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Inspiring Innovation: Engaging Employees Through Entrepreneurialism, Idea Fandom and Epistemaphilia

By Ralf Langen
Managing Partner, Germany, and European Head of Change & Transformation, Pleon
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How big companies and large organizations can better manage their innovation processes – and ultimately turn novel ideas into commercial success – is probably one of the most widely researched and written-about topics in management literature today. One clear conclusion is that a certain organizational culture is essential.

How does a company build such a culture? At least three core ingredients are required: entrepreneurialism, idea fandom, and epistemaphilia.

The first is fairly simple – entrepreneurs offer innovative solutions to frequently unrecognized problems. In fact, distinguished management guru Peter Drucker notes that "innovation is the specific instrument of entrepreneurship." Innovative companies need entrepreneurs and a consistent culture of entrepreneurialism that supports those who innovate.

Understanding Fandom

“Highly engaged employees, who are at the core of innovation power, have a strikingly strong resemblance to self-organized groups that have long been marginalized and stigmatized: fans.”

The second ingredient, idea fandom, is best illustrated through companies that have it. They include IBM (with its world-famous collaborative innovation approach), and Linux (with its forceful open source development)1. What do these two best-practice examples have in common?

They show that it is in the interstices of the human network – rather than in the minds of a few wunderkinder – that most real innovations are born. They also illustrate a deeply researched phenomenon of employee engagement: Engaged employees, as Gallup2 and others show, are people who work with passion and feel a profound connection to their company. They drive innovation and move the organization forward. Highly engaged employees typically forget about time and space, they focus on current challenges even when they are not directly involved, they invest free time and invite others in – being "emotionally contagious" and passionate about things they feel need to be done.

Described like that, highly engaged employees, who are at the core of innovation power, have a strikingly strong resemblance to self-organized groups that have long been marginalized and stigmatized: fans. Now, thanks to Henry Jenkins, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and director of the school’s Comparative Media Studies program, we have a new definition of fandom. Jenkins describes it as being about self-organizing groups focused on the collective production, debate and circulation of meaning.

Real fandom, then, is not only about identification with and a devotion to "your" topic – be it Star Trek, Beauty and the Beast, ER, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It is also about a unique attitude and willingness when it comes to knowledge of all kinds. This is where the second and third ingredients for innovative cultures are linked. Professor Jenkins calls this attitude "epistemaphilia" – which he says is "not simply a pleasure in knowing but a pleasure in exchanging knowledge."

Aiding the Exchange of Knowledge

Very much like fans discussing the subtleties of character relationships or technical features important for narrative development, rich knowledge environments within corporations are essential to bringing innovation forward. Also like fans distributed around the world with only a few chances to regularly meet in person (Trekkies typically meet at fan conventions), innovation communities within large organizations need to interact and share ideas based on full transparency of one's own identity, the personal reputation as an expert in certain categories and the full trust that the problem or issue that is raised is a real need around a real case.

How does this trusted exchange of ideas best happen?

Epistemaphilia, like any cultural attitude based on love and devotion, needs a framework. To promote the exchange of knowledge, a shared pool of knowledge or information that is available to all members is needed as basis. And as a "breathing" function, universally available tools for moving knowledge around are essential.

The knowledge pool has to be more than a limited section of the company intranet, but rather a knowledge sphere that connects proprietary knowledge with the collective intelligence of the Web, and with the web of partnerships and alliances. And the tools for moving knowledge around need to be jams and jamming activities, where knowledge is connected and further enriched with social grain.

Combined with blogs and bloggers as navigators through knowledge fields, as well as wikis and Wikipedians acting as supporters and archivers, epistemaphilia can be a powerful practice to boost innovation.

  1. For the innovation practices at Linux, see the landmark article by Philip Evans and Bob Wolf, "Collaboration Rules," in Harvard Business Review July/August 2005.
  2. Gallup Management Journal: "Gallup Study – Engaged Employees Inspire Company Innovation", Oct 12 2006; "Development Dimensions International, Employee Engagement – The Key to Realizing Competitive Advantage," 2007,; Sabine Stecher, "Why Engagement Matters?", in J.Klewes / R. Langen (eds.); "Change 2.0 – Beyond Organizational Transformation," Heidelberg 2008 (Springer)