Fast Company

Field Notes - November 2009

Coming off my company’s global user conference, I started November with a two week, round the world trip visiting clients and partners in nine cities and six countries (France, Germany, U.K., China, South Korea, and Japan).  Trips like this are great because they provide the opportunity to touch a broad cross section of industry, geography, and culture in the context of business and innovation.

Here are a few of the observations that I gleaned during these two weeks.

Companies are looking to the future
2009 has been an especially difficult year.  It began with concerns of slipping into a global depression, and as it draws to a close many are still speculating on the possibility of a double dip recession.  This all translated into a tough business climate where many companies aggressively cut expenses to maintain their financial performance.  Companies that are true leaders found ways to do this while maintaining their commitment to innovation.  Others back-burnered innovation for while.  Those that kept up their investments in the future are feeling very good about their position as we head into 2010.  Those that slowed down are now trying to ramp up and catch up.  If you haven’t been investing in innovation during the crisis, you had better figure out a go forward strategy to make up for lost time.  If you did invest, now is the time to redouble your efforts to capitalize on the advantage you have created and turn it into lasting market dominance.

More companies are beginning to understand the need to empower workers for innovation
Companies have found during this time that having smart people isn’t enough.  Everyone has smart people; your smart people are probably just average.  Innovation is hard.  Innovation stretches the organization and the people who it comprises.  In order to make innovation a corporate competency and a competitive differentiator, you must equip people with the tools for success.  This means investing in skills development and infrastructure to create the environment needed to drive innovation.

The gap between potential and realization can be wide
We all hear about the looming dominance of China in the future global economy.  We also hear about the innovation engine that is China.  Yet when I visit companies in China, the indicators suggest there is a long path of maturation that must be traversed before China will reach its innovation potential.  There are two primary indicators that lead me to say this.  First, companies consistently point to government policies that direct and constrain their investment and vision.  This climate must change to allow the intellectual freedom needed for a truly innovation oriented culture.  Second, the pervasiveness of dialectic materialism in Chinese thinking appears to have led to some unfortunate consequences.  Talking with Chinese business leaders, I found they would give any Missourian a run for their money when it comes to needing to see hard, tangible proof of a path before they will be willing to walk down the path.  This mindset is not always open to innovative ideas.  It also manifests in how product planners think of new product creation to the extent that at one company, they proudly show a presentation on their new product development method which began with “Step 1: Reverse engineer competitor product.”

Size isn’t everything
We don’t always think of South Korea as an innovation powerhouse, but in truth there are some top flight companies in this country including Samsung, Hyundai, LG, and Posco.  From what I see, these organizations get it.  They are investing in innovation.  They are working to establish a strong innovation culture.  They are building the infrastructure and processes to drive repeatable, sustainable innovation.  Their results reflect this.  We can all learn from their example.

The compelling need to connect with knowledge
A recurring theme in talking with the innovation leaders at global companies is the need to have integrated leverage of knowledge throughout the innovation value creation process.  This includes tapping into both the organization’s stores of information and global information.  However, an often overlooked resource is the undocumented knowledge in the enterprise.  Organizations understand the need to harness the power of this resource.  Consequently, they not only want to connect knowledge workers with information, they want to connect workers with each other based on what they know.  If you are designing your innovation infrastructure don’t forget to consider this need.

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