Knowledge Innovation® System: The Common Language


By Debra M. Amidon



Courageous visionaries established a powerful network of expertise when they founded the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE). In those early days, leaders recognized that there was more strength in what could be created together than individually.  In fact, the College-Industry Education Conference (CIEC) represents one of the earlier forums in which industrialists and academics came together, regardless of different values and languages, to share a common purpose.


CIEC has always been a source of thoughtful dialogue, heated debate, and in some instances, a hotbed of renegade ideas.  Lionel Baldwin seeded the notion of a National Technological University (NTU).  Bill Norris, then still President of Control Data Systems (CDC), announced the creation of the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation (MCC), a breakthrough cooperative research venture that was to set the pattern for cross-sector consortia nationwide.  Admiral Bobby Inman, then MCC President, and Don Bielman, then President of the Microelectronics Center of North Carolina (MCNC), debated alternative methods of technology transfer years before many would comprehend how integral those processes would become to industrial competitiveness.  Even the quality in engineering education project (QEEP) positioned engineering, along with other scientific resources, at the national level.


During this ASEE Centennial year, it is time to consider how we can manage the intellectual assets embedded both in our respective enterprises and in the professional network as a whole.  Knowledge indeed has become the new source of wealth, and “knowledge innovation” (the creation, exchange and application of new ideas) must be managed as carefully as financial or technical resources.


Shift in the Management Paradigm


It is no secret that the vulnerability of U.S. companies has not been their technical superiority, but their capability to manage socio-technological resources to sustain their global positions.  The hierarchical policies and practices of the Industrial Era must give way to more dynamic, fluid systems of management, which require cross boundary processes and leveraged information and learning technologies.


Such a modern global perspective promotes interdependent economic linkages and fosters cross-geography alliances and partnerships.  This work environment, dedicated to continuous learning, needs an infrastructure of flexible jobs, networked “teams” and rewards based on knowledge rather than authority.  Such changes are massive and fundamental, and they represent transformations across all sectors – industry, government, and academe alike.


For those of us who have collaborated and been partners, this language is not new: It is the glue that has sustained an organization like CIEC for so many years.  Now, management systems theory has caught up with the work people did by intuition: It is pushing the frontiers of learning…together.


Bridging the Language Gap


For those familiar with paradigm theory, differences in values, culture, and decision-making processes can create chasms that prohibit constructive communication.  In such cases, barriers become the focus of attention, and the resultant behavior impedes progress.  Much of the research literature on technology transfer has been plagued with such a focus.


In contrast, those with a more holistic perspective define a larger playing field, in which all sectors have a role and members combine resources and focus on synergistic partnering.  In such a “systems scenario”, a new language emerges which is able to transcend sector boundaries.


In academe, Bruce Kogut (1985, p.26) suggested that we focus on “economies of experience and knowledge” rather than on economies of scale or scope.  Ghoshal and Bartlett (1987, pp.43-53) wrote that the “flow of intelligence, ideas, and knowledge”, rather than the flow of parts or financial resources, is central to evolving relationships.  In 1992, Charles Edquist of the University of Linkoping in Sweden, discussed the notion of a “knowledge bank”, and an MIT study on the “International Relationships of MIT in a Technologically Competitive World” described the “world of trade ideas” (Skolnikoff, et. al., 1992).


Such concepts in education are not new.  However, the same language has already been embraced by leading government officials.  For example, the director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) has pointed out that “the greatest resources are no longer minded in the earth, but are created in the mind” (Massey, 1991).  And the Wall Street Journal reported in 1993 that President Clinton seeks to make the White House “a place of teamwork and the free flow of ideas” in an effort to promote a new spirit of innovation (“What’s News-World-Wide,” 1993, p.1).


Similar messages have captured the imagination of progressive industrial leaders.  The president of Analog Devices, has told us that “the rate at which organizations change may be their only sustainable competitive advantage” (Sata, 1989) and a 1992 report on knowledge-intensive organizations has outlined a new community practice entitled “knowledge infrastructure engineering” (KIE) which is a matter of national attention to business opportunities.


Professor Ikujiro Nonaka, at the University of Tokyo summarized this challenge best in his 1991 article in the Harvard Business Review: “And yet, despite all the talk about brainpower and intellectual capital, few managers grasp the true nature of the knowledge-creating company- let a lone how to manage it” (p.26).


Past, Present, and Future


In broad terms, we can sketch the evolution of these modern management concepts that could allow us to harness these nations resources for the 21st century.  On three levels, dramatic shifts have characterized how we do business:


50s-70s 70s-90s  21st Century
Data Information Knowledge
Product  Solution Innovation
Accounting  Strategic Planning Strategy


  Figure 1: Evolution of modern management concepts.


First, the early years of the computer industry were data intensive; there was a focus on automation.  It is widely recognized that an information economy was spawned with the rapid technological advances that characterized the latter part of the 20th century.  Theoreticians and practitioners alike now realize that what is important is not the information per se, but the context in which those ideas are used.               


Knowledge about products and services becomes as important (perhaps even more important) than the discrete products themselves.  Now, we can begin to understand the human-intensive nature of business and why investments in technology, in many instances, have yet to reap economic benefits.


Second, the primary focus in the computer industry was product oriented: Build the best mousetrap, and the sales organization need only take orders.  By the 1970’s, competition in the computer industry was intensified, and attention shifted to the customer.  Elaborate market segmentation and advertising schemes emerged.  Packaging “solutions” and “systems integration” became priorities in this industry.


Modern management, however, will demand a much more integral role with consumers.  Given the acceleration of technology development and worldwide global communication systems, enterprises need to be far more innovative in the partnerships they make with customers in order to create, transfer, and apply new knowledge within and across industries.


Third, is the evolution of how enterprises are managed. U.S.-based corporations and U.S. business schools have been criticized for their finance/accounting approaches to management.  In the 70s, a school of thought emerged, complete with statistical tracking mechanisms, which resulted in strategic planning in industry, government and academe.


Given the dynamics of a worldwide marketplace and the need for more flexible, adaptable organizations, we are now witnessing the emergence of a field of “strategy” that incorporates leadership characteristics, which are different from traditional forms of professional management.  For example, long-term investments must be balanced against short-term profits.  Theory must be integrated with practice.  Thus, technological strategies should be made within the context of a transitional vision.


Adaptation to the Research Enterprise


A similar evolution has occurred in the science and technology communities, although the dates may be skewed.  Historically, we could begin with the Morrill Act of 1863, which established the University land grant system.  The G.I. Bill of 1944, deigned for veterans, was intended to move the nation forward during the postwar period.  Soon after, in the 1950s, the National Science Foundation was created to focus national attention on science and engineering.


In relatively current terms, a variety of initiatives have inspired a plethora of research consortia and alliances.  The Presidential Young Investigator (PYI) Awards were intended to strengthen young faculty.  The cross-disciplinary Engineering Research Centers (ERC’s) were intended to develop a research base in specific technology areas that were of interest to industry.  The Federal Technology Transfer Act was designed to foster commercialization of technology that was developed in the federal laboratories, and NASA technology centers have been organized regionally as a network to accelerate the application of technology.


There are real challenges for the future.  The pessimist would envision decreased investment form industry, continued fragmentation within the science and technology community, and an academic research agenda “driven” by the needs of industry.


An optimist would see, instead, collaborative innovative relationships that benefit all partners.  Boundaries between the sectors would blur.  Technology (i.e., what we produce and how we use it) begins to yield significant bottom-line results.  The network of expertise, enhanced by modern communication systems, enable us to advance the standard of living in our country and throughout the world.


Such a vision is attainable.  The 1992 report entitled “Fateful Choices” (Bloch, 1992), which was produced by the Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable, has described the problems and the opportunities for America. We need only concentrate our time and talent on the real work- crafting a “Knowledge Innovation® strategy” that ensures that we can build a future on the following inherent national strengths: (a) the intelligence and imagination required for invention and (b) an entrepreneurial spirit that fires a healthy economy.


Evolution of Transfer Concepts


Volumes have been written about the nature of technology transfer (e.g., multiple definitions, barriers to success, exemplar programs).  During the past 10 years, this author has observed the following stages of activity:


Stage I TECHNOLOGY TRANSFER:  Historically viewed as moving something from one place to another….the “passer/receiver” language.  This is applied within organizations (e.g., moving from engineering to manufacturing), within a consortia (e.g., labs to industry) and/or country to country.
Stage II

TECHNOLOGY EXCHANGE:  This idea recognizes that technology is transferred through people (i.e., language of “the contact sport”).  Communication links, to be optimal, must allow the flow of ideas in both directions.  Not only do research findings from the laboratory transfer to industry, but also insight from industry facilitates research in the labs.  The “dialogue” among researchers, regardless of their base-operandi, is more valuable than a single point of contact.

Stage III

KNOWLEDGE EXCHANGE: Because the transfer of technology is a people-intensive activity, the focus on what is transferred shifts dramatically away from widgets per se.  The real value in research partnerships is the new ideas and insight gained as a result of the interaction.  Knowledge might be embedded in a patent, a prototype, or a discrete product, but not necessarily so.  Timely access to research ideas provides competitive advantage.

Stage IV

TECHNOLOGY / KNOWLEDGE MANAGMENT: At this point there is a widespread recognition that the process cannot be left to serendipity.  Management (i.e., the “sweat dues” language) is the issue, not the technology itself.  An explosion of programs, revised curricula, and new initiatives flood the infrastructure.  Management of technology (MOT), a misnomer at best, can become an end in and of itself.

Stage V KNOWLEDGE INNOVATION SYSTEM: Here, people recognize the dynamic nature of the process of innovation.  The enterprise with a network goes beyond the confines of a particular company, laboratory, or place.  Through a multitude of research consortia, joint ventures, and alliances, managers seek a more systematic view of how ideas originate and enter the marketplace.  “Knowledge flow” becomes the new collaborative advantage.  The focus has shifted from monitoring discrete products to creating a learning system, to providing sustainable economic growth.


In some respects, these stages may be ranked as a hierarchy of needs, in which the elements of Stage I are essential for any liaison relationship and Stage V, if designed effectively, could be the ultimate form of enterprise actualization.  At this point, the system is comprehensive, coherent, and fully collaborative as mutually defined by all partners.  It adapts as changes occur either in the marketplace or inside respective organizations.


Note:  This is a ‘system,’ not a plan.  The network becomes an interdependent web within a learning enterprise, wherein each participant plays a role in creating, transferring, and applying new ideas.  Some experts have even predicted a future in which a set of alliances will compete with another set of alliances rather than company-to-company business, which is the case today.


Imagine an interconnected science and technology community that has eliminated unnecessary or counterproductive duplication.  Imagine the scientific breakthroughs of one entity leveraging the discoveries of another.  In this case, competition plays a role as a catalyst for new ideas or a preserver of the identity of individual partners.  Imagine the intellectual assets that could lie collectively harnessed to solve problems that plague our society.  Imagine one person’s information becoming another person’s knowledge…and vice versa.


Managing the Enterprise


After several years of management research, this author is convinced that there are more systematic ways to manage these complex infrastructures.  In the computer industry, we found it useful to operate with architectures and technical standards.  In a similar vein, we can observe the emergence of some universal managerial standards and a related architecture.  This may help simplify operations in the 21st Century.


There are five interrelated domains: economic, sociological, psychological, managerial, and technological, which apply to any enterprise, profit or not-for-profit, regardless of industry or place.  Through the following questions these domains can be connected in the enterprise:  How will we MEASURE?  How will we STRUCTURE?  How will we motivate PEOPLE?  What cross-boundary PROCESS will we use?  How can information TECHNOLOGY support our goals?


The Enterprise Management System-Architecture (EMS-A), originally developed at Digital Equipment Corporation, can be applied to cooperative research activities based on a campus, in a government laboratory, within a corporation or at a stand-alone consortium.  Once a vision of that desirable state is contrasted with current activities, a meaningful strategy can emerge.


The EMS-A provides a framework to think systematically about the diagnosis and design of the high-performance enterprise.  It is cross-disciplinary in nature and provides value by integrating the five interdependent factors.  Any change in one factor will have an influence on the other factor(s).  When used for strategy formulation, this framework can enable sustained profitable growth amidst the dynamics of a turbulent marketplace.  A series of questions, like the following, could be tailored to the specific organization.


  Measurements monitor the performance of the system; that is, inputs are measured against the outputs of valuable products and services given the time value of the investment.  This dynamic measure holds for a network of organizations, a network of businesses within a country, or a global interrelated set of countries in regions around the world.
  1. Are the UNIVERSAL RESEARCH METRICS for investment and profitability?
  2. Can the ASSETS (e.g., financial, technological, and intellectual) be well determined?
  3. Can the CRITICAL SUCCESS FACTORS be defined in both quantitative and qualitative terms?
  4. Is the BUDGET LEVEL and RESOURCE MIX appropriate to the research mission?
  5. Are there adequate REWARDS/INCENTIVES (e.g., travel support, release time, awards, etc.) to motivate key contributors?
  6. Do internal TAX STRUCTURES provide shared risk in the cost accounting?
  7. Can more creative FINANCING MECHANISMS (e.g., joint ventures, profit centers, limited partnerships) be employed?

The multidimensional enterprise is composed of carefully defined semi-autonomous, interdependent business units configured in a knowledge network that creates wealth through intellectual assets.  It should be viewed as synergistic and designed as a strategic business network (SBN) that has symbiotic relationships among partners, customers, and other collaborators.

  1. Does the current LEARNIG NETWORK of EXPERTISE operate as an interrelated set of fully functioning contributors of knowledge?

  2. Do the SYSTEM DYNAMICS provide for flexibility, adaptability, and the ability to capitalize upon technological breakthroughs in timely ways?
  3. Do REPORTING RELATIONSHIPS foster shallow hierarchies, special teams, and authority based on knowledge?
  4. Do STAFFING PATTERNS take advantage of worldwide scientific expertise (e.g., international visiting scientists, research fellows, technology scouts, etc.)?
  5. Have the CULTRUAL and CROSSCULTRUAL aspects of the research enterprise been defined enough to leverage the diversity of talent?
  6. Are LIAISON RELATIONSHIPS assigned to monitor customer success to project progress, and to ensure optimal use of research results?
  7. Does the structure promote COLLABORATIVE STRATEGY as a means to competitive positioning?

The system is composed of talented, dedicated, self-managing knowledge workers who can balance both entrepreneurial contributions and the business imperative of the team.  Individuals are encouraged to seek new ways to add knowledge value to the system in order to advance the state of the business.  Role/goal agreements are carefully negotiated to optimize the decision-making capability of the whole.

  1. Do individuals have a clear SENSE of PURPOSE of the entire research enterprise?
  2. Have people aligned their own WORK IMPERATIVES with their contribution to the innovation system?
  3. Are people expected to BALANCE their own individual research contributions with the overall performance of the group?
  4. Do people possess the appropriate level of skills and knowledge required to perform their roles?
  5. If not, what DEVELOPMENT PLANS have been put into place?
  6. Does the environment promote a LEARNING PHILOSOPHY such that people are rewarded for continuous growth?
  7. Are the ROLE EXPECTATIONS clearly defined? Does the WORK DESIGN allow for both creativity and quality in a robust innovation system?

Processes should ensure streamlined practices that provide efficient and effective planning and the review and monitoring of investment strategies.  Activities should cross the boundaries of function, business, industry, or locale.  Knowledge capability/ accountability is valued more than hierarchical authority.  The system enables innovation and the optimization of global resources.

  1. Does the program support the connection for SIMULTANEOUS, CONCURRENT, and PARALLEL ACTIVITIES?

  2. Do the processes enable CROSS-FERTILIZATION of useful ideas and CROSS-FUNCTIONAL TEAMWORK?
  3. Is there a GLOBAL capability to ensure worldwide coverage of potential technological breakthroughs?
  4. Is there a BENCHMARKING initiative to ensure best-in-class practices and optimal quality control?  
  5. How do the joint planning processes ensure SHARED VISION when strategy is formulated?
  6. Does the process enable PERIODIC REVIEW and evaluation in case project redesign is necessary?
  7. Does the COMMUNICATIONS STRATEGY ensure rapid diffusion of critical information throughout the internal and external research network?

Modern technological advances are employed to optimize the knowledge flow of the enterprise infrastructure.  These processing systems accelerate the creation, the exchange, and the application of useful knowledge required for distributed deliberations.  They also integrate all business strategies, plans, and operations for a coherent assessment of relative competitive positioning at any point in time.

  1. Does the ELECTRONIC INFRASTRUCTURE provide for optimal technical interchange between university scientists and industrial engineering managers? 
  2. Is there a competitive INTELLIGENCE SYSTEM that gathers, synthesizes, and feeds critical data to members for planning and analysis?
  3. Are there new SERVICE DELIVERY TECHNIQUES that could accelerate the flow of information to those who have a need to know?
  4. Are TECHNICAL INNOVATIONS (e.g., e-mail, teleconferencing, faxes, bulletin boards, videos, etc.) used to improve efficiency and effectiveness of the knowledge?
  5. Is the technology used to TRANSFORM something (i.e., beyond automation or information)?
  6. Is there a way to provide optimal use of SHARED TECHNOLOGY RESOURCES across sector or organization boundaries? 
  7. Are there NETWORK MANAGEMENT TOOLS that might advance the intelligent flow of information?


The Innovation Lotus Flower


Much of the current management literature and consulting practices are laden with value-chain, reengineering language.  In many cases, these practices provide an improvement to current business practice.


In contrast, initiatives are under way in all functions of the value chain (i.e., research to sales) that will force major redefinitions of roles.  Concurrent Engineering is innovation with a capital “E.” “Agile Manufacturing” is innovation with a capital “M.”  “Collaborative Sales” and “Service Partnering” could be considered innovation with a capital “S.”  The point is that across all functions and all industries, managers are realizing that time-consuming, linear methods of management simply do not work in a hypercompetitive market economy.


In this author’s MIT thesis, “Global Innovation Strategy – Creating Value-Added Alliances”, a new model for innovation was offered in the form of a three-tiered lotus flower that integrates three economic levels:  Microeconomic (i.e., Intra-organization), Meso-economic (i.e., Inter-organization) and macroeconomic (i.e., Transnational).  Three alliances are contrasted: one from the U.S. perspective, one from the European perspective, and one from the Japanese perspective.  At the heart of the model, all activity is geared toward the success of the customer.


This model takes into consideration the three stages of invention, translation, and commercialization that compose the process that balances technology push and market pull.  Another way to view it is from idea generation to market receptivity.


The real opportunity, however, will come when we fully comprehend that the nature of the innovation process is both knowledge intensive and learning intensive.  What is required, then, are newer ways to design, implement, and monitor the ways in which ideas (in the form of knowledge) can be utilized by all sectors to create economic wealth.


The Challenge for the Engineering and Technology Professions


Most engineering and technology organizations will play a role in this system.  The American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) provides an example of how: ASEE members represent all aspects of knowledge innovation as it has been described in this article.  Most participants are actively involved with one, if not many, collaborative activities that compose the ASEE Learning Network.  How then might ASEE best harness the creativity and intellectual resources embodied in that network on behalf of its own multiple customers and other stakeholders? 


  1. Is there a way to create some form of organization memory that would cross-fertilize and leverage member learnings?
  2. Are there ways to promote distributed, interdependent networked learning centers in ways that might prove catalysts to creating and assimilating knowledge to advance the state of the profession?
  3. Would a central intelligence service benefit all the members?
  4. Could ASEE support innovation research fellows who would rotate through the sectors and suggest new ways to apply ideas for economic gain?


In 1986, ASEE cosponsored a Congress in conjunction with the Accreditation Board for Engineering Technology (ABET) as a culmination of the 18-month quality in engineering education programs (QEEP) study.  Eight years have passed since that Congress convened.  Perhaps it is now time to launch an equivalent effort to focus upon knowledge innovation the creation, movement, and application of new ideas.


Much has been written about technological innovation.  Indeed, its strength has been tied to the economic competitiveness of the nation.  However, those dedicated to the learning profession (regardless of the location of the classroom) know that the real value is both in the knowledge created and how it is applied to benefit society.


There is hardly a function, organization, industry, or nation which is not undergoing massive transformation.  These structural changes will set in motion some influences we may not realize for decades.  Now, we can observe a common language emerging.  This new focus on knowledge innovation could fuse our respective interests into a shared vision.  Rather than allow serendipity to dictate our future, it is now time to take steps together and embrace the opportunities posed by the changes ahead.






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[Please note:  Knowledge Innovation® is a registered trademark of ENTOVATION International Ltd. This paper was first published in the Journal of Technical Studies produced by Epsilon Pi Tau (June 1993).].