I’ve been giving some thought to Patrick’s second challenge a couple of weeks ago, namely to define KPIs that can measure innovation. First, it is worthwhile considering the definition of innovation. The ‘business’ definition is typically something like: ‘The process by which an idea or invention is translated into goods or services for which people will pay.’ I would argue that we have adopted a rather different meaning in the academic sector, more along the lines of the Oxford English Dictionary definition: ‘The introduction of novelties; the alteration of what is established by the introduction of new elements or forms.’ I believe this is a more appropriate definition since we can be innovative in our research or teaching, yet there is no guarantee that this will give rise to a saleable product (although we often hope that it will). The concept of impact is then reserved for the process by which innovative ideas are translated into valuable products. This concept has become very prominent in recent years – those who write Research Council grants will be familiar with the requirement to complete ‘pathways to impact’ statements in their applications. These are meant to show how the gap between innovation and societal value (in its broadest sense) will be bridged.
Semantic discussions aside, how do we measure innovation? You can’t manage what you can’t measure, as the saying goes, so this is an important question. Try Googling ‘measuring innovation’ or ‘innovation KPIs’ – you will find a very great deal of information on the subject, all of which reaches a common conclusion – it’s next to impossible to find a quantitative measure. In the words of the late Steve Jobs:
‘Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have… It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it. Innovation comes from people meeting up in the hallways or calling each other at 10:30 at night with a new idea, or because they realized something that shoots holes in how we’ve been thinking about a problem. It’s ad hoc meetings of six people called by someone who thinks he has figured out the coolest new thing ever and who wants to know what other people think of his idea.’
Clearly finding a quantitative measure of such a process is challenging – how many times you’ve been called at 10.30 pm perhaps? :-). Seriously, it is much more straightforward to measure the ultimate outcome of that process, i.e. impact, which then becomes a convenient proxy for innovation. Examples of measures of impact include income from consulting, contract research, creating of spin-outs, numbers of patents granted or revenue from licensing. The output does not need to be financial however – for example, some academics will use their innovative thinking to advise on government policy. Of course in this model, if we fail to bridge the gap between innovation and impact, then the innovative step will not be measured. However, as an institution, it is surely our mission to build that bridge if our discoveries are to be of value to Society.
As a final thought, when was the last time you were called at night by a colleague to discuss an exciting new idea? Remember, the closing date for applications for the ‘Innovator of the Year’ award is 31st July 2012. Details are here.