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Jolting Your Team Out of an Innovation Rut

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May 11, 2015
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Rafael CorredoiraTeams searching for innovation increase their odds of driving the evolution of a field when they reach out to colleagues — or to research findings — outside their field's area of expertise, a new study from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business suggests.

“If all of the innovators come from the same backgrounds and know the same things, they might be efficient in coming up with solutions,” Smith professor Rafael Corredoira said. “The problem is that at some point, they will hit a wall. They will not be able to move beyond to find another solution.”

Corredoira and his coauthor, Preeta M. Banerjee of Deloitte Services LP, Market Insights, studied the dynamics of innovation by looking at the recent history of patents in the field of semiconductor technology. Their first step was to devise a more accurate way of measuring the influence of patents than the one that currently exists.

For scholars and businesses alike, the traditional method of gauging the technological significance has been to count the number of patents that directly cite the one being measured — to look at the “children” of the patent. Corredoira said this method is flawed.

“By ignoring what happens after the children, we ignore a great deal of what it means to be a breakthrough invention,” he said. That's because, he says, inventions don't just have children. They have grandchildren and great-grandchildren, a whole sprawling family tree. Corredoira and Banerjee devised a complex mathematical model for accounting for all the branches of that tree.

This is important in its own right. “If companies are incorrectly identifying which patents are important, there is market failure,” Corredoira said. Some patents are overvalued or undervalued. And some researchers get too much credit or not enough. 

Corredoira and Banerjee examined more than 12,300 patents related to semiconductor technology, granted from 1990 to 1994. They also looked backward at the patents that the owners of those patents had cited, from the 1980s.

Unsurprisingly, almost all the patents tended to cite earlier technology from within a set of classes or subclasses of knowledge. (Such categories are assigned and maintained by the U.S. Patent office). They cited technology very similar to what the innovators were working on.  However, patents showed larger influence if inventors had reached out to previously untapped areas of knowledge, importing knowledge from other realms into the semiconductor field. Corredoira and Banerjee called these “spanning patents,” an allusion to the idea of building bridges between different intellectual worlds.

Corredoira and Banerjee were especially interested in breakthrough patents — the top 5 percent or even 1 percent in terms of influence. Between two otherwise similar patents in that category, patents that included spanning knowledge were twice as influential, on average. Over the life of a patent, that could be worth tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars.

Is it possible to consciously take advantage of this information? “As an individual inventor, I am not sure,” Corredoira said. “But as an organization, yes.”

In forming a team to tackle, say, a problem in the world of biology, a manager might want to be sure a physicist is on the team, too. He or she would bring experience from a different knowledge world that might be just enough to jolt the team out of a rut.

For brainstorming sessions, a marketing team might want to add an engineer from project development.  When it comes to encouraging influential innovation, there are no guarantees. But spanning knowledge realms can improve the chances.

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“Measuring Patent’s Influence on Technological Evolution: A Study of Knowledge Spanning as Driver of Inventive Activity,” by Rafael A. Corredoira and Preeta M. Banerjee, is in press at Research Policy.

Robert H. Smith School of Business