The Innovation Journal: The Public Sector Innovation Journal, 4(3), 1999, article 2.


An Exchange on Definitions of Innovation PDF


from the Innovative Management Network

From: John W. Hawks
Subject: definitions & advice

The Question:
I would like to ask the group for definitions of "INNOVATION". Where is the line between:

Doing something I know about more often
Doing something I know about better
Doing something somewhat different and
Doing something altogether different

Thanks for your help - There is a lot of discussion in the medical community of what (and when) is something an innovation. Most improvement in patient care can take place through the adherence to things already widely known - does innovation theory still apply? - thanks for your help.


Comments on a definition of innovation from:

Joerg Gemuenden
Karim Hirji
William D. Schulte (two)
Debra Amidon
Bill Murray
Jose Campos
Dave DeMarco
Victor Ross
Chris Farrell
Ari Maunuksela
Abool Ardalan
Maciej Soltynski
John W. Hawks
Darius Mahdjoubi

Joerg Gemuenden

In my course management of innovation I usually define it in the following way:

Innovation is a process, involving multiple activities, performed by multiple actors from one or several organizations, during which new combinations of means and/or ends, which are new for a creating and/or adopting unit, are developed and/or produced and/or implemented and/or transferred to old and/or new market-partners.

I have some transparencies from my course which i will send to those who request them.

Best regards

Hans Georg Gemuenden

Karim Hirji

An innovation is invention + exploitation.

In other words, (invention + exploitation) = innovation. I believe this is from Ed Roberts of MIT.


KarimKarim Hirji
IBM Canada Ltd.

William D. Schulte Jr.

Innovation is a continuous variable. Innovation is a continuum as you know. Check out Shaker Zahra's work on innovation strategy for interesting dimensions.

I liken the discussion to "normal science" versus "paradigm shift". You don't have to change the world to make an impact. Incremental innovations add value. Especially if they are continuous.

For me the best monitor of innovation is a firm's stock price. Microsoft is the master of continuos innovation, surprising the analysts while not disrupting their market share and cash flow. AOL is another exemplar.

My humble thoughts.

Bill Schulte

Debra Amidon

I have collected about 40 definitions of innovation from a variety of sources. I'd be happy to provide a copy upon request. In short, they fall into 2 categories:

(1) Invention is considered separate from the process of innovation;
(2) Invention is an integral part of the process of innovation.

We believe that there has been an evolution of the definitions from a focus on technology and linear models to more robust systems dynamics which focus on the flow of knowledge, and learning throughout the innovation value-system. We have also seen the concept operating on micro-economic, meso-economic and macro--economic levels simultaneously. Slowly a common language - and definition - is beginning to emerge.

Therefore, we have defied the process in the following terms:

"Knowledge Innovation is the creation, exchange, evolution and application of new ideas into marketable goods and services for the success of an organization, the vitality of a nation's economy, and the advancement of society as a whole." (Amidon, 1993)

In the recent publication - "Collaborative Innovation and the Knowledge Economy" - published and available through the Society of Management Accountants of Canada ( we selected 10 (below). We also treated to definitions of knowledge and collaboration which might be of some interest.

Sample Definitions of Innovation:

1."The three stages in the process of innovation: invention, translation and commercialization."
Bruce D. Merrifield. 1986. Forces of Change Affecting High Technology Industries. A speech by U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce.

2. Invention: the power of inventing or being invented; ingenuity or creativity; something originating in an experiment. Innovation: the act or process of innovating; something newly introduced, new method, custom, device, etc; change in the way of doing things; renew, alter.
Webster's New World Dictionary. 1982. Second College Edition.

3. Phases of Growth: entrepreneurial; divergent; inventive; creative; exploratory management; duplication; modification; improvement; commonality/likeness shared leadership; divergence and innovation; sharing and integrating differentness; partnering/vision.
"Innovators can hold a situation in chaos for long periods of time without having to reach a resolution...won't give up...have a long-term commitment to their dream...innovators introduce a maximum of tension into the thinking process, unifying concepts that often appear to be opposed, solving problems which appear impossible."
George Land and Beth Jarman. 1992. Breakpoint and Beyond: Mastering the Future Today. New York, NY: Harper/Collins Publishers.

4. "This (innovation) life cycle is an S-shaped logistic curve consisting of three distinct phases: emergence (the development of the product or service, its manufacturing capabilities, and its place in the market), growth (where the product family pervades the market), and maturity (where the market is saturated and growth slows)."
William G. Howard, Jr. and Bruce R. Guile. 1992. Profiting from Innovation. New York, NY: The Free Press. p.12.

5. "Innovation cuts across a broad range of activities, institutions and time spans. If any part of the pipeline is broken or constricted, the flow of benefits is slowed. This is felt ultimately in lower productivity and lowered standards of living. In this sense, the cost of capital is crucial not only at the early stages of research and product development but also at the later stages when high-technology products are installed in production processes, in both manufacturing and service industries, as new tools to improve worker effectiveness."
James Botkin, Dan Dimancescu and Ray Stata. 1983. The Innovators: Rediscovering America's Creative Energy. New York, NY: Harper and Row.

6. Matrix of the four types of Innovations:

I. Architectural Innovation
II. Market Niche Innovation
III. Regular Innovation
IV. Revolutionary Innovation
William J. Abernathy, Kim B. Clark, and Alan M. Kantrow. 1983. Industrial Renaissance. New York, NY: Basic Books.

7. "Continuous innovation occurs largely because a few key executives have a broad vision of what their organizations can accomplish for the world and lead their enterprises toward it. They appreciate the role of innovation in achieving their goals and consciously manage their concerns, value systems and atmospheres to support it."
James Brian Quinn. 1986. Innovation and Corporate Strategy: Managed Chaos. In Technology in the Modern Corporation: A Strategic Perspective. New York, NY: Pergamon Press. p.170.

8. Five Stages of the Innovation Process:

1. Recognition
2. Invention
3. Development
4. Implementation
5. Diffusion
Modesto A. Maidique. 1980. Entrepreneurs, Champions and Technological Innovation. Sloan Management Review (Winter).

9. "The literature on organizational innovation is rich in lessons...describes processes that are also prevalent in the natural universe. Innovation is fostered by information gathered from new connections; from insights gained by journeys into other disciplines or places; from active, collegial networks and fluid, open boundaries. Innovation arises from ongoing circles of exchange, where information is not just accumulated or stored, but created. Knowledge is generated anew from connections that weren't there before."
Margaret J. Wheatley. 1992. Leadership and the New Science. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers. p.113.

10. "To explain innovation, we need a new theory of organizational knowledge creation....The cornerstone of our epistemology is the distinction between tacit and explicit knowledge...the key to knowledge creation lies in the mobilization and conversion of tacit knowledge."
Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi. 1995. The Knowledge-Creating Company. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. p.56.

With the plethora of newly released books on the topic, no doubt we could probably add 40 more!

Always in your network,


Bill Murray

In the new product literature, the demarkations are:

(1) product extension (same base product with slight modifications; identical product in a new segment)
(2) new platform product (net product from which product extensions are possible
(3) new-to-the-company products (NIH, but imported to the company who is now going to product it for the first time)
(4) new-to-the-world (never been done before; no market exists).

Jose Campos

My definition of innovation: The Ability to Deliver New Value to a Customer. After all, it is not innovation until the customer says it is. While most of us have traditionally associated innovation with technology advance, in a free market innovation can be as simple as a new way of doing things or a new way to create customer satisfaction.

Jose Campos

David A. DeMarco

We have found that it is useful to distinguish between creativity and innovation. At Idea Connections, we believe that Creativity is the generation of novel thought through unique combinations. It happens on a variety of scales and is present in every aspect of life. Innovation on the other hand utilizes the creative act that must result in a quantifiable gain. It happens most often within the context of an organization.

Dave DeMarco, President Idea Connections
Idea Connections, 693 East Avenue, Rochester, NY 14607 USA Fax:716.442.8823

Victor Ross

John Hawk's question can also be looked at as: When is innovation really innovation? I.e. are all improvements innovations? My gut feel, although most formal definitions tend to indicate otherwise (or don't cover this angle adequately), is a 'NO'. I use the following (own) definition to clarify:

1. Innovation can be considered in terms of the product or process Components that are involved, the Function of the product or process, the Principle, and the resultant Value (normally, these are technologically-based performance and cost parameters. Aesthetic and visual parameters are normally associated with 'creativity', although there is obviously something such as technological creativity).

2. We can distinguish between innovation which has to do with Improvement (doing something existing better or different -very broadly speaking, the area of 'market pull') and innovation which establishes something New or Altogether different (broadly speaking, 'technology push', e.g. the invention and commercial exploitation of photocopying).

I'll use the example of a ceiling fan to illustrate my point.

Incremental (e.g. longer blades)
Components = are the same or there is a slight improvement to component(s), normally on an individual basis (increased length). This improvement is not random but based on a sound understanding of the principle, i.e. a logical extension.
Function = same (circulate air)
Principle = same (rotating blades)
Value = slight improvement in performance (better air circulation)

Architectural (e.g. desk-top fan)
Components = most, if not all, components are modified, and
integrated into a new whole. Again an extension of the existing, albeit less obvious.
Function = same (circulate air)
Principle = same (rotating blades)
Value = wider application of technology and product (In modular innovation, the emphasis is on a less obvious modification of individual components).

Radical (e.g. air-conditioner)
Components = altogether different (the new bears little or no resemblance to the original). Not a logical extension or rearrangement of the existing (it creates a new technology envelope or paradigm).
Function = similar (provide cool air, although in different fashion)
Principle = different (heat pump rather than rotating blades)
Value = much improved performance, control, different application etc.

In the case of ESTABLISHING SOMETHING FUNDAMENTALLY NEW (e.g. photocopying), a new baseline is set on components, function, principle and value. Although this is classified as Radical innovation, note that the criteria are not the same as for the air-conditioner. Obviously there is some overlap with the known, although this is often accidental rather than an extension of existing logic.

The work of an interior decorator or artist is therefore not even incremental innovation, but would be regarded (not always correctly so!) as creative. Most of the time, these people follow established styles and procedures (operations), and don't extend the artistic envelope. Establishing a new art form or technique, on the other hand, would meet the criteria of (artistic) innovation.

This underscores John's comment that most improvement in patient care can take place through a logical extension of things already widely known (mostly incremental and sometimes architectural in nature). Literature has it that over 90% of innovations are incremental.

Victor Ross, Innovation Manager
De Beers, South Africa

William D. Schulte Jr.

Good stuff! I just got Bill Gate's new book on tape - "Business at the Speed of Thought" where he describes his digital nervous system for enterprise growth and development. I am enjoying it. Good examples from Microsoft. For me MSFT is one of the best innovators along with Intel......controlled growth and continuous innovation...... Question: Do you think Gate's book would be good supplement for course on Mgt of Technology?


I have to say that I really enjoyed reading the different definitions of innovation. This is the kind of discourse which we must encourage often.

My father was a longshoreman (stevedore or in Australia they call them wharfies) so he was not formally educated but nonetheless he was a wise gentleman. One summer, home from college (junior year), I was trying to impress my dad with a lot of management jargon and labor relations jabberwocky. Dad shook his head and told me something I will never forget. He asked, "what are they teaching you at college? It seems to me that if you are learning how to communicate they should teach you to use words that other people understand...I dont understand some of the words you are using." From that moment on, I have pursued humility and the right words in my work.

Chris Farrell

In about 1950 Judge Giles Rich came up with some wording that he put into the Patent Act. These words are well known to patent lawyers but may not be known outside that world because of the somewhat arcane language. To be patentable, said Judge Rich, one must have something that is "non-obvious to one of ordinary skill in the art".

In subsequent years he was given some courtroom opportunities to expound on this definition and he eagerly took them. Patent case law defines what this phrase means in great detail. It has been tested many times.You will note that Judge Rich did not use the term invention. That was deliberate. In phrasing the Patent Act he was trying to move the law away from trying to decide what was and was not an inventive act (it had been almost impossible to be consistent in judgement).

Ari Maunuksela

Innovation conceptualization on the discussion of definition of innovation...

Word "innovation" may be defined by its identification mechanism, better than in general. The objective of concept of innovation is to help us to identify the important phenomenons, that are worthy to be identified. This can be probably shown in that a meaningful conceptualization of any innovation related issue is often given in a complementary form: social innovation, product innovation or process innovation.

I believe there are possibilities to "revitalize" the innovation concepts. Perhaps two kind of approaches could be practically relevant:
a)to analyse the "complementary descriptions" on innovation ( product innovation etc.)
b) to analyse the sub-elements of "constitutive description" on innovation (e.g. inno + vation).

The paths necessary for further analysis may be conditioned by the primary issue that how do we see the concept of innovation: as a complementary element or as a constitutive element. In the case of complementary element, innovation is perhaps approached from contextual side. Also, in the case of constitutive element, innovation may be approached from processual side.

A definition of innovation as a commercially valuable idea is common way to put it. I would like to suggest further discussion on the theme of innovation as a better combination of commercial value and creative mechanisms.


Ari Maunuksela

PS: Please notice the updated web-pages for ICPQR 99 (The International Conference on Productivity and Quality Research) Vaasa, June 14-16, 1999

Abol Ardalan

In my class I make a distinction between invention and innovation. I define them as;

Invention, converting an idea into a new process or product.
Innovation, extending the utilization of a product or process.

Any comments?

Abol Ardalan

Maciej Soltynski

May I offer the following definition of technology:

"Technology is the systematic application of knowledge to resources to produce goods or services." Resources may be physical, or human or capital.

Innovation is then simply NEW technology, i.e. the systematic application of (new) knowledge to (new) resources to produce (new) goods or (new) services.

At least one of the `new' needs to be present.

Best regards, Maciej

John W. Hawks

Matching Change Theories to Need

There have been some great definitions of "Innovation", but what do these different shades of innovation mean to the diffusion process?

For instance, it is widely known that diabetic patients should have regular foot examinations. Unfortunately this doesn't happen as often as it should. For an example of this, please see Pathman's article under the bibliography section at Is "examining the feet of diabetic patients" an innovation? Or, would the innovation be a process improvement which results in more exams?

Should we follow Rogers' diffusion theory or look at a more "behavioral" model such as Prochaska to improve adherence to widely known, but underused, best practices?

Darius Mahdjoubi

REPLY: From Classification to Definition of Innovation

A comprehensive definition or description (or a set of definitions or descriptions) of innovation is more difficult to articulate than it may appear at first glance. However, we need to examine our present understanding of innovation. To narrow down our views towards a proper definition (or definitions) of innovation, it may be best to start with the classification of innovation.

Innovation may be classified into domain and scope. The domain (or discipline) of innovation may be organized into industry, medicine, military, art, etc. There may exist commonalties in the definition of innovation among the different disciplines. It appears to me that the definition of innovation is not identical in all domains. We have to remind to ourselves that the "bulk" of the existing definitions on innovation is related to the industrial domain. This set of discussions, which was initiated in the domain of medicine, demonstrates that the definition of innovation in medicine may not be exactly the same as in industry. We have not yet heard anyone with a military background, or with a background in the arts, discuss innovation here. I am sure that in those domains innovation is not confined to bringing new products to the marketplace. So whenever we talk of a definition (or a description) for innovation, it is best to mention the domain of the definition as well.

Within each domain (discipline), innovation may also be classified based on its scope. Until very recently, industrial innovation was tacitly limited to technological innovation. Now there are discussions of human - learning innovation, as well as market innovation and leadership - organization innovation. I believe that industrial innovation can be organized into the following major groups:

1) technology
2) learning
3) organization (leadership)
4) market (customer)

And I should underline that the scope of innovation, as above, is mostly related to the industrial domain. Other domains may, or may not, have the same scopes. Then we may further classify technological innovation into

1) Product
2) Process
3) Plant
4) Equipment
5) Operation

These classifications are, obviously, broader than the traditional classification of product and process. Each of the above five groups of technological innovation has further sub-classifications. For instance, product technological innovation may be organized into Function, Form and Ergonomy. On the other hand, the function technological innovation (and most likely form and ergonomy, as well as process, plant, equipment and operation) may be organized into a set of hierarchies varying from R&D and invention (say patenting) to improvement, imitation and benchmarking. This last part of classification of innovation seems to have commonalties with, but is not identical to, the classification proposed by Mr. Victor Ross in Innovation Management Network (IMN, Vol. 6, No. 23). It includes also the definition of innovation by Mr. Bill Murray (IMN, Vol. 6, No. 22).
The other major groups of industrial innovation (learning, leadership, and customer) also have their unique sub-structures.

The above classification for innovation, which can be better depicted rather narrated, opens an opportunity for the mapping of innovation. There exist vast areas of uncharted lands in the Atlas of Innovation.

However, we can still use this structure to develop innovation strategies (strategic innovation plans) for businesses, innovation strategies for regions (regional systems of innovation), innovation-oriented appraisals and benchmarking, as well as innovation surveys.

Another approach towards innovation is based on looking at innovation as a process and flow of knowledge, rather than a set of actions or outputs. This approach regards knowledge, in the most comprehensive meaning for knowledge, which is far broader than information or data processing. This is an approach which seems to be more consistent with Ms. Debra Amidon's insight and that of Mr. Joerge Gemueden (IMN - Vol. 6, No. 21). Obviously, the definition of innovation, based on the classification (or mapping) of innovation, and the process and flow of knowledge are interrelated.

Looking at innovation as a knowledge process opens a new perspective on the interactions among innovation and creativity (discussed by Mr. David DeMarco - IMN, Vol. 6, No. 23), and the emerging discipline of knowledge management. Knowledge management may be a new topic, but thinking and studies about knowledge are old enough. For example, epistemology (the theory of knowledge) goes back to ancient Greece and beyond.

On the road towards a more comprehensive definition for innovation, we may find genuine and innovative approaches in numerous other disciplines, varying from economics to psychology. Time, March 29, 1999 has an article about Jean Piaget, the famous child psychologist. It is interesting to note that "Piaget's main interest was epistemology - the theory of knowledge." The article emphasizes that the "artificial intelligence and the information processing model of the mind owe more to Piaget than its proponents may realize."

By the way, is it not interesting that the distinctions between innovation in medicine and industry initiated this set of discussions?

Darius Mahdjoubi

P. S. There exist some studies and documents related to the mapping of innovation and the architecture of knowledge, which cannot be copied here. Please send me an e-mail ( should you like further details.

From: Innovative Managment Network

Volume 6, Number 26 (April 12, 1999)
Volume 6, Number 27 (April 14,1999)
Volume 6, Number 23 (March 31)

Innovation Management Network - Vol 6, Number 22 (March 30)
Innovation Management Network - Vol 6, No. 21(March 29)
Innovation Management Network - Vol 6, No. 20 (March 24, 1999)



With the permission of Christopher K. Bart, Ph.D., C.A., Editor
Director, MINT~RC
Management of Innovation and New Technology Research Centre
Michael G. DeGroote School of Business
McMaster University, Hamilton, ON L8S 4M4 Canada
Tel: 905-525-9140, ext. 24105, Fax: 905-521-8995

You can join the Innovative Management Network by contacting

Published June 22, 1999

Updated August 11, 2001

Last updated: May 25 2016