Facilitating innovation : an action-oriented approach and participatory methodology to improve innovative social practice in agriculture

P.G.H. Engel

    Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


    This study focuses upon the social organization of innovation. It makes use of insights from knowledge and information systems research, development sociology, management science and applied philosophy and seeks answers to the following questions: What do social actors, individuals and/or organizations, actually <em>do</em> to innovate their practices? How do they organize themselves? Can this be managed or facilitated, and if so, how? The research is exploratory rather than conclusion-oriented and synthesizes the results of over 50 case studies of agricultural innovation in 15 different countries, including the Netherlands. Its main results are a conceptualization of innovation as a social process and a participatory action-research methodology to enhance innovative performance. The methodology is based on soft systems thinking and offers a variety of 'windows' or analytical perspectives to help social actors analyze the way they are organized for innovation in an action-oriented fashion. The methodology has been field-tested in 15 areas in 7 different countries.<p>The author proposes that agricultural innovation can be looked at as resulting from the interplay between social actors representing relevant social practices. Social practices relevant to agricultural innovation include farming, research, extension, education, agroindustrial processing, marketing, mass media communication, policy-making, product quality control and the development, production, certification and distribution of inputs. Innovation then is a diffuse, social process of both individual and collective inquiry into intentions, alternative solutions and enabling and constraining conditions which leads to new or modified problem definitions and practical choices of solutions. The organization and quality of these inquiries eventually determine innovative performance at a certain point in time. What social actors actually do to innovate their practices can be understood as <em>networking:</em> social actors in search of relevant ideas, knowledge, information and experiences, continuously build and manage relationships with others which, by some standard, they consider relevant to innovating their practices. As a result of networking, over time forms of social organization of innovation emerge. These reflect dynamics of their own and are not fully describable or explicable in terms of micro-events.<p>The author proposes four such emergent forms to be relevant to students of complex innovation theatres: <em>Convergences</em> emerge when social actors narrow down the scope of their arguments and the range of issues and alternative scenarios they consider relevant to innovating their practices. <em>Resource coalitions</em> emerge when social actors decide to pool their resources in a joint performance. <em>Communication networks</em> emerge as a direct consequence of social actors' decisions to create joint learning opportunities and to produce and exchange information among themselves. Over time, where the above forms coincide, a pattern of more or less durable relationships between a limited set of social actors, an <em>innovation configuration,</em> may emerge. In such a configuration strategic consensus, a clear definition of tasks and responsibilities and a rational allocation of resources among social actors is possible. It also appears that each of these forms, but particularly the last one, may demonstrate inertia when faced with rapidly changing demands and/or circumstances. As a result, innovative performance may drop.<p>To enable social actors to assess their current way of organizing for innovation, a participatory action-research methodology is proposed: RAAKS, Rapid or Relaxed Appraisal of Agricultural Knowledge Systems. Its design is based upon 'soft knowledge systems thinking', combining the philosophy and guiding principles of soft systems methodology with analytical instruments from knowledge systems research. Through active participation of relevant social actors, RAAKS aims at a threefold objective: to raise awareness and understanding, to probe new alliances and to formulate proposals for action. It guides participants through an accumulative, interactive learning process leading from problem appraisal, via a joint inquiry towards the definition of potentially useful actions and/or interventions. In recognition of the appreciative character of innovation and its social organization, RAAKS offers a choice of perspectives or 'windows' to help stakeholders recognize, organize and debate relevant ideas and events. The conceptual approach mentioned above supports the integration of the findings into a more comprehensive understanding of the social organization of innovation in each particular case.<p>RAAKS has been field-tested over a dozen times in the Netherlands and in six countries in Central America. These experiences confirmed its relevance and applicability as a methodology, as well as its adaptability to particular demands and circumstances. RAAKS proved most useful in situations where, often ill-defined, feelings of unease persist among relevant stakeholders about the course innovation takes or its pace. It has proved useful in training (future) extension and research managers, and helping them to understand the context in which they operate. RAAKS also demonstrated its usefulness to those organizations or individuals who sell or provide 'knowledge/information intensive' products or services, such as research, extension and advisory services. It provides them with an instrument to appreciate the dynamic social context in which their products or services have to be marketed and are to prove themselves. Finally, due to its participatory character and soft systems design, RAAKS seems a promising instrument to help social actors organize themselves to deal with complex societal problems, which require higher levels of effective cooperation among stakeholders, such as natural resource management, regional development, stopping environmental degradation or waste disposal. Several experiences with RAAKS outside agriculture illustrate that its relevance to facilitating complex innovation processes is not limited to agricultural development as such.<p>As a general conclusion, the study points at the need to amplify research on knowledge management. To facilitate knowing between agencies and organizations, interorganizational communication, whether direct or indirect, joint learning, sense making and resource pooling would have to become objects of study and eventually of (knowledge) management. Also, networking would have to be studied, its adequacy, effectiveness and efficiency in specific situations assessed and improvements designed and evaluated. The author argues that the challenge for management sciences with respect to social organization of innovation is to achieve a balance between direction and control on the one hand, and the creation and maintenance of space for serendipitous and epiphenomenal improvements on the other. In addition, he proposes RAAKS may contribute not only to facilitating innovative social practice directly, but to scientific inquiry as well. For such a purpose, its potential and limitations do need to be further evaluated. In general, he suggests, soft (knowledge) systems thinking receives far less attention from the research community than it deserves.
    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Röling, N.G., Promotor
    • Simons, J.L., Promotor, External person
    Award date20 Jan 1995
    Place of PublicationS.l.
    Print ISBNs9789054853473
    Publication statusPublished - 1995



    • farm management
    • innovations
    • modernization
    • agriculture
    • improvement
    • social sciences
    • cum laude

    Cite this