Innovation: Real or Just Another Buzzword?

We have become so accustomed to buzzwords in our environment that it is almost natural to adopt a new word to describe a new year and public administration is no exception. So, what are our plans as a discipline of study and practice to innovate anything about what we do or how we think? Who governs our discipline of study?

Niche professors and researchers work within their comfort zones and are very reluctant to explore too far outside the zone of acceptability to other peers. When we look at the lives and careers of truly committed innovators throughout history, we see people not just of extraordinary ability but also of powerful curiosity, passion and courage. Why add the description of courage? Because it takes courage to swim upstream against the tide of prevailing opinion. To arrive at truly innovative ideas is to brave the expected criticisms from those whose worldviews are firmly entrenched in prevailing doctrine.

Peer review, even as an essential function within academic disciplines, can deny airing ideas that do not fit within the boundaries. When we ask for a learned opinion and it does not dovetail closely with what we already know and believe, the idea ends up in the circular file never to be seen by others who may find merit. Certainly, peer review keeps voodoo science out of the literature. But how many innovative ideas gets thrown out in our firm commitment to protect the discipline from falsehoods?

Would it ever be possible for a polymath scholar to find success in today’s academic environment? Who can challenge the rigid disciplinary boundaries through active scholarship?

I would agree that many intellectuals are polymaths but they will not confess that belief publicly to their peers. There is a reason that we state the metaphor of academic disciplines as being in silos. Within those silos, we find our comfort zones. No amount of rhetoric, such as the year of innovation, is going to open windows and build crosswalks between the disciplinary silos that we have constructed for ourselves.

For any readers who are polymaths and even for those that are not, I suggest the following books as required reading for both established scholars and as well for forthcoming doctoral students who are planning a career of scholarship. Read The Innovators by Walter Isaacson and The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers by Gillian Tett. However, do not leave these books out in the open in your office for fear of ridicule and possibly censure.

Submitted by Michael W. Popejoy


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