Thursday, July 18, 2013

Reading :: Networks of Innovation

Networks of Innovation: Vaccine Development at Merck, Sharp and Dohme, and Mulford, 1895-1995
By Louis Galambos with Jane Eliot Sewell

I picked this book up at a used bookstore—it was $1—because it sounded interesting and because I'm interested in both networks and innovation. It's a historical account of how a research unit—first at Mulford, then acquired by Sharp & Dohme, then acquired by Merck—innovated in developing vaccines over a century.

The book is an interesting read. But, at least for me, it didn't fulfill its potential. That's for three reasons.

First, it doesn't make a case for the "so what." I understand that the historical account may be intrinsically interesting, but beyond that, the book doesn't offer any larger lessons for us in the introduction or throughout. Finally, in the conclusion (Chapter 10), the authors draw some lessons: "it enables us to see more clearly the pattern of long cycles that characterizes this process" of innovation; "the development of organizational capabilities followed a similar pattern"; and "New research leadership... was usually needed to break existing patterns and develop new network-related capabilities" (pp. 241-243). No big surprises here, I'm afraid. The term "network" itself was underdefined and underanalyzed.

Second, it explicitly follows a "great man" view of history. The book is direct and honest about this approach, acknowledging that histories have lately avoided focusing on individual contributions in favor of broad social analysis. But the approach seems to leave out a lot about how the networks of innovation functioned. And I can't help but notice that some of the "great men" discussed in the book, such as former CEO P. Roy Vagelos and former research director Maurice R. Hilleman, are also prominently thanked in the Acknowledgements. Hilleman's "notes, oral history, and scientific publications were indispensable to our research" (p.253). I believe this, but I also wonder how the book might have turned out if other sources had been relied upon more heavily.

Third, as alluded above, the book acknowledges the "networks of innovation" but does not characterize these networks in much detail or with a specific theoretical or conceptual framework. I was left with the impression that "networks" is being used in a highly colloquial sense, the sense that different organizations in an industry shared information and expertise with each other. That's an insight, but not a surprising one, and the authors don't do much to contrast this form of sharing with other forms or to demonstrate how it uniquely contributed to innovation.

It might be that I'm wanting this book to provide things that it's simply not meant to provide, so I hope the review doesn't sound harsh. Bottom line, it's still an interesting book, but may not be very useful for people who are interested in science and technology studies (STS) or related fields.

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