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Open or not - innovation remains a fuzzy concept

The Economist has a special report on innovation in this week's issue, and it's good to see the magazine recognizing what is probably the most important current trend in this space: open innovation.

The Economist has a special report on innovation in this week's issue, and it's good to see the magazine recognizing "open innovation" as the perhaps most important current trend in this space: "Rapid and disruptive change is now happening across new and old businesses. Innovation ... is becoming both more accessible and more global. This is good news because its democratization releases the untapped ingenuity of people everywhere and that could help solve some of the world's weightiest problems."

The report is an expansive tour de force through the entire innovation landscape, covering a lot of ground (open innovation, mass- or user-driven innovation, product vs. process innovation, creativity vs. operational excellence, innovation policy, innovation in Asia, innovation in developing countries, Six Sigma, innovation measurement, the "Innovators Dilemma," the importance of "Fast Failing," etc.) and quoting the usual suspects (GE, P&G, Eric Von Hippel, Toyota, Doblin, Nokia, etc.).

The Economist concludes with a seemingly trivial recommendation for putting "the debate over creativity versus execution" to rest: "For a start: firms need to do both. But that does not mean they have to do it all themselves. On the contrary, the double act is best managed with a loose and open approach during the wild and woolly idea-generation phase, and a tighter, more concentrated one to turn ideas into products or services." John Kao, author of "Jamming: The Art and Discipline of Business Creativity," likens the process to playing jazz: "There is no fixed score in any given improvisation, but that does not mean there are no underlying principles either."

So, open, yes, but also rigorous and tightly managed. But is that really news? And what about Apple, arguably the most innovative company in the world and yet the most un-open you can imagine?

At the end, innovation remains a fuzzy concept, or as one of the quoted senior executives puts it in the famous words of Potter Stewart: "Like pornography, I know it when I see it." And in contrast to the Economist's claim, I don't see much evidence at this point that the innovation process will be "steadily becoming a practical science to be measured, taught, and managed."