Explaining Innovation Using a Supply Chain Framework.

Author:Subedi, Deepak


According to Edison, "to invent" one needs "a good imagination" and "pile of junk" (Sutton & Hargadon, 2000). Seminal works on innovation point to the "off-the-shelf" parts (and ideas) used and reoriented in different ways as drivers of many breakthrough innovations (Christensen, 2006; Kim & Mauborgne, 1999). Further, Brynjolfsson and McAfee (2014) point to the explosion of digital technologies which have led to so many pieces of hardware and software lying around to suggest the possibility of exponential growth in such combinatorial innovations.

Yet, successful innovations also entail executing great ideas to fruition. More and more, each of those parts which need to be combined belong to different organizations. Still, business logic, which demands that it has to be done without losing the control over either the product or the process, means successful innovation also requires successful management of the supply chains (Gans, 2016; Rigby, Sutherland, & Takeuchi, 2016). Therefore, it is natural that the ability of Amazon to come up with successful innovative products, from "kindle" (a durable breakthrough innovation) to the "hoverboard" (a short lived fad), quickly and efficiently has been described as a triumph of their supply chain management (Economist, 2016).

While the role of the supply chain in innovation is thus made explicit in the popular press, the academic literature for the most part treats it as separate. For example, not a single article, either in a whole book consisting of articles published in the Harvard Business Review on innovation (Harvard Business Review on Innovation, 2001) or in a similar one on supply chain (Harvard Business Review on Supply Chain, 2006) discuss the role of supply chain on innovation. This article is an endeavor to discuss the overlap in concepts and practices of these two areas.


According to Hargadon and Sutton (2000), the first step in any innovation process is capturing good ideas. Such ideas are generally found in items, parts, hardware, and software already available. Modular parts, both hardware and software, can be combined and recombined in different ways allowing infinite opportunities for persevering and imaginative tinkerers to innovate (Baldwin & Clark, 1997). The of-the-self parts, which are described as a basis for many breakthrough innovations (Christensen, 2006; Kim & Mauborgne, 1999), and McAfee and Brynjolfsson's (2014) suggestion...

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