I’m presenting a poster about my PhD thesis at the SSIT5 workshop at LSE. It’s the first time I’ll talk about my doctoral research in public! Here’s the short text from the poster:
The Practice of Innovation: How New Technology Gets Defined as Sustaining or Disruptive
My thesis is an ethnography about Nokia’s efforts to renew itself through corporate venturing. The proliferation of Nokia’s main product—the mobile phone—is extraordinary, and social scientists across the spectrum have recognized its implications as important. Still, the design and development practices of the mobile phone have been little investigated.
As the case of Nokia illustrates, these practices take place in corporations faced with the pressures to innovate and grow. Here, the technical and the organizational work through each other. In Nokia’s case, the historical context was one where the company had reinvented itself once before, and now faced a situation where it needed to do the same again. My interest centres on how innovation in this situation was performed by way of an institutional arrangement known as internal corporate venturing, which was linked with the notion of organizational ‘renewal.’ It was not just about coming up with the next new technology; it was about giving the organization a new life.
At the same time, the study is also about something much more general. Prevailing thinking on innovation assumes that new technologies are inherently either sustaining or disruptive to the organization. In aligning myself with the practice turn in social theory, I argue that the sustaining or disruptive character of innovation is not a given; it is achieved through practices of alignment that work on and through materials and stories.
I justify this argument by showing how the ventures at Nokia aligned themselves in relation to the company’s strategic narratives and other practices in the outside world. The work of alignment involved the ordering of materials to support the stories that the ventures told about themselves. A venture’s success in the internal competition for resources depended on its ability to make the materials speak for its potency in the context of prescriptive frameworks, which the management of the company mobilized to make resource allocation decisions. I discuss how these frameworks were reproduced and reconfigured, and reflect on how my own role as an ethnographer evolved from an apprentice, to a participant, to a commentator who responded with an alternate framework for conceptualising the relationship between the ventures and the main business. I suggest that coming to grips with interventions of this kind is practice theory’s most compelling promise, as well as its toughest future challenge.