The Underground Economy of Innovation – A TTW Guest Post by Dr. Troy Swanson 1

There are costs to maintaining and fully supporting technologies. For every dollar of software or hardware that is purchased, there are additional dollars that must be committed to implementation and ongoing support. Most organizations have lists of “supported” technologies and much longer lists of “unsupported” technologies. Yet, we continue to innovate. We continue to utilize new tools to solve problems. I stumbled upon this blog post from Rosabeth Moss Kante about innovation in health care, which I think is applicable to innovation in general and libraries specifically:

“Innovations always sound good in retrospect, after they’ve worked, and in isolation, when all the surrounding barriers to change don’t have to be taken into account. Arguably, the main roadblock to innovation in health care is not the limits of human imagination and creativity; it is how a complex system has grown up in which most players have incentives for keeping their piece intact while hoping to seize a piece from someone else. Health establishments fight against germs and also against germs of ideas. It’s a classic change management problem…

“…Complex systems of multiple actors and interest groups rarely change by fiat; they are more likely to change because of the accumulation of many positive deviations from tradition that prove themselves and gain support. Each small innovation pushes at some aspect of the system and ends up triggering greater change…”   (Why Innovation Is So Hard in Health Care – and How to Do It Anyway by Rosabeth Moss Kante

When innovations take place, they do so because someone was willing to move beyond the roadblocks that exist. They were willing to break rules and operate in the underground economy of innovation.

In my research into the innovation and adaptation of blogs and Web 2.0 technologies, I have seen how the underground economy of ideas works. Single innovators can experiment, support, and diffuse ideas across organizations pushing the larger group in new directions.

It is not uncommon for pockets of innovations to exist that replicate all of the functions of an IT department offering trouble shooting support, implementation guidance, and even hardware maintenance. Of course, inefficiencies for the larger organization will start to arise as decentralized IT services pop up.

Organizational leaders have a delicate balancing act to perform as they seek to support both innovation and efficiency. Ideally, they should act to foster innovation, but also find ways to support it efficiently. At times, this is not an easy act to pull off. The currency for the underground economy of innovation is the informal recognition and satisfaction that comes with solving problems. Many courageous innovators thrive on stepping outside of the box and playing around. Administrators who do stamp out a new innovation because it is not officially supported risk doing far more damage to their organization than they may realize.

One thing that became clear to me in my research was that budget meetings were places where innovations went to die. The price tag is a significant factor in the diffusion of an idea. Since many Web 2.0 technologies are relatively cheap, they can easily fly below the radar as they move across organizations.

Troy A. Swanson is Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.


One thought on “The Underground Economy of Innovation – A TTW Guest Post by Dr. Troy Swanson

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