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Book Tells How Companies Innovate

August 6, 2003

"Rip. Mix. Burn." It was an Apple ad slogan associated with music piracy. But it's also the underlying business strategy for most breakthrough innovations, says an expert in technology management from the University of California, Davis.

Innovations in business borrow existing ideas from different worlds, mix them in news ways, and create supportive communities to nurture them to fruition, says Andrew Hargadon, an associate professor at the Graduate School of Management. His book, "How Breakthroughs Happen: The Surprising Truth About How Companies Innovate," has just been published by the Harvard Business School Press.

Most breakthroughs, the author says, depend on teams of individuals who bring together ideas gleaned from their knowledge and experiences in different realms -- other industries, settings and even hobbies -- and recombine them in new ways. Some companies have found a way to systematize this innovation process, which he calls technology brokering.

Henry Ford, for example, is credited with developing the assembly line. However, it was a Ford team that drew on their varied experiences -- with the "disassembly" lines of the Chicago meatpacking industry, the hoppers and conveyors of granaries, and a foundry method for moving work past men -- to develop the production advantage.

"By pursuing innovation based on technologies that have already proven successful in other applications," Hargadon says, "companies can save time and costs in development, exploit existing market infrastructures and reduce the risk of failure."

While the very business of some firms -- IDEO and Design Continuum, for example -- is technology brokering, others can develop networks that help them capture and recombine ideas from across traditional boundaries. Firms can build innovation teams that span their different divisions and locations. Or they can hire technology brokers, organize guest lectures and field trips, explore trade shows in other industries, or do work in different markets.

For resulting innovations to be successful, Hargadon stresses, companies also need to formalize the resources and structure to support their development. That could, for example, mean reconfiguring the team, collocating its members, and providing dedicated funding and time for the work.

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