EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION IN INNOVATION PROCESSES
Ronald C Beckett
Centre for Industry and Innovation Studies
University of Western Sydney
Tel +61 412 264 574
School of Management
Queensland University of Technology
Tel + 61 731382938
Innovation processes are rarely smooth and disruptions often occur at transition
points were one knowledge domain passes the technology on to another domain.
At these transition points communication is a key component in assisting the
smooth hand over of technologies. However for smooth transitions to occur we
argue that appropriate structures have to be in place and boundary spanning
activities need to be facilitated. This paper presents three case studies of
innovation processes and the findings support the view that structures and
boundary spanning are essential for smooth transitions.
Keywords: Transitions, boundary spanning, communication
It has been argued that innovation is a process that can be managed and there are
characteristic evolutionary stages that can be identified (Rothwell, 1992). Empirical data
suggests there are issues in making the transition between stages. Beckett and Hyland, (2007)
maintain that both the external and internal environments influence how the stages in the
evolution of an innovation and how transitions between the stages are enacted. Geels and
Schot (2007) articulated four transition pathways that depended on whether internal or
external resources dominated. They also observed that multiple types of agency are involved
in most transitions. The involvement of multiple agents creates added complexity at the
transition points as there is rarely a shared view of the interaction and there are inevitable
differences in language and understanding as engineers interact with research scientists and
researchers interact with management and marketing. This potential problem of
misunderstandings can compromise the successful navigation of a transition and the
progression of a particular innovation. Our long-term research objective is to find ways to
more effectively manage transitions in the innovation process.
The interplay of agency and structure (language in our case) is noted in structuration theory
(Giddens, 1984), where rules (methodologies and social norms) appear to exist
independently, but they are only applied only through use and reproduction in practice.
Agents are embedded in social and operational rule structures, but at the same time reproduce
them through their actions (‘duality of structure’). At transition points agents also bring some
knowledge and some unstated rules with them in the repertoire of schemas that they use to
interpret the world, make sense of it and make decisions. Poole and DeSanctis (1990)
ISBN 978-90-77360-12-5 © CINet 2009 CINet 200996
suggested a variant of Giddens (1984) ideas they called the theory of Adaptive Structuration
to apply those ideas in socio-technical organization settings based upon three functional
elements; structuration, appropriation and adoption. Appropriation is defined by Poole and
DeSanctis (1990:16) as, the “…fashion in which a group uses, adapts and reproduces
structure.” Adoption is the deep embedding of the structure into the organisation’s process
framework. Giddens (1984) identified different types of structure. One type is structures of
signification that help produce meaning through interpretive schemas, communication and
effective translation of overlapping language. Gidden’s other two structure types are
legitimisation (sanctioning practice and behaviour) and domination (heirarchy and power).
We explore matters of signification in this paper, along with associated matters of agency,
recognising that they co-exist with structures of legitimisation and domination that may
influence their enactment. The research uses a case study approach to examine three cases
where language and understanding have been critical to the effective transfer of knowledge in
the R&D process.
Agents and Structures of Signification in the Innovation Process
To understand how the communication and understanding of gaps can be addressed at
transition points several researchers have noted the existence of agents termed intermediaries
or boundary spanning agents. In a structuration theory context, these agents reproduce
structures of signification through their actions. According to Tushman and Scanlan (1981)
boundary spanning agents are individuals who are strongly linked internally and externally
and can both gather and transfer information from within and outside their work units.
Boundary spanning agents are viewed as communication stars (Tushman 1977) and can
effectively communicate widely within their work unit, across work units and outside their
organisation. Kellog et al. (2006) argue that boundary spanning agents are able to act as
translators, brokers or mediators. They also argue that cross boundary activities are enhanced
by establishing common knowledge or common ground and by using mechanisms such as
routines, languages, stories and models that have meaning across the boundaries.
Boundary spanning roles are especially important when environments change frequently and
linkages between complex social networks are needed. In situations such as product
development and business process re-engineering when teams form and disband, the
knowledge of the teams and the lessons they learned are lost as individuals move on to other
teams. However team members who have the necessary skills can act as boundary spanning
agents as they transfer knowledge and ideas between projects.
Howells (2006) views intermediaries as playing a role in diffusion and technology transfer, in
innovation management, as components of the systems and networks of innovation. Howells
(2006) recognised that not only individuals but also professional bodies can provide some
intermediary roles. Bessant and Rush (1995 p 102) noted a broadly similar set of functions
carried out by consultants: in the “articulation and selection of technology options: scanning
and locating new sources of knowledge; building linkages with knowledge providers,
development and implementation of business and innovation strategies highlight the more
interactive and diagnostic role of intermediaries”. Adler et al. (2003) maintain that boundary
spanners transfer information about changing market and conditions and boundary spanning
is linked to the management of technology, innovation, and implementation. If external
parties are to be effective intermediaries and span the boundaries between R&D and
implementation they need to understand the new technologies and have an effective grasp on
the underpinning science involved in the new technologies. Moreland(2008) in her work in
the beef industry in Australia found that technological innovations with high levels of
complexity presented a real challenge to some intermediaries who found the technology too
complex and confusing. In cases such as these intermediaries are ineffective as they are
unable to translate the new knowledge into meaningful language for the end-users.
While intermediaries or boundary spanning agents can increase the access of business to
knowledge and technologies, and translate complex knowledge into information that is
understandable to the end-user, they cannot ensure that the business has the absorptive
capacity necessary to benefit from the new information. Cohen and Levinthal (1994) argue
that acquiring technical knowledge through a third party is not sufficient. They maintain that
effective absorptive capacity needs to combine technical knowledge and operation knowledge
of “the firm’s idiosyncratic needs, organisational procedures, complementary capabilities and
extramural relationships” (Cohen and Levinthal 1994, 237). In the case of most small and
medium businesses the owner is the only person who is capable of acquiring and
understanding this knowledge as much of it is tacit and developed through experience.
Moreland (2008) in her research found that some business owners lacked competences
needed to combine new technical knowledge with operational knowledge. However
investing in the enhancement of absorptive capacity does not guarantee that it will benefit the
business. Perhaps this uncertainty leads many small business owners to focus more on short-
term, day to day problems than looking at how to improve their over all business (Moreland
2008). None the less Cohen and Levinthal (1994) argue that absorptive capacity improves a
firm’s ability to resolve uncertainty as firms with high levels of absorptive capacity employ
people better able to acquire knowledge and interpret information they need.
According to Cohen and Levinthal (1994) a firm can build its absorptive capacity in a range
of ways. These include by attending technical training and reading the technical literature,
both of these assume that people in the firm have the time and resource to invest in these
activities. In the case of SME the owners do invest in these activities but they are severely
restricted in how much time they have to build their technical knowledge across wide and
diverse fields. Cohen and Levinthal (1994) argue that in many cases absorptive capacity is
developed as a by-product of other activities such as in-house R&D. Further Cohen and
Levinthal (1994) maintain that Baldwin (1962) observed firms which had in-house research
capability were better able to exploit extramural research. Cohen and Levinthal (1994) argue
that to use the knowledge and technologies developed in the public domain a firm must have
acquired “complementary internal expertise” so that they have the necessary absorptive
capacity to exploit and benefit from new knowledge and technologies.
Acquiring and interpreting knowledge about technological innovations is a complex process.
Savory (2006) argues the capability to absorb and recombine knowledge facilitates the
development of new competences and these competences can be bundled together in different
ways to match different situations that arise during the innovation implementation process. In
bundling or grouping competences and reconfiguring existing competences with new
competences individuals need to be able to “actively select, acquire and abandon
competences.” (Savory, 2006). The ability to reconfigure, utilise and coordinate resources
such as knowledge and technologies in response to changes in the market, environment and
strategic direction of a business are regarded by Savory (2006) as dynamic capabilities.
Facilitating the Transfer of Knowledge and Responsibility at Transitions
In the discussion so far we have identified three matters of signification associated with
transition in the innovation process: firstly, the understanding the need for some form of
structured communication and learning, and what structures facilitate this; secondly, the kind
of information to be transmitted and what structures facilitate this, and thirdly, the need to be
able to receive and use what is transmitted, and what structures facilitate this. What actually
happens within enterprises?
In our empirical studies we have observed two kinds of transition management scenarios, and
some hybrids of these two. In both scenarios, we use the analogy of innovation as a relay
race, where there are a multiple handovers of responsibility and where a keen eye must be
kept on the competition and collaborators.
The first scenario is common in large companies that have specialised departments.
Responsibility for an innovation will move from research and development into engineering
and production, and then on to marketing and ongoing support functions. In this scenario it is
likely that each department will have the management and technical competencies and
structures to progress the innovation stage of development it is responsible for. It has been
observed that there is scope for misunderstandings about the technology of what is being
handed over and about the way each group optimises the product or process under
development. For example, an elegant scientific or engineering solution to a simple customer
problem may not work out well in terms of cost and ongoing ease of support. Such
observations and the need to run the “relay race” as fast as possible have led to the adoption
of concurrent engineering practices. Using this strategy, contributors are engaged before and
after their stage of responsibility is completed. This practice is intended to facilitate shared
understandings and optimised innovation outcomes. From a structuration theory viewpoint, a
series of appropriate structures have been adopted, but internal agents are used in a boundary-
spanning role when different structures are accessed. In the concurrent engineering scenario,
the next runner does not start from a standstill at each baton change, but runs in parallel for
some distance, and continues to run after the baton is exchanged.
One tool used to clarify roles, is the responsibility matrix. This is tabulation describes what
each department is expected to do at every stage of the evolution of a particular innovation. It
may also be used to assign individual responsibilities within a project team (PMBOK, 1996).
The second scenario is common in start-up companies, where a dedicated team is responsible
for all stages in the evolution of a particular innovation, which may be the sole activity of the
organisation. The organisation is also responsible for accessing and managing the resources
needed to develop and deploy the innovation. In this scenario, there is continuity in the
involvement of technical staff, but there is a need to progressively acquire more sophisticated
project management and business management competences. From a structuration theory
point of view, the focus is on acquiring appropriate structures and competences. By way of
example, Vohara et al (2004) studied the development of nine university spin-out companies,
identifying a number of factors that led to four “critical junctures” where new kinds of
competences and resources had to be added to the organisation as the innovation evolved.
Not recognising the need for a change put the enterprise at risk. Using our relay race analogy,
the baton had to be passed to a team having some previous and some new responsibilities. If
the baton is not successfully handed over, the enterprise may fail. A form of responsibility
matrix may also be useful in this scenario, but this practice is not common.
In the table 1, we have presented a generic responsibility matrix to facilitate communication
by understanding what is done by who in each phase of the evolution of an innovation. In the
technology stream, opportunities have to be turned into concepts, then products or processes
and then into a platform for further growth. In the management stream, opportunities have to
be turned into credible investment options, then into a market opportunity, then into an
ongoing source of delivered value for both the enterprise and its clients. Along the way,
opportunities to adapt the innovation may be identified. At the transition points, the language
needs to change from selling a vision (1 to 2), to selling a concept (2 to 3), to selling a
product (3 to 4). There will be both technological and management actors involved, with
communication required between them. This highlights the complexity of communications
required in the exploration and exploitation of an innovation.
1. Identification Scanning the technology
environment, imagining possibilities
for emergent technologies
Scanning the market environment,
imagining possibilities in emergent client
needs and markets, “picking winners”
2. Exploration Researching and experimenting with
ideas, developing concepts, “picking
Finding resources for experimentation
and establishing appropriate project
management arrangements, developing
Turning ideas into a product or
process that can be reliably delivered
using minimal resources, “picking
Finding resources for implementation
and establishing appropriate project
management arrangements, identifying
market pathways, meeting cost and
schedule targets, “picking winners”
Using an emergent innovation in
concert with current capabilities to
build an enhanced enterprise
Moving from a lead user to a mass user
market, establishing product
management and support arrangements
and accessing extended markets and
Table 1: The communication matrix
We have identified the need to communicate across a number of boundaries, and wish to
collect some empirical evidence related to practice and issues. Qualitative research was
conducted as non-contrived comparative studies where the units of analysis were
organisations. The study was cross-sectional and data was gathered from four case studies.
The case studies, based on Yin’s (1994) methodology, were conducted in private and
government organisations that had been involved in the research and development of
technological innovations. Within the case studies, semi-structured interviews were used as
the primary information gathering tool with documentation and direct observation providing
additional information. This design was chosen so as to use the interviews to provide
exploratory and descriptive data within the case studies and give both breadth and depth to
the data gathering. The sample of cases is a purposive as the three organisations used in this
study were selected based on organisational attributes. Only one attribute was a mandated
selection criteria. Organisations are all involved in the development of technological
Case A. Is an agricultural research and development organisation funded by industry and
government. It has been operating for more than 15 years and has successfully developed
several technologies for application by the beef industry. The organisation has a wide range
of research and industry partners and is highly regarded for its genetic research.
Case B. Is an association of industry R&D managers focused on sharing best practice. The
industry association stages two conference/workshops each year, one in February to discuss
themes of interest to members, and one in August, held in Canberra to engage with the
Commonwealth Government. It maintains links with similar organisations in Europe and the
Case C. Is an Australian mining company that generally undertakes significant levels of
research into operational process optimisation. The particular case described here involves
the development of a product, which is undertaken less frequently by the organisation. An
independent product development team was established at a university with both university
and company participants.
The data collected from semi-structured interviews, participation in some activities of the
organisations and organisational documentation was synthesised into case write-ups. A text
based analysis was performed on the data which applied an interpretive research protocol.
Analysis, three individual case study narratives were produced. A cross case analysis, using
Eisenhardt’s (1989) method, was performed in order to build theory and address the research
Case A “Poor Adopters”
Case A conducts research on DNA markers which are specific sequences of DNA that
identify particular genes in an organism. In the beef industry, the commercialised markers
show how many favourable copies of the gene an animal has for a particular production trait.
For example, cattle have a number of genes that influence tenderness. One such gene is the
Calpain gene. If the animal has two copies of the favourable form of this gene it has the
genetic potential to produce more tender beef than an animal with one positive and one
negative form of the gene. In turn, an animal with 1 copy of the positive form of the gene
will have a better chance of producing tender beef than an animal with 0 copies of the
favourable form of the gene.
The first DNA marker test was commercialised by an Australian company in 2000
(Hocquette et al. 2007) allowing cattle producers to identify animals with the favourable
genes by having hair, semen, blood or tissue samples tested. The results of the DNA marker
analysis are sent to the producers in a report where the animal is ranked as 0, 1 or 2 stars for
each gene (0 being no favourable forms of the gene and so on). The breeder then is able to
select or mate cattle with a known genetic profile for that gene. The benefit of this over other
selection methods is that it is a diagnostic tool, meaning that the specified DNA sequence is
present or it is not and this does not change over the lifetime of the animal. This means that
the animal can be tested at an early age and its future can determined prior to breeding,
feeding or selling.
However DNA markers are complicated and hard to understand. In a study by Moreland
(2009) she found that intermediaries found the technology confusing. Similarly the process of
collecting samples and receiving results is relatively easy, but the interpretation of results is
complex and difficult. Moreland (2009) also found that technologies were not always
compatible with existing processes in businesses. So although the underlying science is
reliable the technology has relatively low innovation fit. While in trials there has been proof
of concept there are problems integrating the technologies into business operations,
particularly large scale operations. Some of the integration problems are a result of poor
knowledge transfer and poor understanding of the processes involved in operating large scale
Case B: “Picking Winners”
In February 2009, a group of about 80 Australian corporate R&D managers met at an annual
workshop/conference to share their experience in “picking winners”. There were a number of
presentations over two days of the conference, some related to people factors, and some
related to matters of process. There were presenters from both large and small firms, and
from private industry and government sectors. There was some discussion at the end of each
presentation, and in the final afternoon of the conference, there were the focus group
activities to reflect on what had been learned. A document capturing this information was
produced a few weeks after the conference drawing on notes from various sources, and the
It was clear that the expression, “picking winners” was very context-sensitive. One context
for many of the participants related to identifying technologies that would enhance their
enterprise’s technology platform. For others, it was identifying which ideas for product
innovation identified by the enterprise sales force should proceed to a development stage.
For yet others it was identifying which newly developed products or processes should be
given priority in the marketplace. Presenters from the investment community saw picking
winners in terms of the probability of high rate of growth in the marketplace. Some
presenters described a portfolio management approach that kept a number of options open
during an exploratory phase.
A number of things emerged. Firstly, having the right people to understand what was being
considered and what progressing a particular innovation might lead to was seen as important.
Secondly, having a process that considered a multiplicity of factors was important in
conducting due diligence and information analysis that would support decision-making.
Thirdly, clearly understanding the assessment criteria was important. For example, did the
opportunity under review support some long term strategic agenda, in which case matters like
relating to a current market might be a secondary consideration. Fourthly, having the right
resources and capabilities to support an innovation during its development was just as
important as selecting the best option to proceed with. Finally, it was noted that picking
winners was a process, not a one-time event, and this process may have to be repeated at
several stages during the development of a particular innovation.
At an earlier conference with the government representatives, it was claimed that
governments do not “pick winners”. This is in the context of allowing market forces to
determine which options will be viable, and in the context of not favoring a particular
enterprise. It was noted during the February conference, however, that governments do
indeed pick winners. They nominate priority areas where research will be supported, and in
offering competitive access to government support, some selections from a variety of
proposals have to be made. Some speakers at the February conference suggested that the role
of government was to “make winners” by investing in education and infrastructure. This also
struck a chord with some smaller firms present at the conference, who did not have the luxury
of maintaining a portfolio of opportunities, but who had to make decisions about alternative
pathways to make their particular innovation viable.
The point that is reinforced in this case study is that both the language and expectations
associated with transition points in the development of a particular innovation are important
in reaching common understandings of the best way to move forward.
Case C: “Proof of Concept”
In the early 2000’s an Australian mining company decided to support the development of an
aerial survey instrument based on about 10 years of research at an Australian university. The
instrument is potentially capable of rapidly collecting information about the earth
characteristics of a large region with a degree of precision many times better than that of
current instruments. The researchers had developed a prototype to demonstrate what they
called “proof of concept” in that the soundness of the underlying theory was demonstrated.
On this is the basis, engineering development of the instrument was funded. Some
difficulties were experienced, in part due to the need to combine a number of emergent
technologies in the design to achieve the desired outcome, and in part due to the initial
adoption of inappropriate project management structures. Some components of the design
were quite unique and difficult to make, and by the end of the engineering development
phase, several patents have been lodged in addition to the original one. An iterative approach
to project management was the norm. At this point, it was again declared that “proof of
concept” had been demonstrated, in that it had been shown that a suitable instrument could be
This did not necessarily impress the geologists who wanted to utilize data collected using the
instrument. To them, what had been provided at this point was the equivalent of a medical
CAT scan instrument without any imaging software. In their view, “proof of concept” would
occur once the instrument had collected data from a region with well-understood earth
properties, and this data was presented in a form of map that could be interpreted in
Some similar observations were made during discussions in case B presented here (“picking
winners”). A government research organisation described a strategy of developing prototypes
and pilot plants, so that “proof of concept” could be clearly demonstrated. However,
licensees were frequently disappointed in the extent of development reached compared with
their interpretation of what “proof of concept” implied. The expression, “proof of concept”
was also used by an industry presenter to mean that a product or process had been developed
to the point where it was ready for trial in the marketplace. The expectation was that once
“proof of concept” had been demonstrated, the innovation could be readily adopted.
As in the “picking winners” case, there are matters related to the context of language in
sense-making and to expectations associated with particular words or phrases. Again,
implied meanings also relate to stages in the process of innovating. This case example also
raises the matter of different mental models used by different professional communities. For
the researchers, once the theoretical foundation has been established, further development
work was not seen as problematic or risky, just plain hard work. For the engineers once
something had been produced reliably, further development and application was not seen as
problematic or risky, just plain hard work. For the users, an innovation is not regarded as
adequately demonstrated until it has been shown through some period of use that it delivers
an outcome or solves a problem in a superior way to currently available alternatives. Even
then, there is still work to do to extract maximum value out of this innovation.
Discussion and Conclusion
The three cases presented collectively illustrate issues of communication and mutual
understanding at different transition points in the evolution of an innovation. The initial
findings indicate that in innovation processes where boundary spanning agents are active the
flow of knowledge and information is more effective than in those transitions where there are
no boundary spanning agents. The findings also indicate that a common language is
insufficient for effective communication. To ensure that communication at transitions is
effective there has to be agreed meaning associated with the language and the structures in
place to facilitate agreement.
In all cases, the presence of a diversity of agents - sponsors, people from various technical
communities, project managers, end users was observed. There is a need to “pass the baton”
within these families of agents in the innovation relay race from time to time. From this point
of view, Table 1 needs to be expanded to include technological sub-functions of researcher,
developer, tester and user. Management sub-functions of champion, project manager,
investor, marketer and user should be included. The task of identifying the generic role of
each specialisation at each stage is quite significant, and will be a topic for further research.
Case A highlights potential issues in the state of readiness to accept an innovation by the next
“runner”. Three structural matters arise: readiness for passing the baton, ability to accept, and
the process of handover. In another study (Beckett and O’Loughlin, 2008) we have raised
some different questions about the ability to accept. For example, are we setting up next-stage
management structures that are appropriate to the nature of the innovation (e.g. incremental
or radical). This is also a matter for separate investigation
The purpose of the boundary-spanning activity is to help people learn what is needed about
technological and management matters and to help access requisite assets for effective
initiation of the next stage. This is illustrated in case B, where picking winners was seen to be
a process, not an event, and part of the job was setting up the right team for the next stage. In
case C, a form of concurrent engineering was introduced to address boundary-spanning
issues, and quarterly reviews involved all stakeholders. An external consultant developed a
functional level systems engineering model of a total system that included an instrument
subsystem, a modified aircraft and its operation as part of a data collection subsystem and a
data processing subsystem. Sub-tier elements were also agreed. As all stakeholders were
involved, that process developed some shared understandings about the functional elements
of the system, and to some extent provided a common language.
Going back to Giddens (1984) structuration theory, structures of signification help produce
meaning through interpretive schemas, communication and effective translation of
overlapping language. This describes the requirements of boundary spanning agent quite
well. We suggest that in a concurrent engineering environment, the primary transition focus
is on technical schemas and language, but in the start-up business environment, the primary
focus is on business/market schemas and language. At the transition points in innovation,
processes knowledge is acquired, transferred and then in successful transition, integrated into
the next phase of the process. This study builds on the work of Cohen and Levinthal (1994)
that demonstrates the need to combine knowledge to ensure absorptive capacity is built up in
processes and organisations. As Kellog et al. (2006) argue boundary spanning agents are able
to act as translators, brokers or mediators but this can only occur when they are given access
to both sides of a transition point. It is people who act as barriers to transition and it is people
who often in attempting to preserve their knowledge and expertise that inhibit boundary
This research demonstrates that the human element in innovation processes can both inhibit
and contribute to the flow of knowledge. While innovation operates with a process
framework, the flow of knowledge and understanding is controlled by and is dependent upon
human interactions. As management researchers we need to better understand the human
elements involved in innovation if we are to make a significant contribution to theory. While
the case organisations described here are drawn only from Australia the findings may be
applicable to wider audience. However further research is needed to validate the findings
presented here in the areas of multi-agent roles and selection of appropriate next-stage
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