New Knowledge - the unreliable source of famous innovations

John W Lewis's picture
Chat Date: 
Thu, Jan 14, 2016

Surely anyone who invents or discovers something that was not previously known is guaranteed an immediate and substantial advantage? One might think so, but nothing could be further from the truth!

This is the first in a series of discussions on the sources of opportunity for innovation.

The series is based on the topics in Peter Drucker’s book, “Innovation and Entrepreneurship”. This discussion is on the topic of New Knowledge, often seen as the star source of innovations, but amongst its least reliable. See below for more on the background to the series.

New knowledge appears (whether via discovery or invention) typically in the form of new materials, new effects or new mechanisms.  Of course, new knowledge is not necessarily scientific; new non-scientific knowledge also contributes to innovation. However, in most cases, it is far from clear whether these new elements will prove to be useful and, if so, where. It is often a solution looking for a problem. 

Drucker described knowledge-based innovations as “temperamental, capricious, and hard to manage”. Consistent with that description, he also labels them as “super stars” because they are well known and feature prominently in most descriptions of the history of innovation.

His book describes some of the history of a wide range of innovations based on new knowledge, ranging from eye glasses (spectacles) to aircraft, from medicines to engines, and from Xray diffraction to polymers.

Yet, along with their fame and that of the people who pioneered them, knowledge-based innovations suffer from a substantial difficulty: typically they have long lead times, often taking thirty years or more from first being known to being put to valuable use. On the reasons for this, Drucker wrote: “We do not know why.” I would venture to suggest that it is hardly surprising, because these novel elements often introduce changes starting, in engineering design terms, about as far as way as it is possible to start from the context of the products (whether goods and/or services) in which the value of their contribution will eventually be realised. Let’s include that in our discussions.

Based on his research, Drucker describes how knowledge-based innovations require three important contributions: careful analysis of what is known and whether any knowledge is missing; focus on the strategic position from which the innovation is introduced; and entrepreneurial management, as distinct from being managed by inventors.

 As described in the framing posts and discussed during the recent innochats on the topics of ideas (see Innovative opportunities: any ideas?on 2015.11.12) and opportunity (see The basis for innovative opportunity on 2015.11.19), and to counter the prevalent view that innovation depends on ideas, this series on the sources of innovative opportunity is based on the seven sources described by Peter Drucker in his book “Innovation and Entrepreneurship” published in 1985. Note that, opposite to the sequence in Drucker’s book, we are discussing the topics in increasing order of reliability and predictability as sources of innovative opportunity.


Let's discuss this topic during #innochat on Twitter on Thursday January 14, 2016, starting at 12pm Eastern time, based on the following questions:

  1. What knowledge-based innovations are well known?
  2. What are the risks of basing innovations on new knowledge?
  3. Knowledge-based innovations have long lead times, why and what can we do about that?
  4. Why is it difficult to reduce risks by researching future knowledge-based innovations?
  5. Why is it difficult to predict the impact of knowledge-based innovations?


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