Not Just Angels on a Pin

Defining technological innovation

November 25, 2013


In its Most Innovative Companies 2012 report that analyzes survey data from more than 1,500 senior executives, the Boston Consulting Group noted: “Innovation is rapidly moving up the CEO agenda across regions and industries. Seventy-six percent of respondents ranked innovation as a ‘top-three’ strategic priority—the highest level in our survey’s history.” Innovate on Purpose blogger Jeffrey Phillips observed: “I’m sure we could spend hours debating the definition of innovation, much like ancient scholars argued about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Unlike the angels on a pin, however, the definition of innovation matters. . . . A definition signals intention, commitment, direction, and importance. . . . If innovation is poorly defined, innovation is like discovering a new continent without a map, without a compass, and without knowing what’s important when you discover it.”

“Innovation” is a broad, amorphous concept. In today’s volatile higher education environment, the day is long past where the word does not crop up—whether in library meetings, memos, coffee conversations, or annual conference themes. To gain further insight, I explored several avenues that extend the conversation and shed more light on the library community’s use of the word. This included a look at library job advertisements, strategic plans, and awards (both in the library community and the corporate world). I also examined technology trends over the last decade mentioned in a variety of outlets: Library Technology Reports, the Horizon Report, Library Information and Technology Association (LITA) National Forum topics, and LITA Top Technology Trends presented at ALA annual conferences.

But I still needed a better sense of what the academic and research library community means when it uses the word “innovation.” So in early 2013, I surveyed library directors—members of the Association of Research Libraries—on the concept of technological innovation, a subset of the extremely broad, overarching concept of innovation (that might or might not involve technology). Two dozen library directors responded to my 10 questions, many of which were multiple choice but also allowed the respondents abundant opportunities to express their own thoughts. An introductory question asked them to select three (out of 20) words and phrases that seemed to capture the essence of technological innovation. A later question listed 32 discrete technologies currently found in (or being evaluated by) the library community and asked respondents to score each item from zero to 10 according to how “innovative” they considered it.

Amid the diversity of opinion found in the survey results, a few factors emerged as important to these library leaders’ perception of technological innovations:

  • newness;
  • the origin of the innovation (within libraries or outside libraries);
  • whether the innovation is applied differently or uniquely in a library setting, versus its use and application outside the library environment;
  • whether the innovation involves incremental or fundamental change;
  • its adoption rate among other libraries;
  • the improvement in user experience.

My research emphasizes the need for focus, strategy, and direction in adopting technological innovations. Writing in Library Trends, Kathryn Deiss, content strategist for the Association of College and Research Libraries, notes: “While strategy can exist without innovation, it is unlikely that effective innovation can occur without the use of strategy.” In short, what comes to mind when you think of technological innovation? Apple? Google? Or the new James B. Hunt Jr. Library at North Carolina State University?

JASON VAUGHAN is director of library technologies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. This article is adapted from his November/December Library Technology Report, “Technological Innovation: Perceptions and Definitions,” which provides the full survey results and selected quotes from respondents’ answers.



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