Disrupt The Process—Not Just The Product

One of the distinct challenges faced by technology officers is reconciling the strategic priorities of the corporate headquarters with the creative instincts of scientists and engineers across the broader organization. These inventive members of the rank and file are rarely lacking for good ideas with which to entice today’s fast-changing, connected generation. But translating these human instincts into solutions that create strategic value requires innovation at both the product level and among the processes that shape the development organization.

As a global provider of technologies for audio and infotainment, Harman faces ever-increasing market expectations for a premium digital lifestyle experience. Our products help customers enjoy their favorite music, information, and social media at home and on the go, and an increasing number are seeking solutions that blend greater connectivity with driver safety on the road. This requires an R&D strategy that allows us to efficiently prioritize design ideas, ensure that we have a steady stream of differentiating technology in our innovation pipeline, and integrate the best into targeted solutions.

Harman’s approach to bridging the potential innovation gap between corporate vision and execution begins with a technology roadmap process, a practice which provides a “select and focus” guide that prioritizes R&D technology domains. This is an iterative process with participation from technology heads of the business divisions and corporate technology group. The significance of this practice is that it allows corporate strategy and technology innovation ideas to reconcile the gap. It prioritizes potential innovation areas and ensures creative energy is focused in areas with maximum impact.

With priorities identified, the challenge shifts to deploying resources which often span both business and geographic boundaries. Until recently, Harman tended to follow a product-centric model which had evolved as various acquired businesses were entrusted with advancing their respective niches. This approach risked unintended duplication of effort and more narrowly-targeted solutions which sometimes fell beyond the scope of broader corporate vision.

To improve this synergy, we have since evolved to a global structure in which teams of engineers are organized as virtual proficiency centers. Team personnel span multiple countries, with modern digital communications tools bridging the geographic gaps while tapping diverse skills. These skills are further organized around the company’s core technology competencies, extending their potential contribution beyond individual products to a broader solution set.

The benefits of this organizational approach became clear a few years ago when Harman management committed to developing a new scalable automotive infotainment system with which to serve emerging markets. Traditionally, such systems had been developed by vertically-integrated teams based in the U.S. and Europe. While highly competent, these teams were sometimes vulnerable to ingrained processes that isolated individuals or sub-groups from broader strategic goals.

To improve upon this model, Harman elected to complement the global project structure with two new development teams—one in India to concentrate on software and a smaller hardware-focused unit based in China. These new resources brought cost benefits, fresh ideas, and greater empathy with the target emerging markets. Selected members of the established U.S. and European organizations were embedded within the project group to maintain effective liaison and strengthen shared ownership.

Following some expected early skepticism, the global project group embraced the challenge. Teams of engineers were aligned to manage broad functional aspects such as acoustics, navigation, and connectivity, while stressing internal simplicity and compatibility with third-party solutions. Within a year, the team had built a robust, first-of-its-kind infotainment software architecture and began expanding its menu of scalable product options.

Beyond strong market acceptance of the resulting infotainment solution, several distinct process benefits emerged. The new system was completed in about half the time of similar projects under the previous development structure, at significant cost advantage. The iterative, cross-functional culture built into the global working team yielded a high degree of modularity, allowing easier system adaptation to serve varied customers. Although the system was initially targeted for mid- and entry-level emerging market customers, this scalability has since captured the attention of premium customers who also value its ready adaptation and attractive pricing.

In his 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma, professor and management consultant Clayton Christensen urged business leaders to respect “disruptive technologies” with the potential to shake up the marketplace by delivering as-yet-unexpected customer benefits, creating a new market and value network. He noted that such technologies are often understood by established players but ignored because of the smaller growth in the emerging sector.

I suggest that Harman’s example in shaking up the R&D methodology and structure validates another of Christensen’s premises that healthy “disruption” is not limited to end products. Shaking up the processes that yield them can be just as critical, in order to harness the creative instincts that create lasting value through strategic innovation.

—Author I.P. Park is executive vice president and chief technology officer at Harman International. 

[Image: Flickr user Alex]

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