posted 23 Jan 2003 in Volume 6 Issue 5
Book review: The Innovation Superhighway
Marcus Birkenkrahe reviews The Innovation Superhighway by Debra Amidon
Title: The Innovation Superhighway
Author: Debra Amidon
Publisher: Butterworth-Heinemann (2003)
Debra Amidon is a well known speaker and writer on knowledge management. In her latest book, she attempts to connect KM to innovation, and open the KM agenda up to the practice and theory of innovation management and strategy. The main protagonist in this book is the ‘innovation superhighway’, defined as “the bridging process of organisational capital on a global scale”.
The book is divided into five parts. The author first discusses the ‘Why, what and how’ of KM in order to construct the bridge to innovation, her central theme. Put simply, for Amidon, “innovation is the process by which knowledge is created and harnessed”. She places KM under the larger umbrella of innovation.
In ‘Architecting a future’, Amidon explores performance measurement, knowledge structures, knowledge workers, knowledge processes and knowledge-processing technology in a narrative form, by writing up the stories of individuals, enterprises, organisations and even countries. In a global context, links between pertinent issues, for instance ‘knowledge culture’ and ‘people’, ‘from value chain to value system/network’ and so on, are explored and discussed.
The section ‘The globe as a network’ contains a fairly detailed outline of some of the activities undertaken by Amidon’s own company and of a loose network of expert KM (and, quathe author’s argument, innovation) practitioners, called the E100, which Amidon has organised and nurtured with great energy and skill for a number of years. The E100 include some of the best-known names on the international KM circuit (including Hubert Saint-Onge, Leif Edvinsson, Joachim Doering – all three of whom appear in this book’s collaborative foreword). This section serves as a springboard for yet another key argument of the whole book: the innovation superhighway is both the infrastructure and ideological home for “sustainable collaborative advantage”. In a capitalist world, collaboration does not replace, but rather must supplement competition.
There is no contradiction here: part four, ‘Innovation leadership in practice’, focuses on the method, the people and the experiences that relate to this new mindset. Central to the methodology are Amidon’s seven ‘c’s of knowledge leadership: context, competence, culture, communities, conversations and common language, communications, and coaching. These are followed by a selection of E100 member profiles and a number of brief case studies of evolving innovation infrastructures around the globe.
In the final part, ‘The millennium vision’, Amidon presents more cases and two chapters outlining her vision of 21st-century innovation, with a special emphasis on the geopolitical situation after the events of 9/11. The book closes with five appendices, including an innovation manifesto and sample definitions, hints for creating your own innovation strategy, and Amidon’s inferences for the KM movement, as well as a checklist to identify knowledge ‘leaders and laggards’.
Plotinus said, “Knowledge has three characteristics: opinion, science, illumination. The means or instrument of the first is sense; of the second, dialectic; of the third, intuition.” The key instrument of Amidon’s book is clearly intuition; her purpose, illumination. This is something that many publications in the KM field are sadly missing. The book is also timely – central to its theme of innovation are the concepts of community and network. And though parts of it come across as being slightly US-centric, Amidon always returns to a global vision for the innovation superhighway, which, for her, is a network of ideas, practices, people and supporting technology.
The author is clearly fully aware of the key KM issues and draws on an impressive number or varied practice examples. These are not presented with great depth but instead selected and arranged to illustrate the current transformation to knowledge and innovation management. This is true to Amidon’s broad global vision. The book is well structured, so the reader does not get overwhelmed and can dive in at virtually any chapter.
Part one is a fair introduction to contemporary issues in KM, drawing on Amidon’s considerable experience in policy development and consulting. In part two, ‘Architecting a future’, one finds sections on ‘architectural considerations’ and ‘action steps’ in the form of useful checklists at the end of every chapter. Parts three and four focus on case studies and people profiles. It is in these narratives that Amidon’s really shines. KM is, overall, still short on solid theory, but in its absence, it is compassionate, meaningful storytelling that provides the phenomenological picture, which practitioners need to build their own solutions. Herself a visionary networker-extraordinaire, the author does a good job in painting this picture.
The final part of the book carries the reader further into the future. Here, the vision becomes necessarily blurry. Amidon’s passionate plead for a global approach to solving global problems is good to hear. She gets down to politics by proposing five principles for the guardians of US homeland security after 9/11. I suppose no US-based author can avoid the reference, although the inclusion of this particular political situation may appear slightly stretched to some readers.
The appendices contain useful material. I particularly enjoyed Amidon’s ‘collective findings’, or historical lessons learnt after the first 15 years (has it really been that long?) of knowledge management (under this name at least).
Research done by Amidon and David Skyrme for a report published in 1997 is used frequently throughout the book. I remember that I found it immensely helpful at the time as a comprehensive publication that delivered facts and thoughts through case studies, strategic advice and methodology. As good as it was to meet it again in this book, I also found myself wishing for more up-to-date research – five years is a long time, after all.
This is a reflective and inspirational book, though parts of it can also be used to define and build, or test, your own knowledge/innovation-management strategy. As such, I feel that it will appeal more to experienced KM practitioners, especially those who are looking for a broader vision of KM beyond the nuts and bolts of their daily tasks. From my own experience, I remember well how one can lose sight of the future when working in the trenches. But one needs a vision of the future, especially a global one including all of humanity, and as Amidon explains, any true innovation points beyond the bottom line.
Busy people will appreciate that the five parts, and to an extent even the individual chapters, of the book are fairly self-contained. Information that is essential to Amidon’s core argument is therefore frequently repeated.
This book convinced me, once again, that KM still stands (as opposed to stands still) at the beginning of many developments. Amidon suggests that submitting knowledge management to become a discipline that sits under the wider issue of innovation is necessary and helpful if we want to remain in step with worldwide developments in practice and thinking. I tend to agree with part of that approach; without integrating the KM agenda into a wider context, both practically and conceptually, we are less likely to succeed. Next to Habermas, my personal favourite thinker on an integral approach is another American, the philosopher Ken Wilber (www.integralinstitute.com), but I have enjoyed reading Amidon’s arguments, too.
The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke recommends, “Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” Maybe Amidon’s book throws up more questions than answers, but on our way to finding those answers, it is a comforting companion.
Editor’s note: Marcus Birkenkrahe is a member of the E100, the network of KM practitioners discussed by Amidon in ‘The Innovation Superhighway’. However, every effort has been made to maintain an impartial standpoint in this review.
Marcus Birkenkrahe is a public speaker, writer and consultant. Formerly knowledge manager for Royal Dutch/Shell, he has just returned to Europe from a sabbatical as Professor of Knowledge Management at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. He can be contacted at: email@example.com