The internet was revolutionary in that it democratized the spread of information and ideas at a much faster rate than any other channel. With the increased adoption of computing, we’ve also tracked the rise of “distributed knowledge” databases like Quora or Wikipedia. What is interesting is how powerful these specialized knowledge bases can prove to be in the context of innovation.
Let’s look at one example from the US Coast Guard. Petty Officer First Class Kevin Spratt of the Coast Guard Cutter shared an innovation that he had invented to make his own day-to-day life easier on the job – the tool is called the hammer hook (a hook welded to the head of a maul) and it combines two tools that are frequently used on buoy decks.
Even though this seems like a fairly minor modification, Officer Kevin Spratt has been honored with the 2016 US Coast Guard Innovation Award and he was featured in the Smithsonian’s Military Invention Day 2018. The reason Spratt was so well lauded, is because this incremental change reduces clutter on the deck, makes it easier for crewmembers to switch between tools, and even increases workplace safety and efficiency. Reportedly, the hammer hook can save as much as 10-15 minutes per evolution. That kind of change may seem small when limited to Officer Spratt, but if you force multiply that change across an organization as large as the US Coast Guard, that level of time savings can be transformational.
And perhaps that is one of the key aspects that link knowledge transfer to innovation, adoption at scale. If a good idea has legs and can gain adoption at scale, then the change becomes meaningful enough to be an innovation.
However, just because an idea has merit does not mean that it will gain adoption. That is where innovation management comes into play. Ideas need to be collected, evaluated, routed for review and selection from experts, and then adopted. Most of these activities (although aided by software) require human capital in the form of money and approval. After all, even the best ideas that have been prototyped and show initial returns require a communication plan in order to move units or drive adoption. And if an organization can succeed at that, even verticals that aren’t traditionally thought of as innovative (like the government) can turn small victories into large-scale innovations.