Organizing for Innovation in the Digitized world

The following is a summary and some reflection upon

Yoo, Y., Boland, R. J., Lyytinen, K., & Majchrzak, A. (2012). Organizing for Innovation in the Digitized World. Organization Science, 23(5), 1398–1408.

The abstract for which is (p. 1398)

Our era is one of increasingly pervasive digital technologies, which penetrate deeply into the very core of the products, services, and operations of many organizations and radically change the nature of product and service innovations.
The fundamental properties of digital technology are reprogrammability and data homogenization. Together, they provide an environment of open and flexible affordances that are used in creating innovations characterized by convergence and generativity. An analysis of convergence and generativity observed in innovations with pervasive digital technologies reveals three traits: (1) the importance of digital technology platforms, (2) the emergence of distributed innovations, and (3) the prevalence of combinatorial innovation. Each of the six articles in this special issue relates to one or more of these three traits. In this essay, we explore the organizational research implications of these three digital innovation traits and identify research opportunities for organization science scholars. Examples from the articles in this special issue on organizing for innovation in the digitized world are used to demonstrate the kind of organizational scholarship that can faithfully reflect and inform innovation in a world of pervasive digital technologies.


There’s an awful lot in this paper (and the rest of the papers in the special issue this introduces). Some of it is not that new, but the framing and linkages to other research are valuable and certainly prompted some thinking on my part. There are insights here that could be usefully employed to study and design digital learning by organisations.

Some random personal thoughts follow, before a summary of the paper below.

Pervasive digital technology, simluation, generativity and divergence

The first important point that I think many people (and organisations) still haven’t grasped is the pervasiveness of digital technology. Organisations in particular have a problem with this when they have policies that say you must use technology X to perform task Y. They don’t realise that with pervasive digital technology if performing task Y with their chosen technology X is way to onerous, then I’ll find technology Z that works much better for me. Even if I have to figure out how to simluate (see corruption and simulation) the use of technology X.

I wonder if this is a form of generativity that the authors haven’t considered? Is it an example of how digital technology actually enables divergence? Where organisational actors no longer have to converge into the one organisationally mandated system.

University digital learning: organisation versus industry and platforms

The authors tend to focus at the industry level. For example, the illustrate the importance of “platform” through the use of Apple and iOS. A platform by which other organisations can leverage to create innovation.  Hence the need to balance of control and generativity. e.g. the initial absence and subsequent development of the Apple App Store.

In my experience, it would appear that University digital learning is focued overly on control, rather than generativity. Perhaps it’s more productive for Universities to see the LMS and the rest of it’s digital learning technologies as a platform, let go of the control, and focus on enabling generativity a bit more.

Of course, that would need to be informed by

more work is needed in this area to consider the role of power, knowledge, culture, and institutional norms in creating and  managing platform generativity in multisided markets (p. 1401)

What is the platform?

Begging the question of what could be counted as the “digital learning platform” within an organisation? Not to mention why it needs to be the organisation’s platform. Why not the individual’s platform? e.g. a personal API?

Platforms focused on diversity not economy of scale

Boudreau (2012) – an article in the special issue – apparently finds that the aim of a platform should not be economy of scale, but instead should be focused on increasing the heterogeneity of those developing for the platform.

For quite some time now LMS vendors have been talking about their products being a platform. Actually, they’ve probably moved beyond that now into talking about being part of an ecosystem. Either way, I wonder what might be said about the heterogeneity of the developers involved with those platforms?

I wonder what implications this argument might have for the ‘scale’ fetish in certain areas of education?

Challenging conventional norms of ownership, roles and rules

Which is an example of how digital technologies are challenging conventional norms of ownership, roles and rules. Something that is cropping up all the time in my experience within universities.  As illustrated by a couple of tweets from my stream.

On the news that RMIT are starting on the Personal API path.

Slight tweet of frustration arising from a couple of weeks struggling to access data about my courses.

I wonder how likely it is to get University senior management to engage with (p. 1401)

Such reconfigurations of roles, rules, and norms suggest the value of examining organizational design as a dynamic emergent process enabled by the digital platform (Yoo et al. 2006)

Courses as not one product, but different products

Using business focused terms like customer, client or product is destined to annoy many in academia and there are good questions to be asked about whether or not they are appropriate. However, increasingly contemporary the functioning of contemporary universities are increasingly underpinned by these very terms and concepts. The following is an attempt to think about how they are using those terms/concepts incorrectly.

The rampant application of institution-wide standardisation to various aspects of University courses (e.g. standard design for all course websites) appears to suggest that Universities see “courses” as their product. Or perhaps the course is the standard building block of the actual product, the program. Either way the attempts at standardisation appear to reinforce the perspective that these are the same product.

But I wonder whether a first year course in Marketing is the same product as a Masters level course on Networked and Global Learning? Is there value in allowing these products to be differentiated? To perhaps be different types or groups of product?

Breaking boundaries

Whatever the conception, a problem is that what goes on in one course, is rarely seen or re-used in other courses. Suggesting the need for “generative platforms of knowledge, skills, learning processes, structures and strategies” to muddy boundaries and “allow for continuous scanning to identify the signals that indicate when boundaries should be crossed and reconfigured and when they should not” (p. 1401)

What type of “platform” is needed to allow an innovation that works in my course, to be spread into other courses and vice versa?

What types of knowledge are integrated into the design of digital learning tools?

The authors argue that the convergence of pervasive digital technologies hugely increases the heterogeneity and quantity of knowledge that need to be integrated into innovative digital tools and products.

I wonder what an evaluation of the knowledge embedded in the standard digital learning technologies would reveal in terms of the quantity and heterogeneity of knowledge drawn upon to design those tools?

How well does university digital learning tools “enable others”?

The authors argue that the nature of pervasive digital technologies means that

innovation increasingly requires that others be enabled to innovate as well.

It’s not just about providing an LMS, it’s about providing a platform that enables the people using the LMS to innovate.

Moodle has an API, has your institution enabled access to that API by people outside of the institutional IT unit?

Giving up on “up-front design”

The combinatorial innovations that arise from “enabling others” amongst other facets of pervasive digital technologies challenge another core assumption/practice of traditional organisational practice – “up-front design”.

The authors explain that (p. 1402)

With traditional, “physical” modular designs, modules are created through a decomposition of complex products. That is, a product is designed first, then parts and subsystems are designed with standardized physical interfaces.

But that combinatorial innovations arising from pervasive digital technologies are (p. 1402)

most often designed without fully knowing the ‘whole’ design of how each module will be integrated with another (Gawyer, 2009)

This echoes with the on-going challenge my institution is currently having with figuring out what to do with learning analytics. They are starting by wanting to know the final requirements. What questions do people want answered? What should be the final form of the system to provide those answers? How can we use decomposition to implement?


Properties of Digital technology – reprogrammability and data homogenization

Combine to create environment of “open and flexible affordances” leading to innovations characterised by convergence and generativity.

The three types of convergence identified appear – to me – to be a little forced and not necessarily the result of just the nature of the digital technologies. For example, the authors use Skype competing with telecommunication companies as an example of the convergence of industries. Is this solely down to the digital technology? Or does the inability of companies invested so much in their current methods of operation to handle something completely different, mean that companies that can will compete with them? Need to think more about this.

Those innovations have three traits

  1. Importance of digital platforms
  2. Emergence of distributed innovations
  3. Prevalence of combinatorial innovation

Have the authors captured the full implications? They seem to suggest not. How does the work of Mishra et al – opaque, protean and ?? – overlap/complement what is here? How does the opaque nature of digital technology overlay with the contraints/affordances from TACT?


  • Suggesting that if you have failed to pay attention to these, you aren’t achieving similar innovations?
  • Can analysis of what passes for innovations in digital learning reveal an absence of these three traits, and thus suggest flaws in how digital technologies are being conceptualised and harnessed?
  • Can the ideas here be harnessed to inform the design of better digital learning technologies?
  • If pervasive digital tech heralds new area of organisational research looking at new product and service designs; business models; and, organisational forms, what’s the equivalent in learning and teaching? In particular, what is the equivalent that will escape the “infection” of business/organisation thinking?

Paper summary

Starts with examples of the increasing pervasiveness of digital technology: organisational down to very personal.

Defines pervasive digital technology as (p. 1398)

the incorporation of digital capabilities into objects that previously had a purely physical materiality

Suggests physical materiality (p. 1398) (emphasis added)

refers to artifacts that can be seen and touched, that are generally hard to change, and that connote a sense of place and time. For example, shoes have physical materiality because they can be worn, are hard to convert into a screwdriver, and carry social meanings of appropriate uses and settings for wearing them.

Digital materiality (p. 1398)

refers to what the software incorporated into an artifact can do by manipulating digital representations.

Cites Kallinikos, Aaltonen, & Marton (2010), Yoo, Hendfridsson, & Lyytinen (2010) and Zammuto et al (2007) on the “powerful affordances of digital technologies” that “allow designers to expand existing physical materiality by ‘entangling’ it with software-based digital capabilities” (p. 1398)

“The fundamental, unique properties of digital technology” (p. 1399)  — coming from Yoo et al (2010)

  • reprogrammable functionality; and,
    A program (way of doing things) can be changed. Digital technology is protean.
  • data homogenisation.
    All the data being “homogenised” into bits (0s and 1s)

With digital technologies becoming pervasive, you get environments (p. 1399)

of open an flexible affordances that result in two unique characteristics of organisational innovation with digital technologies: convergence and generativity

This enables/heralds/requires “a new area of organisational science” to explore what this means for new: product and service designs; business models; and, organisational forms.

Socio-technical research is substantial in this area, but apparently (p. 1399)

there has been less research on the digital materiality created by pervasive digital technology (Law and Urry 2004, Orlikowski and Scott 2008, Robey et al. 2003). The desire to promote increased scholarship in these emerging areas is the pri- mary motivation for developing this special issue.

The two unique characteristics shape/lead to “three traits of innovations with pervasive digital technology that are believed to be (p. 1399)

crucial for understanding the potential impact of pervasive digital technology on innovation processes and organization science.

Convergent and Generative characteristics

Draws on a definition of technology affordance from Majchrzak and Markus (2012)

an action potential, that is, to what an individual or organization with a particular purpose can do with a technology or information system

Though Yoo et al (2012) don’t mention the following from Majchrzak and Markus (2012)

Affordances and constraints are understood as relational concepts, that is, as potential interactions between people and technology, rather than as properties of either people or technology. (p. 832)

As outlined above, it’s argued that the affordances of pervasive digital technologies create innovations that are characterised by

  1. convergence; and
    Arises in a number of different ways

    • Convergence of media: Separate user experiences can be brought together
    • Convergence of products: Embedding digital within physical artifacts, creating “smart” products
    • Convergence of industries: e.g. software development firm Skype, competing with telecommunication companies
  2. generativity
    Defined as “that digital technologies become inherently dynamic and malleable” (p. 1399) and cite Zittrain (2006, p. 1980) “a technology’s overall capacity to produce unprompted change driven by large, varied, and uncoordinated audiences”This occurs via different means

    • procrastinated binding (Zittrain 2006) of form and function – the ability to added new capabilities are the product has been designed and produced
    • wakes of innovation (Boland et al, 2007) where the introduction of a digital technology (e.g. 3D visualisation tools in the construction industry) changes the role and scope of the roles involved and in turn requires new approaches to management, contracts etc.
    • derivative innovations where the use of digital technologies generates additional digital traces. Traces that can be then used to add new layers of affordances. It’s argued that the bulk of innovation around social and mobile media are derivative innovations derived from the generative use of the digital traces generated by those media.

I particularly like this quote (p. 1399)

Organizational theories that may have assumed (either explicitly or by oversight) that technology is fixed and immutable now must consider the possibility that the technology providing the basis for organizational functioning is dynamically changing, triggering consequent changes in organizational functioning.

Organisational innovation with pervasive digital technology

Time to offer a “tentative, initial list of key traits of innovation processes and outcomes in the age of pervasive digital technology” (p. 1400).  There is a difference because the “open, flexible affordances of pervasive digital technology are fundamentally shifting the nature of innovation processes and outcomes in several ways.

The three traits in this list are

  1. Importance of digital technology platforms;
  2. Emergence of distributed innovations; and,
  3. the prevalence of combinatorial innovation.

Digital technology platforms

A platform is “the central focus of the innovation” and “acts as a foundation upon which other firms can develop” other products. The analysis here is at the level of industry.

Two perspectives on the tole of the platform

  1. to harness the convergence and generativity of digital technology;
    The platform creates an ecosystem to integrate and orchestrate heterogeneous actors. The question becomes “how to design, build, and sustain a vibrant platform”.
  2. to allow the building a platform of both products and digital capabilities.
    e.g. leveraging ERP through addition of others tools to utilise shared data resources. Or, leveraging single systems to design/control multiple products.

Important implications arising from “platform”

  • “organisations must be designed to manage the delicate balance of generativity and control in the platform” (p. 1400)
    Important: the authors talk about this at the industry level (e.g. Apple controlling iOS), but it potentially has something useful to say about universities and the LMS.  In particular, the call for “more work is needed in this area to consider the role of power, knowledge, culture, and institutional norms in creating and  managing platform generativity in multisided markets” (p. 1401)
  • conventional norms of ownership, roles and rules are challenged;
    The use of more “standardized tools to design, produce, and support products and services throughout the organization and its value chain they share more data and processes across organizational boundaries (p. 1401)
  • “innovation activities increasingly become horizontal as efficiencies are gained by applying the same innovation activities and knowledge across multiple products or platforms”
    e.g. the development of the same app on different platforms, or the same software module being used in different products. Implying the need for organisations to “create generative platforms of knowledge, skills, learning processes, structures and strategies” that enable the crossing of boundaries to enable this sharing. Boundaries limit innovation and growth.

Distributed innovations

Digital technology has reduced cost of communication and coordination leading to the dispersion and democratisation of innovation.

As a result, the locus of innovation activities is increasingly moving twoard the periphery of organizations (p. 1401)

It also increases “the heterogeneity of knowledge resources needed in order to innovate” (p. 1401). While all innovation requires this.  The convergence of pervasive digital technology intensifies the need.

Organisational implications include:

  • The need for “knowledge resources” that dynamically change and are hetergeneous bring into question much of what happens within an organisation;
  • Distributed innovation requires that “others be enabled to innovate as well” (p. 1402)
    e.g. such as through APIs, open source/different licenses etc, but these clashes with existing social norms, organising principles, and role separations.
  • Emergence of new industrial structures;
    e.g.  niche players versus dominant players.
  • the introduction of new forms of risk;

Combinatorial innovation

The ability to create “new products or services by combining existing modules with embedded digital capabilities” (p. 1402) linking this to Arthur (2009).

Organisational implications (these have morphed into my messages, in this section the authors’ point isn’t always clear)

  • Give up on up-front design and fixed/complete products;
    The traditional form of “physical” module design through decomposition proceeded from the design of the final product first. Combinatorial innovations of pervasive digital technologies are “most often designed without fully knowing the ‘whole’ design of how each module will be integrated with another (Gawyer, 2009)” (p. 1402) An approach that assumes a known product boundary and a fixed life cycle is no longer suitable. Combinatorial innovations means that a product/service is always incomplete. New, more dynamic and permeable product bounaries are the norm.
  • New forms of creativity, especially constrained serendipity (Faraj et al 2011).
    “fostering serendipity online may become a critical dynamic capability for firms” – what affordances of digital tools can support this.
  • replacement of traditional s-curve diffusion with contagion models of diffusion;
    Including the idea that innovations will mutate due to combinatorial innovations.
  • heightened complexity of the innovation process.
    Creating a brand new collection of risks as “more heterogeneous modules” are produced by diverse actors and then combined to create new innovation.

Articles in the issue

The above was the editors introduction to a special issue of a journal. Building on the above they provide links to and introduce the articles.  Bits that resonated with me are worked in here. (I’d love to dig into these particular papers some more, but sadly I don’t have access, at least not digitally).

Boudreau KJ (2012) Let a thousand flowers bloom? An early look at large numbers of software app developers and patterns of innovation. Organ. Sci. 23(5):1409–1427.

Links to the platform idea. Based on analysis of app sales data it is argued/suggested that

  • traditional mix-and-match innovation strategies of modular products are not a match for platform-based innovation;
  • increasing the developers for a platform increases the diversity of applications;
  • increase in diversity stimulates innovation within the platform;
  • but adding more similar products has the opposite effect;
  • Hence the aim of building a digital platform is not economy of scale, but to increase heterogeneity

The authors have this to say (p. 1404)

His article clearly shows how the generative nature of affordances of pervasive digital technology is deeply related to both social and technical heterogeneity and how the locus of innovations and the success of platforms is moving toward the periphery

Austin RD, Devin L, Sullivan EE (2012) Accidental innovation: Supporting valuable unpredictability in the creative process. Organ. Sci. 23(5):1505–1522.

Austin et al (2012) apparently “discover 5 key themes that characterise unpredictable innovations” and from there propose “six design principles for digital technology to increase the benefits of accidental innovation while controlling for its cost”


Kallinikos, J., Aaltonen, A., & Marton, A. (2010). A theory of digital objects. First Monday, 15(6). doi:10.1145/1409360.1409388

Majchrzak, A., & Markus, M. L. (2012). Technology Affordances and Constraints in Management Information Systems (Mis). In E. Kessler (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Management Theory.

Yoo, Y., Henfridsson, O., & Lyytinen, K. (2010). The new organizing logic of digital innovation: An agenda for information systems research. Information Systems Research, 21(4), 724–735. doi:10.1287/isre.1100.0322

Yoo, Y., Boland, R. J., Lyytinen, K., & Majchrzak, A. (2012). Organizing for Innovation in the Digitized World. Organization Science, 23(5), 1398–1408.

Zammuto, R. F., Griffith, T. L., Majchrzak, a., Dougherty, D. J., & Faraj, S. (2007). Information Technology and the Changing Fabric of Organization. Organization Science, 18(5), 749–762. doi:10.1287/orsc.1070.0307

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