The Transferability Question

Report by Geoff Mulgan: “How should we think about the transferability of ideas and methods? If something works in one place and one time, how do we know if it, or some variant of it, will work in another place or another time?

This – the transferability question – is one that many organisations face: businesses, from retailers and taxi firms to restaurants and accountants wanting to expand to other regions or countries; governments wanting to adopt and adapt policies from elsewhere; and professions like doctors, wanting to know whether a kind of surgery, or a smoking cessation programme, will work in another context…

Here I draw on this literature to suggest not so much a generalisable method but rather an approach that starts by asking four basic questions of any promising idea:  

  • SPREAD: has the idea already spread to diverse contexts and been shown to work?  
  • ESSENTIALS: do we know what the essentials are, the crucial ingredients that make it effective?  
  • EASE: how easy is it to adapt or adopt (in other words, how many other things need to change for it to be implemented successfully)? 
  • RELEVANCE: how relevant is the evidence (or how similar is the context of evidence to the context of action)? 

Asking these questions is a protection against the vice of hoping that you can just ‘cut and paste’ an idea from elsewhere, but also an encouragement to be hungry for good ideas that can be adopted or adapted.    

I conclude by arguing that it is healthy for any society or government to assume that there are good ideas that could adopted or adapted; it’s healthy to cultivate a hunger to learn; healthy to understand methods for analysing what aspects of an idea or model could be transferable; and great value in having institutions that are good at promoting and spreading ideas, at adoption and adaptation as well as innovation…(More)”.