‘The Work of Innovation’ Launches Investigatio Scholar-in-Residence Series

“We learn how to do things within the context of the community we’re already in,” Dr. Beth Bechky told her audience of around 80 attendees at Pfizer Auditorium recently. An associate professor of organizational behavior and technology management at the University of California, Davis, Dr. Bechky was the first scholar to participate in Polytechnic Institute of NYU’s Investigatio Scholar-in-Residence Series, which plans to feature four guest lecturers a year.

As if to prove Dr. Bechky’s point about communities of learning, Dr. Anne-Laure Fayard, assistant professor of technology management and organizer of the Investigatio series, described how she was inspired by a similar lecture series at Design London, where she was a visiting scholar last year. “I saw that they always drew between 80 and 120 people,” she said, “and it was a mixed crowd of scientists, artists, and managers.” The energetic interactions between disciplines that Dr. Fayard witnessed in London and at other institutions suggested she, too, could “develop a conversation on human-centered innovation,” she said, explaining the goals of the Investigatio series to the crowd gathered at Pfizer.

Dr. Bechky, who is a well-known ethnographer of various work environments, such as design consultancies, film crews, and forensic crime labs, focused her talk on that topic (see end of article for full lecture). She identified three factors that she believes most shape innovation: communities, which structure how we learn and work; materiality; and everyday practices. She argued against the stereotype of the lone genius, for example, citing how employees in one design firm often brainstorm their way together to a solution and how the characteristics of the activity differ from other forms of collaboration. “The way you have a normal conversation is not how you brainstorm,” Dr. Bechky said. “In a normal conversation, you rush to evaluation. That’s not the case here.”

She also stressed the importance of “boundary objects,” or physical items that separate colleagues, such as a piece of machinery or blueprint. “It’s the material organization of the workplace that can facilitate problem-solving and communication and provide symbolic support for innovation,” Dr. Bechky said, showing a slide of the R&D facilities of a semiconductor manufacturing company. The boundary objects in the example were the machines that produced the semiconductors; the workers who handled them understood them in a way that the engineers working to improve the machines did not and so the objects were a material boundary representing the gap in knowledge between the two employee groups.

Her talk inspired members of the audience, who posed numerous questions to Dr. Bechky in the Q&A that followed her presentation. One professional in a middle management position at an ad agency asked about negotiating the goals of different groups — the younger creative team he oversaw versus older, senior staff — while another audience member asked advice for the planned spatial reorganization of her office. Raised hands indicated still more questions, but Dr. Fayard steered the lively conversation to the reception held after the talk. There, drinks and food provided by the Graduate Center continued to fuel interactions between attendees and Dr. Bechky.

Reflecting later on the success of the evening, Dr. Fayard believed that the presentation offered “tools that help people articulate their experience in the workplace — and maybe even improve it.” To learn more about the Investigatio Series, you can contact her at alfayard@poly.edu.