2019 Pushing the Boundary Award

The winner of the SAP’s Pushing the Boundary Award in 2019 are Meri Jalonen (Aalto University) and Kathrin Sele (Aalto University) with their paper “Innovating through Experiments: The Epistemic Nature of Experimenting in Practice”

Congratulations on being the winner of the Pushing the Boundary Award! Can you share with us what the paper is about?

Thanks, we very much appreciate the recognition. Broadly speaking the paper deals with the question of how organizations use experiments to innovate. We actually had the opportunity to follow experimenting initiatives at the Finnish Tax Administration over a period of three years. One initiative that we followed experimented with the use of Robotic Process Automation to substitute routine tasks of tax officers.

What we saw when observing the experiment as it unfolded was that the nature of experimenting changed regularly - shifting from being very instrumental to very uncertain. These insights led us to engage with Science and Technology Studies and more in particular with the work of Hans-Jörg Rheinberger. In his historical studies of experimentation in the sciences, he introduced the notion of experimental systems that consist of the dynamic interplay between epistemic things and technical objects. Using this conceptualization we were able to see how the artifacts (e.g. the robot) as well as the practices at play shifted from being seen as unproblematic to highly problematic requiring the experimenters to engage differently with them. These shifts, which we labeled epistemizing and de-epistemizing, drove the innovation process and ensured the fruitful interaction between moments of inquiry and moments of closure.

The paper examines what experimenting in the innovation process actually means for organizational life. Why did you choose to study this aspect of the innovation process?

Experimentation and other so-called agile methods seem to be very en vogue in both private and public organizations. However, it seemed that while organizations are using these methods neither them nor us researchers really understand what happens in practice. Actually, a lot of current research is rather normative in nature, characterizing experiments as an innovation tool that if well done will succeed. We felt that what we saw in the field did not correspond to this instrumental view and wanted to better grasp this phenomenon.

Your unit of analysis are experiments. Can you share your methodological approach to get ahold of this unit in your field research?

In comparison to researchers in organizational behavior or behavioral economics who use experiments as their method, we decided to turn the experiment into the unit of analysis. Following scholars in science studies we opted for an ethnographic approach as it seemed to us the only valid way to study experiments as they happen. Within that approach we use a practice theoretical lens that allows us to get a grasp of what people do and how they do it.

The empirical context of your sector is the public sector. What are your takeaways for the practice of public sector organizations?

To be honest, this taking place in the public sector is rather a coincidence and we believe that our results hold for the private and the public sector. This said, what we learned in the process and also shared with the Finnish Tax Administration in a workshop is that experiments cannot be boxed and they may lead to unexpected consequences. Rather than seeing drawbacks and surprises as a failure, engaging with them seems to have a generative effect that is beneficial for organizations beyond running the experiment. In our opinion, organizations who want to embrace such methods should have a certain willingness and ability to deal with unexpectedness.

Did you face any obstacles in the course of your research and writing-up? If so, how did you tackle them?

Obstacles and unexpected things are part of the research process and our project is not an exception. Plus, we seem to like experimental systems. We have been and still are struggling in writing-up the findings in a clear way. This is probably due to the fact that we are creating a language that allows us to describe what happened while writing. As it was Meri who collected the data and most of it is in Finnish, we have developed the practice of writing relatively extensive descriptions of processes in order to allow a joint engagement with the data. This practice was very helpful early on in the process as we could continuously discuss whatever happened at a specific moment in time at the tax administration.

Thanks so much! What would you recommend to colleagues that aim to win this award in the future?

This is probably the most difficult question as we can only speculate about the answer. First, we think that we open up a phenomenon which is not yet well understood but which many organizations are engaging with. Second, in the process we experimented with different perspectives that could be useful to gain a more fine-grained understanding of what we are observing. Opting for Rheinberger’s work might not be the most straightforward choice but it allows us to see aspects that otherwise would remain hidden. What do we suggest? Leave your field of comfort and let yourself be inspired by ideas outside of our core discipline.