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Recognizing Innovation, by Stephen Abram

Posted by Editor on July 5, 2011

Published in Information Today here.

How do we recognize innovation in libraries? Is it like great art or pornography? That is to say, “I’ll know it when I see it.” I think that there may be some truth to this clich`E9, but it’s also a function of keeping an open mind—ideally, all the time. Innovations and innovative ideas crop up all the time and in many places. You can learn the ability to “see” innovation earlier in the cycle rather than in retrospect with the rest of the crowd.

It is dependent on the skill of being a good “noticer.” Jane Dysart uses this skill all the time when she plans library technology conferences up to a year in advance. How do you plan a technology conference that will be current in the fast-changing field of technology, information, and libraries? How do you notice early that something is new or changing, becoming a real or emerging trend, or that the innovation is maturing into standard practice? This is a key aspect of innovation awareness: noticing when change is nascent and determining when it’s just a fun fad or a major trend, useful or not ready for prime time, or an incremental improvement or game changer. All innovations can be important, but there’s a big difference between those that merely improve a current process and those that are transformational.

I can’t list all the ways one can recognize innovation. The skill can be as much attitude and aptitude as good process. Personally, I think that there are basically two methods that complement each other: trusting your gut reaction and decent, regular, environmental scanning. Innovation is change. Lack of innovation is fossilization, and that’s easy to spot!

Here are 10 tips to help your library remain innovative:

  1. Does the thing/innovation/change you’re reviewing make you uncomfortable? If it does, it’s affecting you on some gut level. It’s rare to have a neutral feeling about change, so if you’re feeling something, it is likely that it is a real change. Trust your gut about discomfort. Do you care? Do your users or clients care?
  2. Do you feel like arguing about the innovation? That can often mean that you’ve already engaged with the idea or innovation. If it engages you, it is probably more significant than those features or ideas inspiring yawns.
  3. Is the thing, idea, product, service, or process that you’re looking at disruptive? If you say yes, then it’s likely that it is innovative. (Sadly, this isn’t enough to mean that it’s good.)
  4. Ask yourself what the change represents. Is it a significant, new functionality for a current product or service offering? Is it a new or novel form for delivering a well-known functionality? Is it a significant, new functionality in a completely new product or service? For example, you can add online holds to an OPAC, add mobile access on all devices, or add virtual references or social recommendations. All are innovative on some scale, but some are more innovative and transformational. How big is it? What does it span?
  5. Another way to be more open to noticing innovation is to look at where it comes from. Does it come from the fringes of your library or sector? Change and innovation often come from outside. Does it come from “new eyes”—new entrants to the profession, nonlibrarians, younger users, or professionals questioning the status quo? Innovation and ideation can often result when new eyes encounter an old problem. Be open to their ideas and playfulness.
  6. Does the innovation solve an old or annoying problem? Does it reduce friction or increase it? Innovators can often increase friction, but don’t confuse that personal behavior with the actual innovations that reduce friction.
  7. Does the innovation make a difference for you/me or does it transform entire markets, communities, or work teams? Libraries have been known to prioritize internal innovations versus market-driven needs. Adopting external innovations from other sectors is still innovation.
  8. Is this innovation a metaphor? Are you looking at Netflix and seeing a library idea? How about Amazon recommendations? Innovations can be identified and discovered in parallel sectors. Don’t have not-invented-here syndrome.
  9. Who do you listen to? Identifying innovators and early adopters in your network will increase your ability to see what they see. Listen to them and then keep their insights in perspective since they tend to be way ahead of the adoption curve of the majority of users.
  10. Lastly, innovation is not by definition about technology. Technology often enhances the ability to achieve change, but the innovation must usually be perceived by humans to be worthwhile in order to be adopted. When adoption lags, check the alignment with human behaviors rather the technology alone. Are you seeing a human story in the innovation or just a tech issue?

Openness is the key to identifying when innovation is more than just change for change’s sake. An open mind sees things that a closed mind can’t even imagine.  Read more HERE.

Stephen Abram ( is vice president of strategic partnerships and markets at Cengage Learning (Gale). Formerly vice president of innovation at SirsiDynix, he is a past president of SLA, Canadian Library Association, and Ontario Library Association.


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