Giving voice to ideas: The role description in the diffusion of radical innovations

                         Cohen, Kalyn Culler; PhD


                         One of the more stable findings in the “diffusion and knowledge utilization” literature is
                         that simple innovations, those compatible with the existing practices in a field, are spread more easily
                         than those which challenge standard practice. Yet it is the more radical innovations that hold special
                         promise for advancing the practice of a field. Using an action research methodology, the author studied
                         the diffusion of radical innovations in two very different programmatic settings, first in an undergraduate
                         affirmative action program on a university campus and later in a philanthropic-driven effort to fund
                         charitable work with recoverable investments rather than grants—a practice that is called
                         “program-related investing.” The two programs together served as test cases—one
                         as a precipitating paradox and the other as a conscious experiment—overcoming barriers to the
                         diffusion of an important category of innovations: innovations that require individuals to practice in new
                         ways and acquire new skills, that cause some disruption to the broader organization and that involve the
                         “soft” technologies of knowledge rather than the “hard” material
                         technologies. The literature treated diffuser's descriptions of their innovations as self-evident, whereas
                         the author found that diffusers of these radical, practice innovations unintentionally gave incomplete and
                         in some cases misleading descriptions of their work. An argument is made that effective description must
                         do more than represent the original innovation with some accuracy. It must enable diffusers to teach
                         those aspects of their practice which are difficult for them to make explicit by including opportunities for
                         practicing side-by-side, whether these be through simulated practice worlds or actual ones. It must also
                         enable appropriate transformation of the innovation. This can be best accomplished by structuring a
                         dialogue between diffusers and (potential) users to lift up multiple descriptions of the practice. It is the
                         process of comparing such descriptions that allows diffusers and users to build up an understanding
                         both of the essence of the innovation and of ways in which transformations may preserve or damage this
                         essence. (Copies available exclusively from MIT Libraries, Rm. 14-0551, Cambridge, MA 02139-4307.
                         Ph. 617-253-5668; Fax 617-253-1690.)

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