Developing Innovations Based on Analogies: Experience from Design and Engineering Consultants
Katharina Kalogerakis, Christian Lüthje and Cornelius Herstatt
kHUB post date: October 7, 2020
Originally published: March 22, 2010 (PDMA JPIM • Vol 27, Issue 3 • May 2010)
Read time: 1 hour
Access the Full Article
This study explores how specialized design and engineering companies offering services to clients in diverse industries use inventive analogies in the product design process. Inventive analogical transfers are characterized by the use of knowledge gained from experience in one knowledge area (source domain) to solve new problems in another field (target domain). Different types of analogical transfers can be distinguished depending on (1) the conceptual distance between source and target domain and (2) the transfer content, describing the type of solution element being transferred. On the basis of these two dimensions a typology suitable to cover a wide range of analogical transfer episodes is developed. The first purpose of the present study is to understand the link between these two dimensions of analogies and their impact on potential benefits of analogy use. A second purpose of this study is to explore the practice of working with analogies, particularly to examine how relevant knowledge in a variety of domains is accessed. The research is based on an explorative approach. In‐depth interviews were held with project leaders of 18 design and engineering consulting firms located in Germany and Scandinavia. In each of these interviews the respondent reported about a particular project in which analogy use played an important role. The findings indicate that the use of analogies is a prevalent phenomenon in design and engineering consulting firms. The typology based on the two dimensions analogical distance and transfer content proved useful for the distinctive explanation of positive effects resulting from analogy use. First, analogical distance was found to be positively associated with solution novelty and negatively associated with the project duration. In addition, far analogies, rather than near analogies, proved to be helpful to foster communication within the project team as well as communication between the project team and the client firm. Second, with respect to the transfer content, beneficial effects on project duration seem to be particularly probable if the problem solvers transfer existing technological solutions and specific functional principles instead of general knowledge about shapes and design arrangements. Taken together, the findings suggest that it may be possible to influence the specific effects of analogy use ex ante by focusing on the appropriate type of analogies. Concerning the access of analogies, the findings suggest that analogies are frequently applied without the aid of formal procedures, techniques, or tools. The project teams mainly draw on personal “local” knowledge—knowledge already in their possession. While this approach is rather efficient, the tendency to access knowledge from only a limited set of familiar knowledge sources may constrain the possibility for creative recombination by analogies. Several strategies to relax this constraint are discussed, such as enhancing the heterogeneity of the team's knowledge base or broadcasting the problem to external experts.