Innovation & Technology
• 7 minute read

Building an Innovation Nation

Hong, Ying-yi(康螢儀)

Research by CUHK Business School reveals how the quality of basic education and cultural values affect a country’s innovation outcomes 

By Mabel Sieh and Fang Ying, China Business Knowledge @ CUHK

Innovation is regarded as one of the key drivers of productivity and economic growth in a country; hence, enhancing innovation output is at the forefront of policy making.

How do we enhance innovation output in a country? What does the quality of basic education have to do with such output? What role does our culture play? Prof. Hong Ying-yi, Choh-Ming Li Professor of Marketing at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School, has revealed some interesting answers through her research.

The research study entitled “Cultural Values Differentially Moderate the Benefits of Basic Education on Two Types of National Innovation Outputs“ was led by Prof. Hong in collaboration with her former PhD students, Namrita Bendapudi and Siran Zhan.

There are two types of innovation output – creative and knowledge and technology. Creative output is calculated with indicators such as literature, print and media publishing, film and music production, whereas knowledge and technology output is calculated with indicators including patents, scientific and technical articles, ISO 9001 quality certificates.

“A lot of research has focused on the link between university education and knowledge and technology output. But the link to creative output is still unclear. We aim to fill this research gap,” says Prof. Hong who is the Principal Investigator of the Cultural Lab at CUHK Business School.

How Basic Education Affects Innovation Output

The study argues that basic education is a foundation for cognitive skill development and serves as a springboard for higher education. Hence, having a high-quality basic education should aid both knowledge and technology output and creative output at the country level.

The researchers leveraged the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores of 32 nations as the measurement of a country’s basic education quality. PISA is a worldwide examination administered every three years; it measures the performance in science, mathematics, reading, collaborative problem solving and financial literacy among 15-year-old students.

To measure the output of innovation, they looked at the 2014 Global Innovation Index (GII) of the same 32 nations released by Cornell, INSEAD and WIPO. The data covers 143 countries and economies that account for 94.9 percent of the world’s population and 98.7 percent of the world’s gross domestic product. Along with the overall innovation index score for each country, the GII report also provides data on the overall innovation output of a country with creative output as well as knowledge and technology output.

As predicted, the study finds that the quality of basic education is positively related to both types of innovation outputs.

“This finding suggests that high-quality basic education provides a sound foundation for developing a talented pool of human capital that drives innovation, both in the knowledge-intensive sectors and the creative industries,” says Prof. Hong.

“It also means that cognitive skills acquired and developed at an early stage reinforces skill development at a later stage, and hence helps build human capabilities and the innovative capacity of a country,” she says.

However, this is not the full story.

The Role of Cultural Values in Creative Process

“The creative innovation process is influenced by a multitude of factors, and one of these factors is culture. As shown by other research, culture shapes cognition and motivation,” she says. “In the current research, the team sought to extrapolate the link between value endorsements and creativity from an individual level to a country level.”

The study used the value structure theory by Schwartz S. H. which composes ten value types: Self-Direction, Stimulation, Hedonism, Universalism, Benevolence, Conformity, Tradition, Security, Power, and Achievement. These value types are put into two broad categories – values that serve the motivational goal of avoiding anxiety (e.g., Security) and serving self-protection (e.g., Power); and those that are relatively anxiety-free (e.g., Benevolence) and foster personal growth and self-expansion (e.g., Universalism).

Specifically, self-protective values at the personal level of focus are Power and Achievement, and at the collective level, Conformity, Tradition, and Security. Self-expansive values at the personal level are Self-Direction, Stimulation, and Hedonism, and at the collective level, Universalism and Benevolence.

Linking Schwartz’s values to previous literature on creativity, self-protective values in general should undermine creativity, whereas self-expansive values should enhance creativity.

“The crucial question for educators and policy makers is whether these values would matter given a high-quality basic education. As we argued before, a high quality basic education is fundamental to cognitive skill development and eventually provides cognitive capital for the innovative industries to thrive in a nation. However, would self-protective values undermine the benefits of quality basic education on innovative outputs, whereas self-expansive values enhance the benefits?”

Creative Output versus Knowledge and Technology Output

To find the answers, first we have to differentiate creative output from knowledge and technology output.

The production of creative output is predominantly based on symbolic knowledge, whereas the production of knowledge and technology output primarily involves the use of analytic knowledge (i.e., know-why) and synthetic (i.e., know-how) knowledge.

Symbolic knowledge, which facilitates the shaping of culture and aesthetics, tends to be more embedded in the cultural context of a society as compared with the analytic and synthetic knowledge, which is based on scientific principles and practical skills, and therefore can benefit from high-quality basic education regardless of the cultural context.

“We proposed that cultural values of a nation would moderate the relationship between basic education and creative output but not knowledge and technology output. For example, low self-protective values or high self-expansion values are more favourable to creative output,” Prof. Hong explains.

To examine such moderate effect of a country’s national cultural values, the study used the Schwarz Value Survey (SVS) as the measurement. The SVS measure includes over 50 value items that are measured on a 9-point scale ranging from 7 (supreme importance) to minus 1 (opposed to my values). Examples of the value items include: Power (social power, authority, wealth) and Conformity (obedience, honouring parents and elders, self-discipline, politeness). Participants were asked to rate each of the items and the results supported the researchers’ predictions.

“Our results consistently showed that self-protective values weakened the positive effect of quality education on creative output,” she says. “But these cultural values didn’t have a significant moderating effect on the relationship between education and knowledge and technology output.”

In other words, the positive effect of quality education on creative output is weakened in countries that emphasize the maintenance of social order and discourage challenges to the status quo – as manifested in self-protective values of conformity and power.

“Previous studies have shown that individuals holding certain values (e.g., self-direction and stimulation) showed greater creative behaviours than do their counterparts who hold other values (e.g., conformity, security and power). Our research has proven that the corresponding cultural values have such effects on innovation outputs at the national level,” she says.

“The positive effect of quality education on creative output is weakened in countries that emphasize the maintenance of social order and discourage challenges to the status quo – as manifested in self-protective values of conformity and power.” – Prof. Hong Ying-yi


The study has important implications on the role of education in promoting national innovation outputs.

“Our findings offer preliminary evidence that PISA scores have a significant and positive impact on national innovation output, in terms of both creative as well as knowledge and technology pursuits. This implies that the cognitive skills students gain at the school level have a compelling effect on the innovation outcomes and consequently the economic growth of a country,” says Prof. Hong.

More importantly, the study demonstrates that this positive effect of education on creative output, in particular, is dependent on the accompanying cultural value systems of a nation.

It reveals that values that represent conformity and power do not allow for the negotiation of symbolic knowledge – a crucial component in the production of creative output – and its manifestations in ways that are inconsistent with existing societal preferences and norms.

“The benefits of a quality education system in boosting production of creative goods and services would be undermined by the presence of self-protective values that impose social sanctions on people who challenge the status quo and display behaviours that are inconsistent with existing norms,” says Prof. Hong.

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