Inderscience Publishers

From continuous improvement to continuous innovation: a (retro)(per)spective

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The new name of the industrial game is continuous innovation. But what is continuous innovation? And how can we manage and organise for it? This article addresses these questions by, first of all, defining continuous innovation as the ability to combine operational effectiveness and strategic flexibility - exploitation and exploration - capabilities that have traditionally been regarded as antithetical. Next, an old debate between organisation theorists on the question of whether it is at all possible to combine the two capabilities in one system is summarised to conclude that the majority of scholars argue that it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to achieve continuous innovation. However, some authors have challenged this stance and have provided some useful thoughts, though little empirical evidence, as to how operational effectiveness and strategic flexibility can be combined to produce continuous innovation. The question of how empirically supported knowledge could be developed is approached firstly by briefly discussing the bodies of theory underlying the current thinking about continuous innovation, namely organisational theories of innovation, learning, and continuous improvement. Then, the papers presented at the 1995, 1998 and 2000 (Euro)CINet conferences will be analysed to show how these fields are gradually converging into what would more appropriately be labelled continuous innovation (instead of improvement). The analysis also shows that the field has a couple of serious weaknesses that need to be addressed if the research community involved really wants to contribute to the art and science of continuous innovation. The paper concludes with a summary of this analysis, presented as an agenda for further research.

Keywords: continuous improvement, learning, operational effectiveness, strategic flexibility, continuous innovation, research methodology

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