Robert I. Sutton
University of California, Berkeley
We blend network and organizational memory perspectives in a model of technology brokering that explains how an organization develops innovative products. The model is grounded in observations, interviews, informal conversations, andarchived data gathered during an ethnography of IDEO, a product design firm. This firm exploits its network position, working for clients in at least 40 industries, to gain knowledge of existing technological solutions in various industries. It acts as a technology broker by introducing these solutions where they are not known and, in the process, creates new products that are original combinationsof existing knowledge from disparate industries. Designers exploit their access to a broad range of technological solutions with organizational routines for acquiring and storing this knowledge in the organization's memory and, by making analogies between current design problems and the past solutions they have seen, retrieving that knowledge to generate new solutions to design problems in otherindustries. We discuss the implications of this research for understanding the individual and organizational processes and norms underlying technology and knowledge transfer more generally.* Knowledge is imperfectly shared over time and across people, organizations, and industries, ideas fronn one group nnight solve the problems of another, but only if connections between existing solutions andproblems can be made across the boundaries between them. When such connections are made, existing ideas often appear new and creative as they change form, combining with other ideas to meet the needs of different users. These new combinations are objectively new concepts or objects because they are built from existing but previously unconnected ideas. This paper presents an ethnographic study of aproduct design firm that routinely creates new products by making such connections. The role these connections can play in the innovation process is evident in inventions by Thomas Edison's laboratory. Edison and his colleagues used their knowledge of electromagnetic power from the telegraph industry, where they first worked, to transfer old ideas that were new to the lighting, telephone, phonograph,railway, and mining industries (Hughes, 1989; Miilard, 1990). Edison's products often reflected blends of existing but previously unconnected ideas that his engineers picked up as they worked in these disparate industries. The phonograph blended old ideas from products that these engineers had developed for the telegraph, telephone, and electric motor industries, as well as ideas developed byothers that they had learned about while working in those industries. Edison's inventions were not wholly original. Like most creative acts and products, they were extensions and blends of existing knowledge (Merton, 1973). As Usher (1929; quoted in Petrovski, 1992: 44) argued, "invention finds its distinctive feature in the constructive assimilation of pre-existing elements into new syntheses, newpatterns, or new configurations of behavior." Social network theory suggests that Edison's laboratory could innovate routinely because it occupied a "structural 716/A(bninimrative Science Quarterly, 42 (1997): 716-749
© 1997 by Corneil University. 0001 -8392/97/4204-0716/$1.00-
We are grateful to Stephen Barley, Beth Bechky, Dennis Boyle, Kathleen Eisenhardt, Herminia tbara, Linda Johanson,Christine Oliver, David Owens, Marc Ventresca, and three anonymous reviewers for their contributions to this paper. We are also grateful for the support provided by the Center for the Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Hewlett-Packard, ttie Stanford integrated Manufacturing Association, the National Science Foundation (SBR-9022192), and the Center for Innovation Management Studies at...