Spreading learning and risk:
The key role of diffusion in public
innovations
Professor Jean Hartley,
University of Warwick
Keynote paper
Roskilde Sunrise Conference, October 2012
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The overall argument
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Diffusion has been under-emphasised in research on
public and collaborative innovation
It can be an effective way to mitigate risk, share learning
and reduce resource expenditure
Diffusion requires organizational and inter-organizational
learning to build organizational capacity and policy
learning.
Learning develops over time
Empirical research over 9 years with whole population of
English local government
Research shows shift from learning to imitate to learning
to innovate
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Public and private innovation
(Hartley, in press)
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Lot to learn across sectors
Variation within as well as across sectors
BUT
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Pressures for innovation not primarily competition but changing
needs in society (though context changing e.g. foundation hospitals
and schools)
Public organizations and networks not the private firm as the
primary unit of analysis
Role of politicians and policy advisors in catalysing innovation –
need to deal with more than one source of innovation and different
processes of innovation
Service innovations have different features from product
innovations
The “public value” test of innovation’s role in improvement (cf
Benington and Moore)
Diffusion of innovation critical for public service organizations, and
based in relatively open networks not closed alliances
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Three analytical stages of innovation
Implementation
Invention
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13/04/2015
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Diffusion
Diffusion of innovation
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In the private sector, innovation is a source of
competitive advantage – so little voluntary
sharing with competitors (only in closed
networks of partners)
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For the public sector, innovation is valuable
where it leads to improvements not only in the
organization but across the field (e.g. hospitals)
and even across sector – advantage to sharing
between organizations
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The diffusion of innovation
A key source of innovation for public services is the
spreading of ‘good’, ‘promising’ and ‘next’
practice within and between organizations
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Innovation is defined as being new to the
organization/partnership or users deploying it
(West, 1990; Lynn, 1997)
Miranda:
O brave new world that has such people in it!'
Prospero:
`Tis new to thee
The Tempest (Shakespeare)
(and courtesy of Chris Yapp)
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Bringing innovation in to the organization
or collaborative partnership
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Harvesting ideas from outside as well as inside the
organization eg. open innovation
Recombinant innovation – an idea or practice
originally used for a different purpose or in a
different context
Diffusion of innovation – taking existing innovations
and (generally) adapting them for use within a
particular context and culture
Collaborative innovation – sharing ideas and
practices across partnership
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Diffusion of innovation – 2004 national survey in UK local
government (n = 448 leaders and managers) (Hartley et al, 2007)
Taking ideas and implementing them from high performers/innovators in the
Beacon Scheme in local government:
 63% adapted a Beacon idea
This shows that adaption rather than adoption occurs
29% accelerated implementation of an existing idea
Acceleration – attributional bias? But also interviews reported that it reduced
risk; helped with confidence; helped to mobilise support; argument to others
they would be left behind; avoiding mistakes and dead-ends; building on what
already done
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8% based improvement closely on the Beacon
Replication rarely occurs (Behn, 2008) except in near-lab conditions
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If diffusion can be important, how
does it occur?
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Diffusion rarely replication or adoption – lot of
adaption and acceleration – both involve learning
Either the idea/practice itself, or to suit a particular
context/culture/budget/political orientation
Requires a theory of organizational and interorganizational learning
Will explore this in a 9 year empirical research study
in local government
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Organizational knowledge and learning
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Overlapping and interconnected literatures (EasterbySmith et al 2000; Crossan et al 2011).
Some integrative approaches (Chiva and Alegre 2005) unite
the cognitive-process perspective and social–process
perspective.
 Organizational (and inter-organizational) learning
defined as a socially constructed and contextually
embedded collective practice, underpinned by
concepts of explicit and tacit knowledge (Polanyi 1966;
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Nonaka 1994).
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Institutional context of change
Institutional field emphasizes influences on learning of
organizational environment, spatial and temporal
factors (Pettigrew, Woodman and Cameron 2001).
 Much institutional theory tends to focus on pressure to
conform – mimetic isomorphism, active copying (DiMaggio
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and Powell 1983).
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Critics argue isomorphism risks overlooking local,
relational, political, and interactional factors (Haunschild and
Chandler 2008).
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Cumulative model of learning (Kim 1998)
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“All organizations are learning systems.”
A crisis can play an important role in
organizational learning leading to step change.
Absorptive capacity: interplay of organization’s
pre-existing knowledge base, and intensity of
effort directed at learning to solve problems.
Migratory knowledge enables tacit knowledge
acquisition from another location.
“Catching up” through sequences of learning.
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Cumulative learning
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Iterative, dynamic and cumulative relationship over
time between knowledge, learning and innovation.
Organizational knowledge and learning are cumulative:
 a) A minimal prior knowledge base allows imitation
 b) A greater knowledge base permits creative
adaptation
 c) An extensive knowledge base produces an innovative
organization
(Kim 1998)
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Organizational learning
PHASES OF LEARNING:
IMITATION, ADAPTATION AND INNOVATION (adapted from Kim, 1998)
Extent of prior knowledge increases capacity for next phase
Phase 1
Duplicative imitation
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Phase 2
Creative adaptation
Phase 3
Innovation
Empirical research over 9 years: the English
Beacon Scheme
Aim: A national initiative to improve performance of English local
government (and some other local public services):
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To provide national recognition to best performing local
authorities (high performance or innovation) through a
national annual competitive award in service themes
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To share “best practice” (sic) to enable weak or mediocre local
authorities to “learn from the best” and to improve
Longest-standing policy instrument of reform of last Government
but least commented on
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Outline of the Beacon Scheme 1999 to 2009
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Competitive award scheme open to all 388 English local
authorities plus local public services e.g. police, fire, national
parks, and passenger transport
National Panel selects approximately 10 themes per year for
awards, and decides on winners following application
Applications can be single or joint
Three criteria: excellent or innovative service in nominated
theme; good overall corporate performance; plan to share
good practice
Awarded for one year
Range of learning events
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Warwick research methods
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2001 national survey of all English local authorities (n=180 authorities, 47%
response rate; n=314 responses from range of senior people)
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2004 national survey of all English local authorities (n=191 authorities, 48%
response rate; n=448 responses from range of senior people)
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2006 national survey of all English local authorities (n=174 authorities, 45%
response rate; n=360 responses from range of senior players)
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Front-line staff survey (n=1933 responses, 50% response rate across 15
councils)
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30 intensive case studies of organizations, some over time
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Analysis of baseline and repeated performance measures
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Index for all 388 councils of involvement with the Beacon Scheme in terms of
application, short list and award over 7 rounds of Scheme.
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Key features of research design
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Longitudinal: over 9 years
Data on the population (n=388) of English local authorities
Beacons and non-Beacons (not biased towards innovators)
Qualitative and quantitative
Case study and surveys
Multi-respondent i.e. elected members, strategic and
operational managers, front-line staff, agency partners, and
civil servants
‘Hard’ performance measures and ‘soft’ learning measures
Robust data: high response rates and high quality data
Very large data set
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Evaluation and advice on Beacon
Scheme policy
Regular evaluation evidence and advice to
Independent Advisory Panel for Beacon Scheme,
and related government ministers
 Major contribution to 2008 policy review:
“objective and reflective work” for reviewing
scheme
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Learning and innovation in the Beacon
Scheme 1999-2008: three phases
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The Beacon Scheme phase one (1999 – 2001):
Duplicative imitation
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Mixed responses (sceptical to engaged)
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Dissemination emphasised achievement not how got to there
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Overlooked contextual factors and organizational processes
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Focus on “best practice” push by Beacons
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Only a few felt that they had learned a great deal (8%)
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Under-theorising of inter-organizational learning
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Failed to distinguish tacit and explicit knowledge
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Under-performing authorities lacked absorptive capacity
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Authorities with more extensive knowledge base benefited
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The Beacon Scheme phase two (2001 – 2004): Adaptation
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Less experimental, more performance indicators in award (in tune with
wider public service reform approach)
More ambitious themes and inclusion of partners in award
Scheme included innovation as a goal not just ‘best practice’ (though
tension with performance indicators)
More emphasis on how Beacons had innovated/improved their
performance
More preparation by learners before Beacon visits (indicating learning
approach)
Greater awareness of the value and methods of sharing learning as central
to organizational change
Interest in “learner pull” not just “Beacons push”
Learning approach extended: tacit/explicit distinction; regional networks;
peer mentoring; migratory knowledge.
Active process of transfer of learning to local context: 63% adapted ideas
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The Beacon Scheme phase three (2004 – 2008): Innovation
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Beacons seen as ‘gold standard’ of award schemes in UK
Local government now widely involved either as Beacon or learner, or both.
Greater interest in how to give awards to innovators (still tension with
performance indicators)
More policy learning between national and local government
Modest increases in financing of scheme by national government
More extensive education programme nationally on Beacons and learning
More peer to peer focus (sharing learning rather than Beacons push)
Tailored programmes of engagement more extensive
More focus on innovation and how to support and sustain it. Interest in
promising and next practice.
Evidence of cumulative learning, adaptation and innovation at organizational
and population levels
2006 survey – even higher levels of acceleration (46-68% cf 29% in 2004)
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The role of learning in the diffusion of
innovation
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In public and private sectors, organizational learning can be
source of strategic renewal
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Research shows learning is socially created (role of migratory
knowledge; trust; preference for peer to peer exchange)
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Cumulative learning over time leads to shifts in population
level system
Imitation
Creative adaptation
Innovation
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Organizational learning
PHASES OF LEARNING:
IMITATION, ADAPTATION AND INNOVATION (adapted from Kim, 1998)
Extent of prior knowledge increases capacity for next phase
Phase 1
Duplicative imitation
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Phase 2
Creative adaptation
Phase 3
Innovation
Conclusions: Innovation through diffusion and
implications for collaborative innovation
Based on detailed long-term research on all English local
government:
 Diffusion is a crucial element of innovation for public bodies
 Diffusion of innovation involves adaption much more than
adoption
 Diffusion supports the acceleration of existing ideas which can
build confidence, reduce risk and build on existing knowledge
 Innovation crucially involves learning
 Organizations’ capacity to learn can develop over time.
Engagement in new ideas and practices enhances ability to
shift from imitation to innovation.
 All diffusion is collaborative to some extent; all collaboration
involves sharing learning
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