So, what is an innovation?

As I sat thinking about defining the word innovation yesterday, another unrelated word popped into my head: “kitsch.”  For those of you who don’t know, kitch is defined by Merriam Webster as “something that appeals to popular or lowbrow taste and is often of poor quality.”   

Sometime in the late 1990s I had the sense that everywhere I turned the word “kitsch” seemed to show up. From my point of view, it seemed as though the word went from seeming obscurity to ubiquity within the span of a few short years. I never thought of testing this theory until, to be precise, just yesterday. 

About 5 years ago, Google came up with a way to test these suspicions and more -- it’s called the Ngram viewer and with this handy tool you can type in any word or phrase and Google will search a database of scanned books from the last few centuries and look for occurrences. If you look below, you’ll see a chart that seems to coincide with my suspicion about the word kitsch. Usage of the word Kitsch seems to have reached a peak in 1997 or so.  Evidently, I was right:

As you may have already noted, innovation is one of those buzzwords that seems to be everywhere these days. No self-respecting website, news site, technology blog, journal, magazine, etc etc could go even a single day without mentioning the word innovation or any of its variants in some capacity -- how to be more innovative, the secret to innovation, who’s the most innovative, etc.  And, sure enough, a quick look at the Ngram Viewer confirms the word’s ascendency:

Interestingly, if you want to see another example of what I mean by a buzzword, check out the chart for "hostile takeover," which I've linked to here, one of those terms with which we had so much fun a couple of decades ago.

Here’s my working definition of an innovation: 


An innovation is something new that is created, be it a process, object, or idea, that enables any person, group, or organization to accomplish something they couldn’t before and that somehow benefits them. 


In business school parlance that last piece ("somehow benefits them") would be considered some kind of "source of value” or “value creation.”
The second half of the definition (starting with the word “enables...”) is what distinguishes an innovation from an invention: an invention can be anything new at all that is created without necessarily having a benefit. If you look at the history of the zipper, for example, you’ll see that while an early version was invented in the middle of the 19th century, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that the modern day incarnation of the zipper gained a foothold among the masses.  Thus, the zipper acquired some practicality and made the transition from invention to innovation. 

So is the Ngram an innovation? Had I wanted to write an article for my painstakingly printed, stamped, and mailed non-existent newsletter in the mid-1990s about the ascendency of the term “hostile takeover” I would have been hard-pressed to do so.  Would I have gone to the library and searched through a bunch of magazines and books for the words? (or hired a bunch of interns to do so?) It would have been virtually impossible before the advent of the Ngram Viewer.

You may think the Ngram is nothing more than a “cute” tool but I’m sure there are many linguists and historians who would disagree. First, think about the time they can save by not having to go through the research process I described above. Second, the tool opens up a whole new category of research that in the past simply was not possible. According to this abstract for a longer article (which I have no intention of reading) the authors were able to look at the specific frequencies of words and terms via Ngram to study “Cultural Evolution over the last 40 years in China...” and, in particular, “implications of social and political change for cultural values.” In other words, the frequency in appearance of certain words and terms helps the authors to present shifting cultural values in China.

We’re now in the era of “big data” where we can analyze huge amounts of data to make decisions and predictions (more on that in the future), I’m sure there a whole series of decisions and predictions you can make based on the frequency in occurrence of certain words and terms. Maybe a marked increase and / or decrease in the use of certain words at a societal level is a leading indicator of a recession (or could be combined with other data to predict a recession). Maybe changes in frequency of other words / terms could be a leading indicator of a revolution. And, you could probably use powerful computing technology to retroactively see which words in particular had a marked shift in frequency as a basis for your theory.

Two final and related points on what I’ve mentioned:

First, I could still understand why you might object to the idea of something like the Ngram viewer being called an innovation. After all, as far as I can see it’s a project for Google that’s not making much money. Well here’s the thing about innovation: first of all, you can’t necessarily predict when or how an innovation will make money. Second of all, it is not necessarily the case that an innovation has to be viable from a business point of view (to put in business terminology, a positive return on investment or "ROI"). When businesses consider the path to innovation, it is implied that their innovations will ultimately make some sort of business sense.  From a strictly definitional point of view this doesn’t have to be the case.  

(I would make the statement that, if something is new and people do buy it then it is, by definition, an innovation since people clearly assign some sort of value to it. I mention this when I consider The Pet Rock, whose inventor died earlier this year after selling millions of these in the 1970s and 1980s (see the Ngram here). It seems totally useless but clearly it filled some sort of need, be it the need for a stupid “gag” gift, to be a part of a trend, etc, and thus was in some strange way an innovation).

Second, whether or not something is an innovation is always a question of scope. Whenever I’m giving lectures on the subject of innovation I like to show this picture as an illustration of a seemingly useless invention:

However, as unlikely as it sounds, it could be the case that for someone with a very distinct psychological condition (my sister is a psychologist, I’ll ask her) the half-person pillow with a hugging arm could be hugely helpful. So for some group of people this is more than just an invention – it is a fairly significant innovation. Thus, it’s possible that an innovation can serve just a few people and be irrelevant for everyone else. Most of you will probably never have any need for the Ngram Viewer but there are many out there for whom the innovation has become quite important.