John Paschoud reviews a book which formalises the processes of being what many of us would like to be within our information-based organisations - innovators and entrepreneurs of the Information Age.
For Learners… and Practitioners?
Superficially at least, this book seems to be very clearly designed for students on a structured course at first degree or masters level for would-be information management professionals. In terms of structure I’m sure it’s ideally suited to that audience, with each of five chapters including learning objectives, review questions to test understanding, and group discussion topics. However the main author, Jennifer Rowley of Manchester Metropolitan University, makes quite clear in her introduction that she intends the book to cater equally for experienced and practising information professionals, claiming also that it is the ‘first to seek to discuss and apply the rhetoric and theories of innovation and entrepreneurship in information organisations’.
Far too many professionals in libraries, even those fresh from some of the best postgraduate courses, seem to be far too tightly bound by the established ways of managing things. The stated and admirable aim of this book is to encourage people in these situations to become information innovators. Does it do the job?
The first chapter provides a thorough grounding in the language used, defining what the authors mean by ‘innovation’, ‘entrepreneurship’ and structured creative processes, and a helpful brief outline of what is covered in the other four more detailed chapters. My own view is that the book is too modest in scoping the types of ‘information organisations’ to which this advice might apply. It gives expected examples of libraries, publishers and broadcasters - but scant mention of a much wider potential realm of organisations and enterprises, in government and private sectors, whose activities depend critically on the competent management of information, even though their publicly visible objectives might be to empty dustbins, keep roads or railways running, or collect taxes.
Professor Rowley acknowledges that much innovation is likely to be based on changes in or opportunities provided by information processing technologies; but also that the processes discussed are fundamentally not technological but organisational and personal. This is a lesson too often forgotten or misunderstood by some of my fellow technologists, that ‘not all technical innovations involve technology’. Appropriately therefore, mentions of particular technologies involved are passing and without diversion into any detail of how they work (although I did think that Larry Page and Sergey Brin were slightly more worthy of note as entrepreneurial founders of Google  than for their association with YouTube as the book states!).
How Change Happens, Who Does It, What Impedes It
Later chapters dissect and classify the objectives of innovation in organisations and the possible models for how change can be either allowed to happen, or kept under control. The concept of entrepreneurial behaviour by staff or management at any level is still alien to many organisations in the public sector (i.e. most libraries to some extent), and the chapter covering entrepreneurship tackles this issue head on, recognising the barriers and challenges that will be familiar to many of us of bureaucracy and politics (that’s ‘politics’, and ‘Politics’). It deals specifically with issues of corporate entrepreneurship (or ‘intrapreneurship’) in the public sector, eerily foreshadowing the pronouncement by David Cameron in January 2011 that he ‘wanted to release a hidden army of public sector entrepreneurs in Whitehall.’.
Also highly relevant to those of us working mainly in public sector and not-for-profit organisations, this chapter discusses in some detail the concepts of ‘social entrepreneurship’ and the non-financial consequences, risks and benefits that can come with innovation. The chapter on ‘Organising for innovation’ covers in detail the issues around building teams and applying appropriate leadership styles, and fostering the sorts of creative talents and methods of working that may be stifled in the more routine jobs that the same individuals may have to do.
I found the final chapter, ‘Innovation in practice’, to be where I spent most time and found most of interest. The rather brief coverage of ‘Implementation’, including project management (outlined in one paragraph and a total of eleven bullet points!) was rather disappointing, despite the author’s admission that this is ‘the stage of the innovation process that involves the most significant commitment of resources’. There are plenty of other books and resources covering those areas and I can see why the author may have chosen not to get bogged down in too much detail here. But there is the potential to mislead a reader with less practical experience both into using this book as guidance for a real project, and into thinking that these elements of the task require a correspondingly small proportion of attention and effort.
The structure of all chapters of the book includes a set of ‘review questions’, which look suspiciously like ready-made examination questions (such as ‘Explain why it is difficult to define social entrepreneurship. Discuss possible ways towards resolving this difficulty.’). Of course these may be extremely handy to anyone in the position of either setting or sitting an examination paper covering this field. Of more direct use to practising individuals and teams might be the ‘challenges’ (‘Finding and choosing the “right” customers and getting their commitment to contribute to your innovation.’) and ‘group discussion topics’ (‘How did you assess the viability of the potential new service, process or product?’). The book is also well supported by references to further reading throughout.
If we accept a wider interpretation of what may be an ‘information organisation’, I’m not so convinced of the ‘first’ claim of the author for this book. Many of the same lessons and principles are included in publications that predate it, by authors such as Charles Leadbeater  and many more. But that doesn’t necessarily detract from the usefulness of this book, its refreshing conciseness and its well-structured teaching style.
The weakness of this review may be that it has been written with the benefit of far too much hindsight: in that the author (of this review) has certainly been an ‘information innovator’ (and sometimes far too innovative for his own good!) but has had the benefit of formal education in merely engineering the technologies used in information management - and has learned the lessons that this book seeks to teach more often by trial and error. Not being able to turn back the clock of my own career, I nonetheless found a considerable amount of advice in Being an Information Innovator that I believe will be of future use to me.
- Larry Page and Sergey Brin, TED profile
- Andrew Cahn, Michael Clemence, “The Whitehall Entrepreneur: Oxymoron or hidden army?”, Institute for Government, March 2011 http://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/publications/whitehall-entrepreneur
- Charles Leadbeater, Archive: Innovation and Entrepreneurship
Academic Associate, Information Systems & Innovation Group,
Department of Management, London School of Economics.
Managing Consultant, Local Knowledge
John Paschoud is a consultant information engineer currently working mainly on projects to do with personal identity management and access to online resources. He is professionally qualified in information systems engineering and project management and has spent over 30 years managing a large number of innovation and applied research projects, and the teams delivering them, in academic institutions and other public sector and commercial organisations. He also dabbles in Politics and some sorts of heavier engineering that can sometimes be painful.