Call this the "Canada" model of innovation where an institution/country that is bad at innovation still manages to export people who are good at it.
The University is, of course, a house of many mansions. I will look only at the professional schools: the b-school, d-school, e-school, and the law school. (Though I will say in passing that the liberal arts continue to supply exemplary intellectual training even as they too often insists on political and epistemological orthodoxy that renders the liberal arts grad next to useless when it comes to innovation. And here I define innovation as IBM’s Sanford does: creativity plus insight.)
B-schools are good at some aspects of innovation training, and really bad at others. That "easter egg hunt" called the case study is very good at giving students the ability to see through a confusing tangle of factors to the things that matter. But this is a decompositional ability. It is good at breaking down, and much less good at building up.
If the culture of Microsoft has a problem when it comes to innovation, it is precisely this. Not so long ago, I listened to Microsoft managers interrogate potential innovations, demanding to know how they could be monetized! Most innovations begin as inspirations and we should treat them as the Inuit treat newly born children, as gifts who must be treated with solicitude for fear they will return whence they came. Spare inspirations the ROI rack…at least for a little while.
This is a long standing problem for the corporation and the b-school. Both are so keen on a tough minded pragmatism that there are often insufficient intellectual resources or inclinations with which too nourish or embrace the new. After all, the new begins as something barely thinkable. It is too much to ask that it make itself immediately practical. Both the b-school and the corporation have to get better at ideas that are almost completely weightless and quite without utility.
The further problem with the business school is that it continues to treat the consumer and producer as economic actors and the market place as the sum and total of the transactions creating between these actors. All the larger, collective contexts that establish value, create context, supply meaning and motivate purchase are dismissed or diminished. Culture never gets talked about in a systematic way.
When I was teaching at a business school we taught a cases on DeWalt power tools and Land’s End merchandising, both of which turn on the cultural specifications of gender. (Briefly DeWalt repositioned a brand by regendering it. Land’s End was gifted a new segment of female consumers because cultural ideas of women and women’s clothing were changing.) These cultural specifications were never mentioned. When I raised them as possibilities people looked at me as if I were mad. (I hasten to add that I am not one of those social scientist who wants to neglect or exclude "economic man." The challenge for anthropology is indeed how to make him feel as welcome as an Inuit child.)
B-schools were founded and largely staffed by economists. Over the years, the economists were displaced and a supra-economistic understanding of the consumer, the producer and the marketplace were smuggled in. The work of this transformation is however not complete, despite the fact that the intellectual work has been in place for some time: Durkheim, Polanyi, Sahlins, Granovetter. Let the revolution continue.
In sum, the innovators produced by b-schools are hampered in two ways. First, the b-school discourages the the full creativity that innovation requires. Second, it artificially constrains the problem set, so that students are discourages from combining creativity with insight, that is, with a full reckoning of the world in which the creativity must make itself useful. (I refer once more to Linda Sanford’s distinction.)
I have run out of time but by this first reckoning it looks as if the University might be failing in the production of both innovation and innovators. This is scarier, still.
Tomorrow: the d-schools and innovation
Sanford, Linda. 2006. Building an Innovation Company for the 21st Century. MIT-IBM Innovation Lecture Series. October 17, 2006. here.