Narratives of innovation: the case of UK infrastructure

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Bartlett Sch of Const & Proj Management

Abstract

This research project seeks to explore the interaction between innovation narratives at at industrial policy and organisational levels in the context of UK infrastructure sector. It is based on two fundamental research questions: 1) How do innovation narratives at industrial policy and firm levels interact in the context of UK infrastructure? and 2) What are the implications of this interaction for people and firms? The UK infrastructure sector faces a challenge in delivering targets of reducing costs of investment in infrastructure assets and improving their quality through innovation. The interaction between industry- and firm-levels innovation narratives have direct implications for the innovative capabilities of firms across the sector (Bartel and Garud, 2009; Denning, 2008). By improving innovative capabilities of the infrastructure firms, the project will help to solve a 'productivity puzzle' - a long-term slowdown in UK productivity growth.
The current literature is largely silent on the ways in which narratives of innovation at industry and organisational levels interact. This is the gap in knowledge that the proposed research project will aim to fulfil. There is undoubtedly increasing interest amongst scholars of innovation in the importance of narratives, although there remains little consistency in terms of theoretical approach and scarce empirical investigation (Beckman and Marry, 2009). This 'narrative turn' in innovation studies focuses on understanding how the meaning of innovation is socially constructed through the use of narratives (Vaara et al., 2016). In this project, narratives are seen as unique discursive construction that embodies unity of purpose, a degree of coherence together with connotations of performative intent. Although rarely fixed or completely monolithic, narratives are nevertheless often repeated in organisations (Dailey and Browning, 2014). Narratives are often spoken, but there are other forms of performed narratives such as written and symbolic/visual. These are often reproduced on policies and reports, corporate websites, or in other externally-facing marketing material. Narratives hence may carry important messages at the level of the firm and at a sectoral level, and have important implications for developing strategies. Senior managers play an active role in the construction of such narratives, as they are responsible for formulating and disseminating an organisational vision and strategies (Sims, 2003; Sonenshein, 2010). Narratives of innovation also play an important role in constructing individual and collective identities (Vaara et al., 2016). For example, firms become recognised as innovative through the narratives they adopt.
Innovation narratives will be examined based on the textual and visual data publicly available from innovation policies, government and industry innovation reports and strategies; and narrative interviews with established industry collaborators, including but not limited to Costain, Anglian Water, Galliford Try, Thames Tideway Tunnel, High Speed Two, as stated in the letters of support. Narrative interviews are likely to encourage interviewees to talk about innovations with the reference to organisational values and the vision of the industry to move forward (Soderberg, 2006).
The three-year research programme will result in new scholarly knowledge on innovation narratives in UK infrastructure. The new investigator (PI) will be based at the Bartlett School of Construction and Project Management, University College London, working with Prof Andrew Davies as a mentor along with other leading researchers in the area of innovation and narrative research. ESRC New Investigator Grant will support the advancement of the investigator's and employed researcher's research and leadership skills. It will expand international collaboration network that would potentially lead to joint 4* publications and application for a larger ESRC grant proposal.

Planned Impact

This research project is likely to have societal, economic and academic impact at policy, business, voluntary and public engagement levels. Long-term collaborations with infrastructure project-based organisations are going to become opportunities for changing their identities from the traditional, not innovative and slow in changing practices to value-driven, innovative driven by leadership organisations. This project has a potential to increase innovation activities of UK infrastructure organisations, achieve greater alignment of innovation narratives with the innovation agenda of the industry, and consequently solve a 'productivity puzzle', a long-term slowdown in UK productivity growth. This research project will develop a mobile application that infrastructure companies will be able to use in order to evaluate their innovativeness and learn from best practices. This will enable infrastructure organisations to become more innovative by creating new innovation manager roles, recognise and reward innovation champions, develop innovation strategies and programmes.
This project will advance knowledge about narratives of innovation, as currently there is a lack of theoretical and methodological consistency in their understanding. There is an increasing interest and recognition of a 'narrative turn' in organisation and innovation studies, but little is known about the role, nature of innovation narratives and their interaction between industry an organisational level. This project will contribute to the existing knowledge of innovation narratives in project-based firms. It will open up a new way of understanding the ways meanings of innovation is constructed through narratives. This project will help scholars to use findings and apply ideas from narrative theory and methodology to understanding different concepts. It will open up a new theoretical and empirical framing that can potentially be used to understand narratives about different organisational phenomena.
This project will likely foster partnerships with business and industry in the form of Knowledge Transfer Partnerships and Industrial Case Studentships to achieve economic and societal impact. In the field of the Built Environment, these types of partnerships between academia, businesses and professional institutions are important for the knowledge exchange and impact that occurs from the movement of people from research into industry and vice versa. This will result in new employments of new researchers and PhD students at the UCL Bartlett School of Construction and Project Management under the applicant's supervision.
Knowledge exchange activities will be at the core of this research project. Collaboration with colleagues, narrative theorists overseas, industry partners will result in better understanding of innovation narratives in infrastructure. It will result in building new professional and personal relationships, joint publications and follow-up research activities. Dissemination of the research findings will be in the form of journal publications, short summary reports, via social media and the Bartlett newsletter. A public lecture will be offered to UCL by the PI and RA to share the research findings to general public. This project will engage with young generations to attract them to work in UK infrastructure industry by sharing personal experiences, telling stories about the research projects. This will be achieved by participation in the university open days, sharing the stories via social media (LinkedIn, Twitter).
ESRC New Investigator Grant will support the applicant in becoming a more independent researcher through gaining experience of leading the research project and supervising a Research Associate employed on the Grant. It will support the development and advancement of their research and leadership skill, and will have an impact on career progression and academic promotions.

Publications

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Description From the interviews, the initial findings suggest that innovations are sustained in infrastructure projects through narratives of endorsement of innovation by leaders, narratives of the importance of innovation, and narratives of listening to the innovations from site. Narratives of endorsement by top management is essential for sustaining innovation in infrastructure projects. In one instance the founder of a large construction firm held an innovation award event recognizing innovators in the firm thereby endorsing innovation. In another instance, the MD of a megaproject organisation claimed, "innovation should not be left to chance and requires leadership and direction." In one instance the endorsement of DFMA by the MD of a contractor company lead to the company setting up a DFMA factory in the UK. Narratives of the importance of innovation is also necessary for sustaining innovation. There were instances of challenge articulation workshops and similar events focusing on a particular challenge leading to innovative solutions. One of our interviewees responded: "people getting together drives innovation." It was also observed that narratives of listening to the innovations coming out from the sites through a formal process can help in sustaining innovation. In one of the companies there was an internal portal where innovations can be submitted by anyone working in the company. Each innovation proposal submitted journeyed from 'submitted' to 'under review' to 'sign-off' to 'development' to 'approval' and finally through to 'implementation'. When people at the construction site feel that they are being heard and are given feedback on their ideas, they feel like reporting more innovation and this improves knowledge sharing. More data collection through interviews and grounding on narrative and innovation theories can help us create a framework which can explain the process of sustaining innovation in infrastructure projects.
We are also parallelly observing innovation stories posted by different construction organisations and their subsequent interactions in the online portal - Infrastructure Industry Innovation Partnership (i3P). The initial findings show that members perceive an innovation as a change in products, practices, processes, or policy. The innovations address global problems, local construction problems or community problems. In the process of narrating stories on innovation, they highlight the earlier way of doing things and convey the results of innovation through quantifiable differences, testimonials from beneficiaries of the innovation, and even highlight the awards and recognition received by the innovation.
We also explored how narratives, as carriers of meaning, are essential for mobilising support for infrastructure projects. Using the case study of the High Speed 2 (HS2) project in the United Kingdom, we explored how narrative instruments and narrative processes integrate to create a project narrative. It was seen that narrative instruments such as labels, comparisons, and stories were used in narrative processes such as repeating, endorsing, humourising, and acting to mobilise the project narrative. Through this research, we developed a model to explain how narratives are mobilised through instruments and processes in the context of infrastructure megaprojects. In our in-depth study on labels, we saw that both the promoters and protesters of the project use labels of project, people and practice to shape their own identity. The promoters labelled the project as 'fast' and 'low-carbon', while the protesters labelled it as 'vanity' and 'for the rich.' The promoters labelled the opposition as 'NIMBY' while the protesters labelled them as 'friends of the earth.' The promoters labelled the consultation process as 'transparent' while the protesters labelled it as 'farce.' It was seen that both the promoters and protesters use similar process for maintaining their own labels and contesting labels of others. These processes are using the same label, using other labels, explaining the label, and using acronyms in name. Through this research on labels, we highlight that labels exist in project arenas as a labyrinth with multiple labels for project, people, and process, from different agencies, which are then contested and maintained through more labels.
In our in-depth study on comparisons, we saw that different forms of comparisons were used to shape the organisational narrative. We studied comparisons with context such as with economic context, with governance context and with the state of transportation context. We also studied comparisons with organisations such as organisations within the UK, with organisations outside the country and even with the organisation itself. These different comparisons helped in organising by creating narratives of events, narratives of characterisation, narratives of processes, and narratives of organisation.
We also investigated how narratives and counter-narratives interact within the infrastructure project context. We highlight that it is through a continuous process of interaction between the promoter narratives and protester narratives that the narrative of the project vision evolves in practice. The strategies employed to resist the counter-narrative such as rejecting the counter-narrative, delaying it and accepting part of it is discussed. We propose a model of how narratives of the project evolve through narratives, counter-narratives, and contesting these counter-narratives.
Exploitation Route This research contributes to innovation theory by arguing that narratives of innovation and their interactions at different levels play a vital role in constructing meanings, building innovative capabilities and shaping individual and collective identities. An innovation narrative is part of an organisation's culture that encapsulates employees' beliefs about a company's ability to innovate. Narratives of innovation are consistently promoted by policy makers at the industry level to meet the targets set by the Government. Yet, little is known how firm-level narratives of innovation interact with industry-level narratives. Most influential work on innovation narratives is theoretical in nature, and there is a lack of empirical support. This area is explored both theoretically and empirically. Hence, the outcomes of this fundings shall be taken forward by policy makers and practitioners (e.g. different professional roles, innovation managers, project managers, consultants) who are interested and practising innovation and develop innovation strategies and policies. Researchers working in related areas would find useful to learn about the emergent findings.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Construction,Education,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice

 
Description The PI in collaboration with Prof Stuart Green has conducted the workshop in Oct 2019 "The visioning of sustainability: Changing professional identities and the imperatives of climate change" with 15 industry practitioners. This workshop enables to provide an impact on the industry initiatives in the area of sustainability and discussed different narratives and storylines. We set an agenda for further work on sustainability and its narrative at the industry, project, team and individual levels. The PI and Research Associate has conducted follow-up interviews with selected practitioners who attended the workshop. Natalya Sergeeva has shared experience of applying for ESRC grant with other colleagues within the Bartlett School of Construction & Project Management to help and assist them with their applications (Nov 2019 and Feb 2020). Natalya Sergeeva gave an evening lecture to MSc student about qualitative research methods and methodologies at the Bartlett School of Construction & Project Management (Nov 2019). Johan Ninan and Natalya Sergeeva have presented the paper "The role of comparisons in shaping organisational narratives" at the Paper Development Workshop organised by Natalya at the Bartlett School of Construction and Project Management (Dec 2019) which enables to share some emergent findings and get feedback from colleagues. They also presented another paper "Instruments and processes for mobilizing megaproject narratives" at the next Paper Development Workshop (Feb 2020). To develop international reputation for research agenda around bringing narrative enquiry to the management of major infrastructure programmes focusing on project narratives, narratives of sustainability and narratives of innovation. To this end, a sub-theme proposal has been submitted with UK and Swedish colleagues to European Group for Organization Studies on "Narratives of the Future" (Amsterdam 2021). This is in collaboration with Prof Graham Winch from Alliance Manchester Business School, UK and Dr Svetlana Sabelfeld from Goteborg School of Economics, Sweden.
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Construction,Education,Environment,Financial Services, and Management Consultancy,Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Policy & public services

 
Description Organising sub-theme "Narratives of the future" for 37th EGOS Colloquium in Amsterdam 2021 
Organisation University of Gothenburg
Country Sweden 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution To develop international reputation for research agenda around bringing narrative enquiry to the management of major infrastructure programmes focusing on project narratives, narratives of sustainability and narratives of innovation. To this end, a sub-theme proposal has been submitted with UK and Swedish colleagues to European Group for Organization Studies on "Narratives of the Future" (Amsterdam 2021). This is in collaboration with Prof Graham Winch from Alliance Manchester Business School, UK and Dr Svetlana Sabelfeld from Goteborg School of Economics, Sweden. My particular contribution is the narrative perspective and its understandings
Collaborator Contribution Based on partners' expertise they contributed to the development of the multi-discusplinary research proposal. Svetlana Sabelfeld's expertise on economic discipline is valuable in shaping narrative of the future theme. Prof Graham Winch's knowledge of project organising has contribution to the development of project visioning narratives. For this sub-theme, we invite papers that explore theoretically and/or empirically how organisations articulate the future through narratives, whether they draw on our framing of the question through the three subjective perspectives above or not.
Impact This is a multi-disciplinary collaboration. There is a good potential for outputs and outcomes through the collaborative work.
Start Year 2019
 
Description Organising sub-theme "Narratives of the future" for 37th EGOS Colloquium in Amsterdam 2021 
Organisation University of Manchester
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution To develop international reputation for research agenda around bringing narrative enquiry to the management of major infrastructure programmes focusing on project narratives, narratives of sustainability and narratives of innovation. To this end, a sub-theme proposal has been submitted with UK and Swedish colleagues to European Group for Organization Studies on "Narratives of the Future" (Amsterdam 2021). This is in collaboration with Prof Graham Winch from Alliance Manchester Business School, UK and Dr Svetlana Sabelfeld from Goteborg School of Economics, Sweden. My particular contribution is the narrative perspective and its understandings
Collaborator Contribution Based on partners' expertise they contributed to the development of the multi-discusplinary research proposal. Svetlana Sabelfeld's expertise on economic discipline is valuable in shaping narrative of the future theme. Prof Graham Winch's knowledge of project organising has contribution to the development of project visioning narratives. For this sub-theme, we invite papers that explore theoretically and/or empirically how organisations articulate the future through narratives, whether they draw on our framing of the question through the three subjective perspectives above or not.
Impact This is a multi-disciplinary collaboration. There is a good potential for outputs and outcomes through the collaborative work.
Start Year 2019
 
Description Disseminating experience of bidding for ESRC New Investigator Grant 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Natalya Sergeeva has shared experience of applying for ESRC grant with other colleagues within the Bartlett School of Construction & Project Management to help and assist them with their applications (Nov 2019 and Feb 2020). The presentations has been developed highlighting the experience of pre-award, during the award and vision for the post-award, and general lessons learned.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019,2020
 
Description Organising and participating in Paper Development Workshops 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Johan Ninan and Natalya Sergeeva have presented the paper "The role of comparisons in shaping organisational narratives" at the Paper Development Workshop organised by Natalya at the Bartlett School of Construction and Project Management (Dec 2019) which enables to share some emergent findings and get feedback from colleagues. They also presented another paper "Instruments and processes for mobilizing megaproject narratives" at the next Paper Development Workshop (Feb 2020).
The aim of these workshops is to help and support academic staff and PhD students in the development of high quality journal publications. The potential value is both individual and collective learning from each other.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019,2020
 
Description Workshop "The visioning of sustainability: Changing professional identities and the imperatives of climate change" 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Drawing from the 'narrative turn' in organization studies, this participative research seminar will contend that the projection of such a narrative is a key success factor for those responsible for sustainability in the built environment. Such narratives need to engage a broad diversity of perspectives while at the same time providing a shared clear sense of purpose across multiple constituencies.The seminar will provide a safe environment for the sharing of stories about sustainability, and the challenges which lie ahead. It will combine insights from recent research with practical guidance gleaned from real-world projects. Coverage will include the following: Understanding climate change as a 'wicked' problem; the changing nature of professionalism in the 21 st Century; leadership narratives in the built environment; the successful 'visioning' of sustainability.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019