As part of my doctoral work on corporate incubation (2013-2017), my attention was focused on a little-known theory in the managerial world. It is the Translation Theory of Callon (1986), and Latour (1994). Of course, understanding the mechanisms of Translation is not the only lever that can be used to improve the adoption of an innovative system, such as the corporate incubator. However, its strong social dimension makes it a powerful tool and can enlighten many managers.
What is Translation?
The theory of translation explains that innovation (including managerial innovation) is built progressively during its diffusion/adoption under the impulse of actors who carry out a real work of alliances and influences. Concretely, there are four stages in the translation mechanism: 1°- problematization, 2°- profit-sharing, 3°- enlistment and 4°- mobilization. These four stages may overlap but, according to the designers of this theory, they constitute the different moments of a general process to which it gives the name of Translation.
What is the mechanism of Translation according to Callon (1986)?
Problematization: Problematization is the formulation of the problem. This formulation involves an initial identification of the actors who would be concerned by the problem and the difficulties that would have to be solved. This formulation is also a means for the actors who carry it out to make themselves indispensable in the eyes of the actors who would be concerned by the problem. The problematization therefore suggests the alliances to be implemented and the appearance of “obligatory crossing points” for all the actors who want to solve the problem.
Interest: Interest is the set of actions by which an entity tries to impose and stabilize the identity of the other actors it has defined in its problematization. It is therefore a matter of establishing links between the actors concerned by the problematization. The latter will interact and seek to influence each other. The qualification of the actors can therefore be subject to changes, developments that ultimately lead to the validity of the problematization.
Enlistment: Enlistment is the set of multilateral negotiations, coups de force or tricks that accompany the stake holding and enable it to succeed. In short, the actors at the origin of the problematization will seek to define and attribute a role to each actor, taking into account their respective interests.
Mobilization : Mobilization consists in gathering allies. Spokespersons will appear, each representing a category of actors. These spokespersons become de facto the privileged interlocutors for the actors at the origin of the problematization. Gradually, a single spokesperson for the problem will appear and he or she can then, with the legitimacy that each one grants him or her, make the initial proposal for the problematization.
The individual, his or her actions, and thus the social interactions induced, constitute the core of this theory. In this perspective, the definition of success is linked to the degree of maturity during the transformation process and not to the results generated by the approach or the device. Success occurs when there is no longer any question as to the legitimacy of the approach or system. Indeed, if there are no more questions, it is because the interests of all parties have been met. In other words, the innovative approach or institution spreads over time according to the interests of all parties, and then acquires a status in the general organization.
Innovation (including managerial innovation) often requires dialogue between different actors working in different areas of the organization. In order for this dialogue to take place, the players must « translate » the innovation into their professional language and then know how to « translate » it for the client (who may be an internal company employee). If the carrier of an innovative device is not able to do this « translation », the (managerial) innovation in question may take time to get off the ground. The company would then lose a potential advantage. The difficulties in getting this translation done are numerous. One example is the compartmentalization between departments, which is likely to hinder the flow of information and knowledge. We can also mention the information processing time that each actor has to take to understand the other during meetings, for example. Translation succeeds if each actor cooperates in the innovation project. This supposes that each actor with his own logic accepts to enrich the other and also accepts to be enriched by the other through a certain number of interactions.
Translation can enable the implementation and adoption of innovative devices by avoiding difficulties, because translation makes it consistent with the objectives pursued by the company, as well as with the particular interests.
What are the levers of Translation?
Opening the black box of translation means understanding the work actually carried out by the actors within it, and in particular by a main actor: the carrier of the innovative device. It is therefore necessary to look at the factors likely to influence translation, in short, its levers. These are, for example, the notions of « hard facts » and « soft facts », to name but two. On the one hand, « hard facts » refer to statements that can in no way lead to confusion. Whoever makes such a statement has control over it. This greatly limits the possibility of modifying the statement and therefore the dissemination of the statement itself. On the other hand, the notion of « soft facts » refers to vaguer statements that allow actors to discuss and transform them. The result of this process is a form of consensus, the reworked (translated) statement, allowing everyone to understand what they want. These « hard facts », just like these « soft facts », can be expressed in various and varied circumstances, including events specific to the activity of innovative devices.
In my opinion, this theory should, in my opinion, hold the attention of managers more often, because it evaluates the level of anchoring of an approach or system in the organisation. Indeed, the emergence of new systems within organizations will inexorably mobilize a lot of energy, especially that of players in large groups whose interests are variable or even contradictory. The success of new systems can only be imagined in the art and the way of translating them in order to make the useful actors adhere to them. Translation is the first theory I wanted to share with you. Two others will follow in future articles.