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Jennifer Recht

Conversation Starters

1. We should innovate because any organization can stagnate and eventually fail without change. But we should also innovate because it’s a buzzword that looks great on resumes and library mission statements. How do we tell the difference between innovating because we have to, in a good way, and innovating because we have to, in a bad way?
2. How can we get around the creativity-killing anxiety that arises when we are told we must innovate (now!)?
3. Is there ever a time when something is going so well that we should stop innovating for a while? How can we tell?

Related Artifacts

British Library Research and Innovation Centre. (12 November, 1998). British Library Research and Innovation Centre. Retrieved from

Eventective, Inc. (2009). Westville Library and Innovation Centre. Retrieved from

Journal of Library Innovation. (n.d). Journal of Library Innovation. Retrieved from

Public Library Association. (n.d.). Highsmith Library Innovation Award. Retrieved

River John. (n.d.). River John Library and Innovation Centre. Retrieved from

Sloane, P. (3 November 2009). 21 great ways to innovate. Retrieved from

Town of New Glasgow. (2008) Public library: New Glasgow Library and Innovation Centre. Retrieved from


You Zheng


Innovation is becoming very important in today’s every-changing environment. Both organizations and individuals are required to become more innovative to achieve desired outcomes. Especially in the business context, organizational innovation is always believed to be associated with enhanced financial performance, operational efficiency and competitive advantage. For many other non-profit organizations and educational institutions, innovation also becomes the prerequisite to achieve and sustain improvement. This thread tends to explore the relationship between organization and innovation in library setting.

What is Innovation?

Innovation includes various types of novelties, from fundamental societal revolution that changes the human history such as the invention of computers in mid-20th century to minor improvements in daily life. Despite this, the first thing comes to our mind when we think about innovation is that it is something new. According to the definition in Wikipedia, innovation is defined as the introduction of new ideas, goods, services, and practices which are intended to be useful. The definition may be sharper in economics as Schumpeter (1949) defined it as “marketable product or service that changes the economy”. Despite the variance in definition, the essential meaning of innovation would be any novelty that pays off.

Why Library Innovation?

Libraries are traditionally viewed as a collector of resources for student, faculty and public use. Compared to many innovative organizations, libraries are perceived as structured institutions that are slow to change. However, this is one of the long-term misunderstandings of libraries. As we move into an information society, libraries have shifted their focus from concentrating on resources supply to knowledge creation facilitator and enabler (Swain, 2009). In other words, today’s libraries aim to improve the whole society through promoting knowledge creation and distribution. In correspondence with these trends, libraries need to take the initiative in innovative practices in order to meet the needs of their new role.

In addition, the advances in information technologies also extend the abilities that libraries communicate with users: it redefines the way that libraries deliver their services, content as well as the format (Swain, 2009). In this environment, users are expecting more accurate, qualified and immediate responses from libraries, which also drive libraries to change in order to provide better experience and services. For instance, most libraries provide both online and physical services. Despite its advantages over physical libraries, digital libraries are criticized in many aspects that cannot replace traditional functions. For example, many users complain that screen cannot provide the physical feel of the printed paper. In addition, the simple search function in the interface potentially makes users lose their browsing and searching abilities in physical libraries. All these mentioned problems pose challenges for libraries to fulfill their goal, but also provide directions for future innovations.

Three Perspectives: Organization & Innovation

The study in organizational innovation has been continued since 1960’s and a lot of research results have been produced. Among them, most researchers study the relationship between organization and innovation in business context. It is true that libraries are different with firms in terms of the goals and purposes, but we still could benefit from viewing these results to inspire the study in library innovation as libraries share many fundamental characteristic that an organization should have.

Lam (2006) classified the existing literature on organizational innovation into three general research streams: 1) innovation as an output of organizational structural forms; 2) innovation as a process of organizational learning and knowledge creation; and 3) innovation as an organizational capacity for change and adaption.

First Perspective: the first research stream looked at the relationship between organizational structure and propensity of an organization to innovate (Burns & Stalker 1961; Lawrence & Lorsch 1967; Mintzberg 1979). They argued that the extent of innovation is determined by the organizational structure, and such structure is also the strategic choice in response to technological environment and market opportunities. Burns & Stalker (1961) grouped all firms into two types: mechanistic and organic organizations. Mechanistic organization refers to a more hierarchical structure where the information flow is top-down and the information center is located at the top level. This type of organization is usually found in comparatively stable environment and is associated with less innovation. In contrast, organic organization has a horizontal structure where the direction of communication is lateral rather than vertical. The knowledge center could be located anywhere in the network and spread quickly to the rest of the organization. Organic organization always exits in turbulent environment where the organization is adapted to rapid change and innovation. An important assumption beneath this stream was based on contingency theory, which argued that there is no good or bad structure. The organization should choose the most appropriate structure that best fits a given contingency (Burns & Stalker 1961; Lawrence & Lorsch 1967). Based on Burns & Stalker’s work, Mintzberg (1979) further proposed five archetypes of organizational structures, and each configuration is with different innovative potential and operated in different environments. In line with contingency theory, he argued that organization should design structure that maximally matches the environment to achieve success.

One important implication of this group of studies is that there should be a match between environment, structure and innovation management. This could also explain why there is an urgent call for innovations in libraries. Libraries have long been viewed as structured organizations that are based on routines and rules. Many processes such as acquisitions, cataloging and circulation are operated through hierarchical control and communication. This kind of structure is fine in past when environment is stable and demand for change is low. Now, as we move into a knowledge-based information society that entails with dramatic changes in technology, production and activities, libraries also face unprecedented challenges and requirements due to the pressure exerted by environment. For instance, the line between traditional separated stages (e.g. information acquisition, distribution and consumption) along the information chain begins to blur, due to the new technology affordance. One could produce, distribute and consume the information or knowledge at the same time just through the internet. Does the existing structure still match the exploding information chain? Should libraries also incorporate organic structure to cope with the new environment?

Of course, this does not imply that every library should move away from the existing hierarchical structure towards the organic form of organizing. Even for libraries, their neighbor environment may be different. Thus, one successful practice in an academic library may not have the same consequence in a public library due to different community of users, geographical location, and budget. In this stance, each library should keep examining the environment to make sure its organizational structures best fits the given situation.

Second Perspective: the second research stream viewed innovation as a process of learning and knowledge creation through which new knowledge has been developed to solve the problem (Lam, 2006). Researchers holding this perspective examined how does organizational cognition (embedded mental model, belief system and knowledge structured within an organization) impact on the organizational learning and knowledge creation processes. Such collective thinking within an organization encompasses the interaction and unification between minds, which enhances organizational capability to innovate. A major point was that “knowledge needs a context to be created” (Nonaka 1994; Nonaka & Takeuchi 1995). Thus, collective knowledge could be more or less than the sum of individual knowledge, depending on how to translate and aggregate individual insights into collective intelligence? This also triggered more research on social interaction and context as they argued that social interaction facilitate the collective knowledge creation and distribution by developing shared understanding of tacit knowledge and codifying these subjective knowledge (Nonaka 1994; Agyris & Schon 1978; Lave & Wenger 1991; Brown & Duguid 1991; 1998). In line with this statement, “community of practice” was proposed in 1990’s to encourage knowledge creation in a broader network (Brown & Duguid, 1991; 1998).

To bridge the gap between first and second stream of studies, a great number of studies looked at the relationship between organizational structures and patterns of organizational learning and knowledge creation. Lam (2006) polarized two types of organizational structures: J-form and adhocracy. J-form refers to the Japanese type of organizations that are good at deriving collective intelligence from different functional units within the organization. Organizational learning takes place in the lateral communication between these units, and knowledge is created through sharing and integrating decentralized knowledge and skills. This type of organizations best suits in a comparatively mature and stable technological environment where organizations are adapting to incremental innovation change. In comparison, adhocracy refers to organizations whose innovations rely heavily on the individual expertise and innovative capability, and a good example is the high-tech firms in IT industry. This type of organizations usually has a team-based or project-based structure that is composed of members from various backgrounds and expertise, and integrates different knowledge to enable a quick response to the market. This organic form also welcomes and is capable of synthesizing new knowledge from outside due to its formal and informal ties with other organizations. Thus, adhocracy is characterized with dynamic learning and knowledge creation and rapid innovation to cope with the highly uncertain and fast-growing technological environment.

Comprehending the above views, libraries may consider how to use the shared contexts or social interactions to maximally inspire collective intelligence from individual insights and capability. In addition, innovation capability varies in different organizations, giving rise to different pattern of organizational learning and knowledge creation. Should libraries consider adjust their existing structure to a more organic form to enable fast and dynamic learning and knowledge creation? If the new structure takes time to realize, how should libraries at least use its network to promote innovation? In fact, many research has validated that the networks among organizations contribute to the innovation by providing more access to new and diverse information and enhancing the transfer of knowledge (Powell & Grodal, 2006). They argue that by having access to a more varied set of information, insights and collaborations, companies broaden their existing knowledge base and improve their competitive position as networks can become the locus of innovation. The networks could be grouped into formal networks and informal networks: the former are based on contract or market consideration such as strategic alliances and latter are based on less informal relations such as friendship networks, referral networks and communities (Powell & Grodal, 2006). Formal networks provide rich and detailed information but lack the inspiration to produce innovative ideas as they usually exchange the shared views to reinforce the existing knowledge. Informal networks, on the other hand, have the potential to inspire new ideas through relaxed and open-minded communication. In many cases, our inspiration is derived from networked friends or even a broader social network rather than the collaboration in work place. Both formal and informal networks provide a positive contribution to innovation, and there should be a network structure to balance both. Powell and his colleagues (2006) argued that an organization in a heterogeneous network that combines both formal and informal ties is more innovative that others in the homogenous network. In other words, successful external relations appear to beget more ties, which fuel firm growth and innovation. In this stance, libraries should consider develop multiplex ties with different partners, either through pursuing collaborations or expending an existing research partnership into some projects development or establishing a more closed relationship with the users to increase the communication with partners. Another major challenge for libraries would be considering how to best exploit the power of informal networks (e.g. the networks between library users) to benefit organizational innovation?

Third Perspective: this stream of studies looked at the relationship between organizational change and innovation. Researchers holding incremental view of organizational change stated that organizations are resistant to change due to inherent inertia embedded in established routines. As a result, organizations rely on the existing routines and core competencies and are slow to change (Nelson & Winter, 1982). Innovation, in this sense, is a continuous and long-term process that includes incremental changes rather than an abrupt and discontinuous process. For others that viewed innovation as a revolutionary change, they held opposite positions. They argued that organizations have long time of stability and they need and are capable of initiating sudden change to survive in an unstable business environment (Gersick 1991; Romanelli & Tushman, 1994). Especially when facing a major crisis, organizations naturally make fundamental transformations such as changing structure, top authority to deal with difficult situations. The two views studied the organizational capacity to change from their own position, but both arguments rely on the assumption that organization has a matching structure. The second view believed that rapid changes are necessary for organizations to cope with the disruptive environment. However, if an organization has a strict top-down structure, the outcome might not be desirable as the communication follows a rigid vertical direction and it takes time for middle-level managers and their subordinates to understand and internalize the innovation. This again suggests that libraries should match their structure and innovation decisions with the environment.

The Consequences of Organizational Innovation

Vincent and his colleagues (2004) used meta-analysis approach to integrate determents and consequences of organizational innovation. Based on their study, the outcomes of the innovation have been polarized into three groups: 1) financial performance; 2) efficiency gains; and 3) self-measured performance. The result suggested that innovation is positively related to all three categories of outcomes, but with the strongest positive relationship with efficiency gains. Their study basically looked at the impact of innovation on organizational level, without considering a broader effect on a larger population. This is understandable as social goal is secondary to organizational goal for businesses; however, for public agents like libraries, the social impact is critically important as the mission of libraries is to improve the society through facilitating knowledge creation. In this sense, innovation to library is more than improved service or advanced systems or popular public image, it is finally about the life pattern change in users and the society. Will the technological development facilitate universal and free use of information? Will improved library services lead to a better knowledge creation and distribution pattern in users and broader community? Will customers make better and informed choice in knowledge creation and distribution with the new capabilities of libraries? These are the questions and concerns that libraries need to and are responsible to address.


  1. Should libraries move toward a more organic form to cope with the current environment?
  2. How should libraries best exploit the power of informal networks (e.g. the networks between library users) to benefit organizational innovation?
  3. Will library innovations make a greater impact on a larger population and even on the society? For instance, how could enhanced library services lead to a better knowledge creation and distribution pattern in users and broader community?


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Brown, J.S. and Duguid, P. (1998). ‘Organizing Knowledge’. California Management Review, 40(3), 90-111.

Brown, J. S. and Duguid, P.(1991) ‘Organizational Learning and Communities of Practice: Towards a Unified View of Working, Learning and Innovation’. Organization Science 2(1),40-57.

Burns, T. and Stalker, G.M. (1961). The Management of Innovation. London: Tavistock

Gersick, C.J.G. (1991). ‘Revolutionary Change Theories: A Multilevel Exploration of the Punctuated Paradigm’. The Academy of Management Review, 16/1: 10-36.

Lam, A. (2006). Organizational Innovation. In Fagerberg, J., Mowery, D., & Richard, N. R., The Oxford handbook of innovation. Oxford University Press.

Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lawrence, P.R. and Lorsch, J.W. (1967). ‘Differentiation and Integration in Complex Organizations’. Administrative Science Quarterly, 12:1-47.

Mintzberg, H. (1979). The Structuring of Organization. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.

Nelson R. R. and Winter, S.G. (1982). An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change. Cambridge, M.A.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Nonaka, I. and Takeuchi, H.(1995). The Knowledge Creating Company. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nonaka, I.(1994). ‘A Dynamic Theory of Organizational Knowledge Creation’. Organization Science, 5: 14-37.

Powell, W. W. and Grodal, S. (2006). Networks of Innovators. In Fagerberg, J., Mowery, D., & Richard, N. R., The Oxford handbook of innovation. Oxford University Press.

Romanelli, E. and Tushman, M.L. (1994). ‘Organizational Transformation as Punctuated Equilibrium: An Empirical Test’. The Academy of Management Journal, 37(5), 1141- 1166.

Schumpeter, A. J. (1947). Economic Theory and Etrepreneurial History. In ColeH.A., Change and The Etrepreneur: Postulates and Patterns For Entrepreneurial History (pp. 63-84). Cambridge:MA: Harvard University Press.

Swain, D. K. (2009). Harnessing Innovations in Libraries and Information Centers: Issues and Trends. In ICSSR National Seminar on Capacity Building for Library Professionals in Digital Environment. Bhubaneswar.

*This supplement did not appear in the original printed Atlas, but is being considered for inclusion in future editions. What do you think about the supplement and the topic?