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Nonprofit Management

Bridging Research and Organizational Practices on Continuous Innovation

Reflections on a discussion about the capacity for continuous innovation in social sector organizations.

Recently BRAC was invited to a meeting convened by the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at the Rockefeller Foundation around the question “What determines the capacity for continuous innovation in social sector organizations?” We used findings from scholarly and practitioner literature on the topic as a foundation for our discussion, which was intended to inform the design of a research program that generates “actionable insights” into these issues.

I realized, when I arrived, that this group—largely comprised of academics from top institutions—was looking to BRAC to provide practitioner perspective and to help determine what research on innovation to prioritize. Most of the literature on innovation thinks of it as a process, or the assembling of fertile factors, rather than an outcome or orchestrated event (meaning you can’t lock people in a room and tell them they must innovate!). Many factors matter, including the vision and values at the highest level, individual personalities, how meetings are conducted, what behaviors get rewarded, and how learning is captured and shared. And yet there is still no universally accepted definition of social innovation. While one participant recommended spending the day just coming up with a definition, we forged ahead to answer the original question posed to us. Here are some of my reflections on the discussion that followed:

Assumptions matter. All research includes assumptions, including expected potential for change resulting from new knowledge generated by a study. Sometimes assumptions map closely to reality, other times they don’t. Sometimes we don’t know, and to choose prematurely can predispose us to certain findings or strategies. For example, what about our assumption that innovation is a good thing? It comes at a cost—it requires change and some level of risk-taking. There is certainly a danger of jumping for new approaches and solutions when the old ones were just fine, or needed some minor improvements.

Think about translation. And I don’t just mean from English to Bangla or Swahili—I mean from research-speak to practitioner-speak. Practitioners are action oriented; simplicity and ease of adoption are important to them. Researchers often produce “thorough” or “exhaustive” descriptions that capture the complexities of systems and phenomenon but that that few read. What are better ways to get information to leaders of development organizations—information that’s biased towards action?

Stop focusing solely on methods. Researchers worry a lot about methods. At business schools, methods often take second priority to common sense and practice. Take something like the value chain, a tool commonly used to map out all of the primary and secondary activities involved in a production process. Companies use it to determine what configuration of all these activities can produce the best product at the lowest cost, sustainably. No one has rigorously tested how the tool operates, but people keep using it because they find it helpful. I find it helpful! There is a balance to strike between seeing things work empirically and disseminating them, and robustly researching new interventions. Research has limitations and can take time; these are serious issues to consider when we have knowledge of practices that could be scaling up and saving lives.

Ongoing dialog can improve research and practice. I learned a lot from collectively learning and discussing innovation with this group. It’s clear that academics have great interest in understanding what practitioners are doing and in helping them improve their work. This type of collaboration can reveal perspectives and solutions that each group may not see without the other.

As a practitioner focusing on innovation, I’m thrilled at the academic support for this line of inquiry. I’m hopeful that the focus on innovation will extend from the research questions to the methodology, opportunities for dialog and communication, and beyond.

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