Socio-technical, organizational and political dimensions of idea work in a mature industrial R&D setting

Liv Gish

    Research output: Book/ReportPh.D. thesis

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    Ideas are viewed as an essential element in industrial companies’ product development activities and are the beginning of all innovative endeavors. The present study comprises an examination of the idea work practices currently being carried out in the R&D department at the Danish pump manufacturer, Grundfos. The PhD study has aimed at understanding both conducive and hampering aspects in the work with ideas at Grundfos, as well as contributing to an internal learning process. Moreover, the study has aimed at developing a new understanding of idea work for use both in academia and in practice. The overall research questions posed are: 1) how do designers work with ideas in a mature industrial R&D setting? And 2) how can work with ideas in a mature industrial R&D setting be stimulated and supported? These questions are examined in four research papers and finally answered in the conclusion of this synthesizing dissertation.
    The empirical data forming the basis of the present PhD study have been collected through qualitative research methods, such as case study methodology and qualitative research interviews. Sixty interviews were conducted, mainly with R&D professionals, but also with other organizational members and managers at all levels. Especially, the development of the Alpha Pro circulator has been used as a case in the study. The Alpha Pro circulator is a small circulation pump used in one- and two-family houses to circulate hot water. The special feature about the Alpha Pro circulator is that it was significantly more energy efficient than other circulators at that time; it was therefore also the first circulator ever to achieve an energy label1 in category “A”. The idea work leading to the development of the Alpha Pro circulator can be traced back almost twenty years and gives insights into all the challenges idea work also meets. In addition to the Alpha Pro case, a profound body of the interview data also investigates how the engineering designers approach idea work on a more individual basis. To interpret and analyze the data and develop a new understanding of idea work, theories and concepts from especially Science and Technology Studies (STS) and the political process perspective have been applied.
    In this dissertation, idea work refers to the interactions, processes and practices in which ideas are constituted and developed over time, and it includes generating, recognizing, negotiating, gaining support, materializing, and implementing the ideas. Focus in this dissertation is therefore not on the distinct activities but the interrelation between them, and the interaction of the involved actors as well as the individual and collective strategies they employ to advance their ideas in the organization. The aggregated findings from the four research papers can be summarized as follows: 1) Ideas are initially fragile, and constituted by a variety of knowledge fragments and past experiences. 2) Formal instrumentation of idea work supplements and/or hampers the informal processes of idea work. 3) Ideas need support in order to survive and grow in an organization, and 4) Work with ideas requires a wide range of competencies beyond technological skills. The implications of these findings are also presented in the dissertation.
    The main contribution of the study is to be found in two important aspects: 1) it is the real processes of idea work that are examined and described; and 2) by drawing on Science and Technology Studies, a new understanding of idea work is developed and presented, which emphasizes that ideas are constituted in and through the processes of their articulation and representation. In this view, ideas are more than fixed entities with inherent qualities waiting to be harvested; ideas are also open to interpretive flexibility. Thus, the quality and advancement of ideas is dependent on the mobilization of actors and resources in the organization, as well as the involved actors’ interaction. This mobilization is essentially a productive process, but it is characterized by being political, and can at times give rise to controversies when world views are too dissimilar and not in congruence.
    Original languageEnglish
    Place of PublicationKgs. Lyngby
    PublisherDTU Management Engineering
    Number of pages163
    ISBN (Print)978-87-92706-62-1
    Publication statusPublished - 2012

    Note re. dissertation

    The present PhD dissertation is the outcome of a five-year research project initiated in January 2007 at DTU Management, Innovation and Sustainability. The study was financed partly by Grundfos, partly by the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), and partly by the Danish Ministry of Science, Technology and Development. It was carried out during the period from January 2007 to December 2011


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