We are supposed to like innovations. They drive the world forward, with effects that range from the pleasant (like the camera on your phone) to the vital (like portable ultrasound in developing nations). In fact, many of the heroes in business are known because of their innovations. A classic example is Steve Jobs launching the multi-function iPhone, which relied on knowledge of music storage and playoff, as well as internet connectivity, that previously had not been part of mobile phone technology. This is one of the two classical stories on how to innovate: combine existing knowledge in new ways, or create completely new knowledge.
The only problem with the iPhone story is that it makes us think the world rewards innovation and that firms doing it get Apple-like fame and fortunes. That happens to be the exception. A research paper by Matt Theeke, Francisco Polidoro, and James Fredrickson in Administrative Science Quarterly has shown that firms using new kinds of knowledge for making innovations face a surprising form of risk: they may end up getting ignored.
The details of this research help us see exactly what happens. All kinds of firms want stock brokerage firms to issue analyst reports on them, because that means investors will pay attention to them, which helps them gain financing. This is especially important for firms that rely on innovations, because making innovations means paying money now to get money later, which is exactly what financing is used for. In fact, there are entire industries that are so dependent on innovations that analyst reports are essential. Theeke, Polidoro, and Fredrickson studied medical devices, which is a good example of an innovation-driven industry. Brokerage firms covering that industry need to understand research and knowledge use, because otherwise they cannot estimate future profits well.
So what is the problem? Well, the brokerage firms have expertise in the conventional use of knowledge, which means that use of new knowledge – innovative use of knowledge – is something they understand less well. As a result, firms incorporating new knowledge are more likely to be ignored, as brokerages drop them from their coverage. The newer the knowledge is, and the more expertise the brokerage firm has in covering other firms in the industry using conventional knowledge, the worse the situation is. Just as expertise makes some firms rigid in their knowledge use, it makes brokerage firms rigid in their knowledge valuation.
So our tales of heroic unconventional innovators are good examples of exceptions, because business rewards convention. Does that mean it is better to follow convention and just make minor improvements? Not really, because easier access to financing is very different from more successful product launches. It just means that firms planning to use new knowledge in making innovations should check their bank accounts first, because they may have to pay the cost themselves.