Innovation at work

Innovations are being created in formal Research & Development (R&D) departments, but can also originate outside R&D departments. In the February 2016 edition of Research Policy, there is an interesting article by Lee & Walsh who studied non-R&D innovation. The article shows that non-R&D innovation is of greater importance than previously thought as many other studies that are conducted on innovation are at firm level and do not differentiate between formal R&D innovations and non-R&D innovation.

Innovations in the normal workplace are often the result of learning from direct experience where workers improve their compentencies. Well-known examples in the learning by doing literature are aircraft production and nuclear powerplant operation. Sometimes the improvements arise from deliberate informal learning whereby workers sometimes keep a “little black book” documenting their work and record their new findings.

The non-R&D inventors differ significantly from R&D inventors, not only to the location in the firm, but also in terms of age and education. Non-R&D inventors are older and have lower education degrees. The non-R&D inventors appear to be more successful in a working environment where there is a high visibility of problems, because there is a greater need for creative solutions.  The visibility of problems has also a relation with the organisation structure and work division. Clearly defined work division can lead in a more visible way to undefined areas and problems. These problems can be opportunities for learning and innovation.

As many companies do not have formal R&D in-house, I believe it is important to understand how non-R&D innovations can take place under which circumstances. On the other hand it can also create the insight when there is the opportunity to organize a more formal role to R&D, for example in circumstances with lower visibility.

Norbert Bol


Lee, Y. N., & Walsh, J. P. (2016). Inventing while you work: Knowledge, non-R&D learning and innovation. Research Policy, 45(1), 345-359.

Photo credit: State Library and Archives of Florida / / No known copyright restrictions

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s