Working Paper: Entrepreneurs, Idea Fandom and the Practice of Epistemaphilia. Or: What it takes to be an innovation leader

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Was können Unternehmen von der emotionalen und sozialen Kraft von Fangruppierungen für die Innovation lernen. Ein Thesenpapier von Ralf Langen, Inhaber change consulting langen, München, das sich auf den Spuren des MIT-Professors Henry Jenkis in Richtung Epistemaphilia bewegt.

“We all care deeply about different things at different times and in different ways.”

Sacha Judd, Fan of Pop Group One Direction


Entrepreneurs, Idea Fandom and the Practice of Epistemaphilia.
Or: What it takes to be an innovation leader


By Ralf Langen


How big companies and large organizations can better manage their innovation processes and ultimately become more innovative turning novel ideas into commercial success – is probably one of the most widely researched and written about topics in management literature today.

And how essential a certain style of management and a certain culture is for creating value under the conditions of the modern, globalized, highly networked and digitalized knowledge economy, becomes very obvious by only a short look at the so-called “innovation value chain”. According to its inventors[1], this chain spans from idea generation (in-house and external sourcing, cross-pollination), to conversion (selection and development of ideas) to diffusion (spreading and multiplication across the organization) and it can only be effective when it is well managed and also embedded into a certain corporate or organizational culture. Let’s forget the “well managed” aspect of innovation for now[2] and focus on culture. An innovation culture that allows superior innovation results (given that the innovation value chain is well managed…) has to have at least three core ingredients:

  1. Entrepreneurialism – Innovative companies need entrepreneurs and a consistent culture of entrepreneurialism throughout the organization;
  2. Idea fandom – Innovative companies need a “fan culture” for innovation which in essence is a participatory innovation process with high levels of employee engagement and established ways of collaboration;
  3. Epistemaphilia – a set of work, leadership and communications practices that supports active knowledge sharing – “epistemaphilia”, which is not simply a shared pleasure in knowing but a shared pleasure in exchanging knowledge.
1. Entrepreneurialism – The power of creative construction

Despite the recent bigger revival of Schumpeterian ideas and his notion of “creative destruction” as a main habit of true entrepreneurs, there is a wide consensus today that entrepreneurship leading to business success is more about “creative construction”. An entrepreneur has the ability to offer an innovative solution to a frequently unrecognized problem. And according to distinguished management guru Peter Drucker, the entrepreneur is somebody who “upsets and disorganises”. Entrepreneurs innovate, he argues, and “innovation is the specific instrument of entrepreneurship”. A special report by The Economist published this year[3] shows how Entrepreneurship has gone mainstream – being supported by political leaders, management thinkers, influential pressure groups and being reinforced by a strong knowledge infrastructure and financing schemes – and has really gone global: today’s business heroes are no longer only the familiar “college dropouts” like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Steve Jobs or Serge Brin and Larry Page. There are also folks like Azim Premji, who turned Wipro into a software giant or Nandan Nilekani, one of the founders of Infosys. According to the report, entrepreneurs can now come from almost anywhere, and entrepreneurial capitalism is the latest revolution for the 21st century management generations. De-mystifying the very notion of entrepreneurship, the authors of the Economist report provide a good conceptual framework for entrepreneurialism as one of the key drivers for business success, also pointing out three important truths about entrepreneurship that are relevant for innovation excellence:

  1. Entrepreneurshipis a social activity – successful entrepreneurs are in no way “lonely figures” but are excellent in networking, in reaching out beyond organizational boundaries and in leveraging strengths from business partnerships. Idea generation and diffusion of novel products and services is naturally enhanced.
  2. Some of the most successful entrepreneurs today focus on processes rather than products, which means that creativity and creative breakthroughs are no longer limited to scientific or technology developments or pure “invention capabilities”. Innovation is also and very much about finding better ways and solutions.
  3. Entrepreneurialism is not limited to start-ups, it can very well flourish in large companies. Giants in innovation like Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble, Microsoft or GE and Siemens are valid examples for installing entrepreneurial mechanisms within wide-spun, large and complex organizations. Entrepreneurial approaches to innovation work within corporate environments.
2. Idea Fandom: the power of trust and applause 

What are the best practice examples for leading innovation practices today? Clearly IBM’s world-famous collaborative innovation approach, definitely Linux and its forceful open source development based on cumulatively deepening, self-organized and vibrant human networks, very much Toyota and its superior production system which stimulates innovation across the organization and across complete supply chains[4]. They all set examples that others were following. The UBS idea exchange project, testing the waters of “collective genius” and “grass-roots collaboration” in a rather conservative management environment, would be another example. A very interesting example, as it showcases a groundbreaking initiative in an organization where “the notion of liberating the ideas, feelings and opinions of the wider employee base [were] unfamiliar in itself”[5].

But what have all these best practice examples in common? They show that it is in the interstices of the human network—rather than in the minds of a few wunderkinder—that most real innovations are born. And they illustrate what is also a result of wider research into the employee engagement phenomenon. Engaged employees, as Gallup[6] and others show, are people who work with passion and feel a profound connection to their company. They drive innovation and move the organization forward. Highly engaged employees typically forget about time and space, they focus on current challenges even when they are not directly involved, they invest free time and invite others in – being “emotionally contagious” and passionate about things which they feel need to be done. Described like that, highly engaged employees who are at the core of innovation power, have a strikingly strong resemblance to self-organized groups which have long been marginalized and stigmatized: fans.

Thanks to MIT Professor Henry Jenkins, who has been looking into “fandom” as a modern example for an active, self-governed thinking community, that is populating a new knowledge space in today’s societies, we now have a good definition of fandom at hand: it is about self-organizing groups focused around the collective production, debate and circulation of meaning. Groups that are more and more populating the emerging new knowledge spaces on the web, the “cosmopedia”[7] (Pierry Levy), where “unanswered questions will create tension within cosmopedia space, indicating regions where invention and innovation are required”[8].  Groups that are among the most active, creative, critically engaged and socially connected people in today’s popular culture environments.

What can we learn from the fandom approach, coming back to the cultural requirements for powerful innovation, then?

Idea or Innovation Fandom requires high levels of trust among the members of the thinking community. 

Like fans distributed around the world with only few chances to meet in person on a regular basis (Trekkies typically meet at fan conventions), innovation communities within larger organizations need to interact and share ideas based on full transparency of one’s own identity, the personal reputation as an expert in certain categories and the full trust that the problem or issue which is raised is a real need around a real case. This trust and reputation element has also been recognized in the Linux and Toyota innovation approaches: “With their reputations at stake, people are less likely to act opportunistically. With the same information available to everyone, there is less chance that one party will exploit another’s ignorance. And with a common vocabulary and way of working, fewer misunderstandings occur. Those factors drive up trust, the fundamental social capital of these communities.” Innovation communities which are based on reputation and trust are – on a tool level – therefore using Listservers where members are visible, collaboration tools like “straight-to”[9] which allow governance by etiquette as well as observer and voter features for all users and a convenient possibility to “publicly” support ideas and thoughts from others as well as easy access to new knowledge items.

The second key learning we can take away from the fandom scene is around that knowledge aspect and the philosophy of knowledge sharing.

3. Epistemaphilia – Loving to share and exchange knowledge

Real fandom is not only about identification and a devotion to “your” topic – be it Star Trek, The Beauty and the Beast, ER, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Rihanna or One Direction. It is also about a unique attitude and willingness when it comes to knowledge of all kinds. It is what Henry Jenkins calls “epistemaphilia”, which is “not simply a pleasure in knowing but a pleasure in exchanging knowledge”. Again, this is a core element of successful innovation practices which can be observed at best practice examples from the corporate world: “A rigorous work discipline, common intellectual property, and constant sharing combine to distribute knowledge widely and relatively evenly across human networks. That knowledge includes not just the formal, syntactic information found in databases but also the semantically rich, ambiguous knowledge about content and process that is the currency of creative collaboration.”[10]

Very much like fans, discussing the subtleties of character relationships or technical features important for narrative development or psychological implications of the TV-World heroes, rich knowledge environments within corporations are essential to bring innovation forward. Again, Toyota and Linux are good examples, where fandom for innovation is already practiced: “What do we mean by the sheen of a body stamping having insufficient luster? What, precisely, must we discuss with the steel company to correct such an ill-defined problem? This kind of no-easy-answer question is continually discussed and resolved in a thousand small-team collaborations. The resulting nuanced thinking and richer common vocabulary on such matters are fed back into the knowledge pool, where they are available for further refinement by the whole community.”[11]

Epistemaphilia, like any cultural attitude based on love and devotion needs a framework, the more so when the objects of desire are ideas and knowledge: epistemaphilia, the love for knowledge exchange for innovation needs as a basis a shared pool of knowledge (information that is available to all members) and as a “breathing” function universally available tools for moving knowledge around. For a fandom approach to innovation, the knowledge pool has to be more than a limited section of the company intranet, but rather a knowledge sphere which connects proprietary knowledge with the collective intelligence of the Web, and the web of partnerships and alliances. And the tools for moving knowledge around seem to be jams and jamming activities, where knowledge is connected and further enriched with social grain. Combined with blogs and bloggers as navigators through knowledge fields as well as wikis and wikipedians acting as supporters and archivars, epistemaphilia can be a powerful practice to boost innovation.

[1] Morton T. Hansen / Julian Birkinshaw, “The Innovation Value Chain”, Harvard Business Review, March 2009
[2] And there are many, many good advisors to better innovation management than can be listed here. Among them by all means Gary Hamel, “The Why, What and How of Management Innovation”
Harvard Business Review, February 2006 as well as GH, “The Future of Management”, HBS Press, 2007
[3] The Economist, Special Report on Entrepreneurship “Global Heroes”, March 14, 2009.
[4] For the innovation practices at Linux and Toyota, see the landmark article by Philip Evans and Bob Wolf, “Collaboration Rules”, in Harvard Business Review July/August 2005.
[5] “The idea exchange at UBS”, in: Labnotes – Management Lab 2.0, Issue 12, June 2009.
[6] Gallup Management Journal: Gallup Study – Engaged Employees Inspire Company Innovation, 12 October 2006; Development Dimensions International, Employee Engagement – The Key to Realizing Competitive Advantage, 2007 –;  Sabine Stecher, “Why engagement matters?”, in: J.Klewes / R. Langen (eds.): Change 2.0 – Beyond Organizational Transformation, Heidelberg 2008 (Springer)
[7] Pierry Levy, Collective Intelligence – Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace, Cambridge Perseus, 1997.
[8] Henry Jenkins, “Interactive Audiences? The ‘Collective Intelligence’ of media fans”, in: Henry Jenkins: Fans, Bloggers and Gamers. Exploring Participatory Culture, NY University Press 2006, pp. 134ff.
[9] For a brief discussion of this technology see,,2261273,00.html (Digital Democracy Takes Germans‘ Concerns to the Chancellor
[10] Henry Jenkins: Fans, Bloggers and Gamers. Exploring Participatory Culture, NY University Press 2006
[11] Jenkins (2006)