Sunday, April 1, 2012

Invention and Innovation and “new knowledge”

Invention and Innovation and “new knowledge”

Our recent Canadian budget shone light on an issue critical to Quality.  Apparently Canadians are very good at invention and very poor at innovation. 

For purposes of this discussion it is important to see these two words as different.  Invention is the formulation of new ideas for products or processes, while Innovation is about developing practical application of new (or old) inventions into better products or services.  In the business entrepreneurial context “better” mean “marketable”.
The more that I explore the concept, the more I appreciate the continuum: Invention is at the top end and innovation happens downstream.  Moving from idea to product creates one form of innovation (innovation leading to new products), tweaking the process further downstream creates another (innovation leading to improved products).    According to our federal government, Canadians have a good track record on invention, but we stink at innovation, and that results in a poor record of falling productivity.

I have been thinking about this concept for a while, not only because of our federal governments concerns, but because it pertains to some things that I am very involved with right now. 

At my university the handbook for Graduate Supervision says to earn a master’s degree the student has to produce a significant scholarly work with some original contribution whenever possible, and to earn a doctoral degree the student shall develop a substantial and original contribution of new knowledge to the field of study.  To me that sounds a lot like my institution is expecting to produce doctors of invention and masters of innovation.  But when push comes to shove, I suspect that that represents more rhetoric than reality. 

For the longest time I have been both intrigued and confused by the term “new knowledge”.  The root seems to come from the Artificial Intelligence community who were talking about the synthesis of “new knowledge” from previously stored “information and knowledge” in the nineties, but I can find references going back thirty years previous.  Today it has become a new hot phraseology like “new knowledge economics” and “new knowledge society” and “new knowledge culture”.  So whatever it meant before, it means something different today.

I trust that what academia is trying to express when they require our PhD candidates to produce “new knowledge” is that after working on a project for several years that we should be able to expect something that represents some level of progress and innovation.  
Patentable new ideas and invention would be nice but innovative ideas that lead to progress in understanding are powerful in their own way. 

At a more immediate level, my proficiency testing program defines our mission as “innovation, education, continual quality improvement and quality management”.  Innovation comes first. 

So can we justify our bold statement.  I think we can. 

This year we have created a new tool for providing proficiency testing for detection of shiga toxin (aka verotoxin) in enterobacteria.  It works regardless of which method the laboratory uses for detection.  We have not put a patent on the material, but I think that this qualifies as both “invention” and product innovation.  At the same time we have redeveloped our gram stain slides so that we can now ensure that they will retain their quality for examination for up to a year so that we can be more productive in producing our materials for our various programs, and I would read this as clear evidence for process improvement.  

(Question to self: would this be a reasonable foundation that could lead to a PhD in Laboratory Quality?)

So here we are; reasonable evidence for invention, solid evidence for innovations and a pathway to better productivity.  I should let our finance minister (Jim Flaherty) know that we are innovative and productive Canadians.

And perhaps it has become time for our universities to work through some continual improvement process to ensure that it uses terms that we can all understand.

Note: minor revisions to spelling and grammar made June 16, 2012.

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