Innovation is top of mind for executives in nearly every industry. Increasing globalization, new technologies and rapid changes in rules and regulations constantly reshape the competitive landscape, even for industries that once seemed stable, such as the automotive industry. To respond to this chaotic and continuously changing environment, organizations are placing a premium on innovation.
Fortunately for would-be innovators, the spread of new technologies has also increased opportunities for innovation. Leading technology companies such as Amazon and Google constantly run experiments to optimize their existing businesses, while prototyping arms such as Google Labs use the concept of beta (or test) software to gather real-world feedback on potentially disruptive technologies. This experimental approach has become a core philosophy for many innovative companies. An entire "lean startup" movement has arisen, thanks to Eric Ries, an entrepreneur who is now a venture advisor for Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, the famous venture capital firm. The lean startup attempts to apply the lessons of lean manufacturing to the creation of new businesses. While some of the lean start up principles focus on technology, the most important principle is what Ries refers to as "ferocious customer-centric rapid iteration" via a systematic series of experiments.
While this focus on using new technologies to accelerate the execution and evaluation of experiments is certainly a boon to innovation, there is an equally important and effective way to accelerate innovation by using technology to support new approaches to managing innovation. Specifically, the emergence of new collaboration technology holds the promise of accelerating innovation at the organizational level. Companies can use organizational and experimental innovation together to get geometrically greater results than by experimentation alone.
Collaboration can accelerate the pace of innovation in three key ways: by promoting real-time organizational awareness of opportunities for innovation, by shortening the cycle time for experiment conception and design, and by tapping the power of grassroots participation to drive acceptance, adoption and expansion of ideas.
Promoting Organizational Awareness
Before a company can innovate, it must become aware of the opportunity for improvement. Far too often, the awareness of opportunities develops on the frontlines of the organization, where individual employees come into contact with the outside world (customers, partners and suppliers), but this awareness fails to bubble up to the higher echelons of the organization where resource allocations are determined.
Collaboration tools can serve as an information bus to generate greater organizational awareness of these opportunities. For example, companies often use microblogging services such as Twitter and its corporate equivalent Yammer to help break down the organizational silos that separate the various groups within the organization. These real-time publishing tools are simple can be used by anyone within the organization and can serve as a virtual nervous system that is more responsive than traditional lines of reporting. An opportunity for innovation may arise from a single employee and spread via microposts and "retweets"; senior managers can become aware of this real-time spread of an idea, track it and act on the opportunity much more quickly.
Shortening the Cycle Time for Experimental Conception and Design
While many companies focus on reducing the time required to carry out an experiment, there are probably even more opportunities to accelerate innovation by shortening the cycle time for the preparatory work of creating, designing and refining the experiment. Companies can develop a sophisticated A/B testing rig, but this infrastructure is useless without timely, well-designed experiments. Collaboration tools such as wikis can dramatically improve the cycle time for experiment conception and design by allowing near real-time collaboration by all interested parties. Especially in cases where team members might be geographically dispersed, the ability of wikis to reflect the most current collective wisdom of the group (while preserving a complete record of past revisions) provides a much faster way to refine and finalize an experiment than traditional one:one communications mechanisms such as email.
Tapping the Power of Grassroots Participation
Let's say your organization has identified an opportunity, designed and refined the perfect experiment, executed the experiment and generated exciting results. Congratulations your work has just begun. As any change agent has learned, simply perfecting a great idea, even with the support of experimental evidence, is insufficient for innovation. The difference between invention and innovation is that innovators find ways to get others to adopt their ideas.
Here is where collaboration tools and all your previous work come in. The best way to encourage broad adoption throughout your organization is to involve a broad group of people in the innovation process. As the old saying goes, "Dig your well before you are thirsty."
If an initiative seems to come out of left field, expect to spend substantial amounts of time and energy "selling" the various portions of the organization on the plan. You'll need to overcome resistance due to unfamiliarity and uncertainty, since individuals will need to come up to speed on the initiative and grow used to the idea.
On the other hand, if the organization has been broadly aware of the opportunity from the start, if many folks from various groups within the organization have contributed to the design of the experiment and if the results (both preliminary and final) are open to all on a company-wide collaboration platform such as a wiki or intranet, the organization will already be sold. People will be familiar with the initiative, and will feel a sense of certainty about its nature and potential impact, because they will have been able to observe it evolve over time, and hopefully even have contributed to its growth and evolution.
Innovation and Collaboration: Natural Complements
As we have seen, innovation and collaboration are natural complements. While the new experimental approach to innovation is powerful and effective, it can be made even more so by the complementary use of collaboration technologies to generate more rapid awareness of opportunities, design and refine experimental plans, and to encourage grassroots participation that paves the way for the adoption of new ideas.
In these constantly changing times, the need for innovation is one of the few constants. Use collaboration to keep your organization ahead in the game.
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