideas generated and how is new knowledge produced by individuals and networks? In particular, how is it promoted or impeded by the management of knowledge, records and information governance within organisations and institutions; and what kind of interventions could lower barriers and improve flow of knowledge and ideas? In the context of social science research, William Starbuck (2006) described the production of new knowledge as a cycle of disturbance and renewal – deliberately shaking up accepted ideas about some topic, to be able to look at it afresh and reconstruct our understanding in a different way. He divides this process into three stages, which he calls: disturbing oneself; disturbing one’s environment; and building consensus. (The term is used in the sense of disturbing the settled order of things – creating a disturbance – rather than becoming unstable!)
The first stage involves opening oneself out to new influences, challenging one’s own preconceptions and seeking out seemingly conflicting ideas on the same issue. It is a universal human characteristic that once we have settled on a view of something, we tend to seek out the information that confirms our established ideas, rather than contradicting them: people read a newspaper that fits with their political views and are confirmed in them; or participate in Internet social groups with others of a like mind, narrowing the range of views received. Essentially, this stage encourages the individual to step outside their normal frame of reference and set about mobilising the full range of knowledge resources available to them, rather than the most salient. The aim is to seek out conflicting ideas which also appear to be valid and, by contrasting them, to clarify thinking and practice, and to resolve the conflict through new integrative frameworks – reframing issues in new ways. ‘We make progress by framing issues as conflicts, and then convincing ourselves gradually that the conflicts do not exist’ (Starbuck, 2006: 148). A window puts a frame on a larger landscape to create a picture; multiple windows reframe that landscape in different ways – but it is the view that changes, not the landscape.
The second stage for Starbuck is to widen this process out to other participants. Knowledge progresses by sharing with others who bring different perspectives, developing and refining understanding through deliberation and dialogue: new ideas that are convincing enough to gain new adherents probably have something to them. The challenge here is twofold: to engage a wide enough range of participants in ways that are meaningful to them; and to be prepared to ‘unlearn’ some things along the way. The most natural community to turn to, in order to test the validity of new ideas, is that of one’s peers: fellow practitioners or those from the same organisation; but as we have seen, this is likely to reinforce rather than challenge assumptions. Other kinds of knowledge may be expressed in less formal ways, but equally as valid; the most obvious for public policy issues is the knowledge gained from ‘lived experience’ of a problem – the people subject to it. For example, the problem of anti-social behaviour in public places can be seen from the perspective of social science – interventions, statistical measures, social theory – and from the perspective of the local community, highlighting experiences, motivations and attitudes. A strategy which ignores the latter is unlikely to succeed.
The second challenge is essential for the transition to practical application. Learning something new requires that one first ‘unlearns’ the old, and this applies both to an individual’s understanding of an issue and to the ability of an organisation to forget old beliefs, attitudes and ways of acting, and to put new ones into practice. Forgetting is as much a part of learning as is remembering.
The third stage – building consensus – is similar to the translation stage, in which an innovative idea is turned into a workable proposal. In the same way that the translate phase moves from the ‘what’ to the ‘how’, so building consensus is concerned with integrating new knowledge into a shared framework of understanding and action. It is helpful here to distinguish propositional knowledge – new ideas about an issue – from prescriptive knowledge, or new ideas on what to do about addressing the issue; a large part of building a consensus is translating from the first to the second – from ideas to action – and in the public sector is concerned with integrating the new into an existing institutional structure. This process of institutionalisation is not primarily a technical issue of systems implementation; it involves reconciling new approaches with existing interest groups, motivations and incentives: overcoming the barriers to adoption and gaining commitment for their diffusion.
Producing new knowledge, then, is at first a creative process which proves itself through progressive engagement and dialogue with others, adapting and refining itself in the process. The literature suggests that there are four main barriers to the integration of new knowledge within institutional frameworks (Mokyr, 2002; Bland, 2010):
Diversity of ideas: the degree of consistency or conflict between different kinds of knowledge input will influence the ability of participants to agree a mutual understanding of issues and approaches.
Openness of knowledge: an inability to ‘decode’ recorded knowledge expressed in a restricted language prevents others making sense of it and is a barrier to collaboration, critical debate and the collective validation of insights.
Diversity of interests: where participants have quite different interests and motivations which must be reconciled within the same objectives (although their end goals may differ); this includes problems of agenda-setting – when participants attempt to control which issues reach the agenda for discussion, promoting some and crowding out others – which also influence the degree of mutual trust and accountability.
Constraints of current norms and values: gaining commitment to new thinking which challenges accepted institutional values is more difficult in a multi- organisational, networked environment, in which the winners and losers (from whom one can expect resistance) are more diverse.
Diversity is the common linking thread and it is a strength as well as a barrier. Science-based evidence is improved by peer review and the efforts of others to replicate the results of new work, and successfully tackling the same problem in different contexts can demonstrate a robustness in the proposed solutions. A diversity of perspectives and ideas that can successfully be synthesised makes for strong and resilient concepts, and evidence that is ‘triangulated’ – confirmed from three or more different sources – is more compelling. A diversity of interests and agendas that can be reconciled by focusing on those objectives held in common makes for strong coalitions. On the other hand, diverse knowledge that cannot be integrated or viewpoints that cannot be reconciled are a block to progress, decreasing motivation and disrupting co-operative action. What are needed, therefore, are some strategies which work at the integration and reconciliation of new knowledge – not to direct and shape the knowledge itself, but to help create the conditions for its effective assimilation.
From the perspective of regulation, the previous chapter identified records management as a self-reinforcing system that displays a logic of consensus; that is, it is a primary means for developing the cohesiveness of an organisation among all its members. It reinforces an all-inclusive mental model of what the organisation is and does, and the individual’s role within that, by managing organisational knowledge as formally ordered records: ‘this is where you fit in’, it says. This chapter is approaching the issue from the other side of the global design model; from the perspective of innovation, ‘getting everyone onto the same page’ is not always a good thing, particularly when that page is getting out of alignment with the rest of the world. Sometimes, the dominant thinking, and accepted ways of doing things, have to be challenged for the organisation (or institution) to be jolted into recognising and responding to external change or potential opportunities; new ideas, new thinking, new knowledge is required. This new knowledge may eventually become encoded and made explicit, but that is far from the first step. We can all, for example, think of advisory organisations which publish streams of material offering new ideas and knowledge that is never actually read. The new knowledge needs to be embodied in the thinking of individuals and teams within the organisation and embedded in their practices, not just presented to them.
In the private sector, owners and investors are able to choose the direction and focus of companies in turbulent times: if well chosen, the company flourishes; if not, it soon disappears. The public sector is not like this: public managers alone, however senior, are not able to make such crucial decisions, because it is not their investment which is at stake. The purpose of government is to create public value, and the overall outcomes of primary functions such as education, health or social welfare are, essentially, determined by a dialogue between many participants – government ministers, elected representatives, citizens, professionals, suppliers, service users – if they are to be sustainable. Different participants bring different kinds of knowledge: the expert knowledge of professionals, the political nous of ministers, the lived experience of citizens and clients or the commercial knowledge of suppliers. The core issue in determining the quality of the dialogue is: how well do these different forms of knowledge interact with each other and do they coalesce into a (perhaps temporary) resolution?
This points to a logic of dialogue for knowledge mobilisation initiatives. Rather than drawing newcomers into an established framework, the objective is to break open the reinforcing circle and introduce some instability – to create a disturbance – by bringing different sources or kinds of knowledge into the dialogue. This instability creates room for innovation to flourish and eventually leads to a new synthesis as ideas and practices are absorbed and assimilated, or to a continuing creative debate in which opposing viewpoints are clarified and made visible, so that legitimate policy decisions can be made. Much policy action is in fact a means for stimulating and shaping this kind of dialogue; and some policy issues cannot be resolved without it. Healthcare policy, for example, will not be effective without the cooperation of a majority of healthcare professionals.
Long-term strategies that take decades to plan and implement, such as energy policy, are founded on the acceptance by the general public of, for example, siting and building of nuclear power stations or extensive wind farms.
Dialogue and consensus are not polar opposites, in which more of one means less of the other: they are in a kind of dynamic tension, always connected, but with each sometimes pulling in one direction or the other. Neither is total or final: consensus follows dialogue and dialogue follows consensus; a failure to follow on, rather than the swings in emphasis, indicates a breakdown of the discourse. Strategies to facilitate knowledge dialogues should also facilitate the re-establishment of a stable working consensus. Some elements of such a strategy might include initiatives to:
We have already identified one of the unique skills of a knowledge and records management professional as the ability to map a systemic landscape of information and knowledge in a ‘bird’s-eye’ view. Conventionally, this focuses at an organisational level; but the analysis of public sector transformation suggests that analysis and delivery of policy outcomes across a network of actors will be typical of the future. Putting these two together points towards the potential of an overarching knowledge and records strategy mapping knowledge landscapes across organisations or institutions engaged with the same issue or outcome, although perhaps at differing levels of detail. In the energy policy example, central or federal government departments dealing with energy, business, environment, urban planning, as well as regulators, local government administrations, citizen groups, academic centres and industry associations are all interlinked – but often have less than full awareness of the connections.
This is not proposing the knowledge professional as overseeing expert, able to take a god-like view of the whole and direct a master plan; there may be several possible maps, overlapping or discontinuous, reflecting different perspectives. Rather than one overarching blueprint, the point is to develop tools appropriate for a particular situation or context that, where the logic of dialogue is clear and visible, uncover opportunities to intervene positively, making connections that may or may not bear fruit, but would otherwise be less likely to occur. For example, by:
These kinds of link provide support for the knowledge dialogues shown in Figure 6.1, which illustrates the two logics. Here, existing organisational knowledge is subject to a critical dialogue – questioning, validating, refining – with other sources through a comparing and contrasting process, supplemented by explicit personal and collective reflections on experience of practice. This leads to a reframing in which new questions are asked and new evidence sought and captured as records, refreshing the cyclic process. The implication of this diagram is that reframing is echoed in later parts of the cycle – so records systems must adapt to accommodate the new as well.
From a broader perspective, this approach describes support for the process of social learning; not dictating what is to be learned, but helping to create the best conditions for it to take place. In public policy terms, social learning refers to the accumulation of knowledge which is gathered by all the actors or participants around a particular issue or theme. It includes lessons from the experience of other countries as well as our own situated experience. The sum of social learning sets the framework for debating and deciding on policy action and programme outcomes. At its best, social learning leads to:
changes of beliefs, attitudes, behaviour and action as a result of learning by doing (Collins, 2006).
It can also be the case that social learning is the arena for a struggle between competing interests, in which each protagonist promotes those lessons that best serve its own interests within the particular institutional context; very typical is the struggle between regulators and regulated: for example, is alcohol consumption best regulated by price deterrence (i.e. tax) or by changes in the drinking culture; are bankers’ bonuses a cartel culture or a response to market demand? It is not, of course, the role of the knowledge professional to mediate between these interests but, by helping to make them visible, to assist in a resolution.
The same combination of nurture and nudge can support diffusion of knowledge about new innovations: building and nurturing networks of contacts by brokering connections that gently nudge people towards adoption of new ideas. Social networks, as used here, means a collection of people who have a specific set of connections to each other; digital social media are one means of connection, but there are many other forms – the important thing is the connection itself, not the medium. Members do not necessarily have the same interests in common (although they may have) or all be in communication with each other; two people can be connected through one or two intermediaries (such as ‘friends of friends’) and never actually know each other. People are also members of many different networks – at work, in their community, through college attendance, etc. – and the strength of the connections will vary according to the type of network. For example, project managers are strongly connected into a network of people working in their current project area, but are also connected to others through their work on previous projects, and perhaps to each other through a professional specialism.
Recent research suggests that social networks have a powerful influence on members’ attitudes and behaviour (e.g. Christakis and Fowler, 2009). People are more likely to be smokers, to be overweight, to feel happy, if that is significant for others in the network, even if there is no direct connection; social networks influence factors such as voting behaviour, investment decisions, health and social status. The effects spread through the links of the network like a contagion and can also span networks which have members in common. The rule which appears to govern this is known as three degrees of influence. The influence of the ideas, attitudes or behaviour of one individual has a significant influence on connections up to three links along the chain (‘friends of friends of friends’) but no further. This suggests that the spread of innovations and new knowledge can be supported by making judicious connections between members of social networks: if resources are limited, it is more important to select people with many connections, or who act as an entry point to another network, because this amplifies the contagion effect.
Social network analysis, covered in detail in Chapter 10, is a useful tool for mapping the nature and type of contacts. Some networks are quite tightly bound, with multiple connections between members of a cohesive group; others have more contacts between distinct clusters or groups. Sometimes analysis can identify particular individuals who are members of many such groups, who act as ‘gatekeepers’ that offer entry into multiple networks. Making a connection between these people and the source of innovation or new knowledge is a nudge tactic that has a multiplier effect through the three degrees rule of contagion.
Communities of practice are an example of a tightly bound social network, a community of individuals engaged in the shared pursuit of a common enterprise (Wenger, 1998). They provide a space for producing new knowledge by debating and refining practice, but also act as a conservative force: as gatekeepers to accepted knowledge for newcomers, as custodians of communal memory and by controlling access to membership. They encourage incremental change but resist radical equilibrium shifts.
‘Learning as membership’ tends to reinforce existing categories that apply to practice – learning how the community ‘sees’ and validates the world. ‘The more at home you are in a community of practice, the more you forget the strange and contingent nature of its categories seen from the outside’ (Bowker and Starr, 1999). A prime source of learning lies in the overlaps and on the boundaries with other communities – a collision between different worlds of experience – on the peripheries of practice. Wenger describes the ‘brokering’ role, an authoritative member able to connect discontinuities and elements of one practice with another and in the process ‘open new possibilities for meaning’.
Since these communities are already oriented towards learning and change, they are important networks for the knowledge professional to work with. Making credible connections that span the boundary between communities helps to provoke the development of new knowledge and feeds directly into the training process for initiates into the practice. A particularly important type of boundary-spanning links communities of practice with communities of action – the thinkers with the doers.
In the context of transformation, a community of action identifies the group that actually implements and delivers outcomes. Typically, expert practitioners diagnose, develop strategies and create the conditions for action, but others carry it out: for example, urban planners develop district regeneration plans which are acted upon by commercial developers, community groups, social entrepreneurs, and so on. Making connections between communities of practice and action improves the delivery of outcomes by bringing different kinds of knowledge together, enabling a synthesis. A better understanding by practitioners of the action perspective is likely to produce better strategies and vice versa; and issues arising from framing clashes of knowledge perspectives are more likely to be resolved.
New knowledge and innovation usually means that old ideas have to be un-learned: to learn new ways of doing things, we have to forget about the old ways of doing them. These old ways can be deeply embedded, both in accepted norms and values – such as in professional practice or workplace culture – and in the formal rules and procedures of the organisation. If these need to change, the learning process is social and collective, as much as individual, and one to which the formal knowledge structures and processes of the organisation must adapt. Often these structures embody the interests of dominant interest groups, reflecting their perspectives and privileging different kinds of knowledge, and change is problematic – whose knowledge should take precedence? In healthcare, for example, over the last two decades the UK has seen struggles over which kind of knowledge should predominate in making resource allocation decisions: the clinical knowledge of the specialist consultant; the management knowledge of the administrator; or that of the GP closest to the patient.
For records management, retaining knowledge and practice in the corporate memory is an important concept. Retention policies discard records that are considered no longer to have value to the organisation, but by no means all material related to un-learning will be covered by these. Unless this material is retired, or its retrieval is qualified in some way, there is potential for it to disrupt successful change and innovation. Support for un-learning should consider:
An integrated approach to knowledge and records, innovation and regulation requires an integrated governance strategy. Information governance covers some of this by focusing on physical aspects of information, but says little about knowledge; a governance strategy here has to take many other factors into account: the relationship between ideas, interests and institutional practice; the trend towards a network-focused delivery mode; and conflict between different kinds of knowledge. Figure 6.2 presents a layered framework for considering these issues.
The organisational layer at the base focuses on the physical manifestations of information and records, and its organisation and control; Figure 5.1 (reproduced on the left) slots into this layer. Services are essentially delivered by organisations and so the delivery of service outputs is located here; but in any specific application of the framework, several different organisations are likely to be involved. The layer represents organisational aspects, not the entity itself. The social layer, cutting across organisations, represents the participants and stakeholders: communities of practitioners; of interest, those who share a common policy and programme objective; and of action, those who carry it through. Policy outcomes are determined here: the wider behavioural, social and economic changes, sometimes drawing on service delivery outputs.
The knowledge layer mediates between the organisational and social layers, linking formal and informal knowledge and expertise drawn from participants with its representation as evidence and records, file structures and subject classifications. The strategic layer receives policy actions, determines strategies for their knowledge aspects, and oversees risk and governance. One can visualise, although not shown in the figure, parallel frameworks sitting alongside this: a policy framework, on the one hand, which debates policy issues and sets strategies; and a programme management framework, which coordinates policy outcomes with service delivery outputs. The strategic layer here does not duplicate or replace these; it coordinates the knowledge governance aspects by acting as a bridge between the two.
The real work of the framework takes place in the knowledge layer. The knowledge drawn down from the social layer represents different embedded interests, world views, ideas, institutional rules and cultures, which are unlikely to form a consistent and coherent whole. The layer is a contested terrain, a field of potential conflict between different frames of knowledge; its mobilisation is not a mechanical task of simply slotting the right knowledge into the right place (as it appears from the organisational layer), but a dynamic one of dialogue and resolution, addressing: