Fast Company

Innovation Infrastructure

This is installment four in my series on building a sustainable innovation culture. In installment one, I outlined the Five Pillars of Sustainable Innovation Culture. Installment two examined Executive Leadership, the first pillar. Installment three considered Innovation Skill Development. Now, I’d like to look at an all too often neglected aspect of innovation deployment—the infrastructure to enable innovation success.

Why is infrastructure neglected? I see three factors that contribute to this.

Factor #1 - The myth of innovation genius

It seems that this myth is so engrained in our popular culture that it is a strong and silent impediment to building a true innovation culture. Just last week in a discussion with Gartner analyst Carol Rozwell, she raised the issue as something she also sees, calling it the Edison Effect. (We shared a laugh over this name as Edison is the poster boy for innovation by dint of effort.)

The reality of innovation is that innovation is a process that takes time to mature. It is an integrative process that yields results with information is viewed and combined in new ways. It is also a process that can be learned and mastered. Until managers understand this, they tend to get trapped into thinking, “I pay my people lots of money to solve my business challenges; they should just go off and innovate already.”

But talented people still need tools to work. It wouldn’t make you feel very sanguine to hear a nurse say as you were being wheeled into the operating room, “Dr. Kutemup gets paid a boat load of money, so the hospital doesn’t see any need to waste money on frivolous items like equipment or anesthesia.” Just like the surgeon, your knowledge workers need the right tools. They need tools to provide a repeatable, structured framework for the execution of innovation best practices, and they need the information infrastructure to provide them with efficient and purposeful solution concept sourcing.

Factor #2 - Lack of awareness that infrastructure and tools exist to help support repeatable innovation

Once managers get past factor #1, they often find themselves at a loss. They understand that they need to invest in infrastructure, but they don’t know what to do about it. The fact is they usual don’t know that tools exist to help address the sustainable innovation challenge. They flounder looking at product development and quality processes such as Stage Gate or Six Sigma to provide the roadmap. But these processes don’t address the key issue of how to repeatable identify the best and innovative solution to the challenges facing the business. These processes only provide a backdrop against which the innovation strategy will unfold.

Finally in desperation, the hapless manager turns over the search for innovation infrastructure to the IT department. Shortly after this, the business runs afoul of factor #3.

Factor #3 - Traditional bastions of IT feel threatened by innovation technology

IT departments are generally not equipped to understand or evaluate innovation platforms. (It is for this reason that some would say that IT stands for Innovation Termination.) As a result, most IT departments quickly reframe the search for innovation infrastructure as a search or knowledge management initiative.

All to often and just again today, have I sat across the table from someone in charge of a knowledge management initiative and listened to them proudly talk about there beautifully constructed taxonomies, how they have designed their portals around communities of practice, and how easily their knowledge workers will be able to share and collaborate with the new knowledge portal capabilities. These people rarely want to learn that there is a newer and better approach and tend to expend their energy justifying what they already know how to do. All the while, the cries for help from users who are unable to find valuable information asset in the rigid framework fall on deaf ears.

When I hear this sort of prattle, I wonder when people will understand that the old school approach to knowledge management is a failed approach. In the vast majority of organizations, these initiatives have consumed vast resources and produced little in the way of tangible results. Recently, Joe Barkai of Manufacturing Insights hit the nail on the head when he declared that what knowledge workers need is a semantic, design intent based approach to sourcing concepts. People need more than a way to browse available data. They need a way to get their jobs done. They need a way to find the precise information to address their challenge without having to sift through load of irrelevant information to get their. They need a high precision, just in time, concept sourcing environment.

So, if we are ready to move past these three factors and consider serious innovation infrastructure, what should we be looking for? Here are my recommendations.

  • Strong support of proven innovation best practices
  • Points of integration that mesh with existing processes in the company
  • Strong capabilities to source and deliver concepts without tedious searching
  • Ability to seamlessly integrate knowledge from inside and outside the enterprise
  • Support of a passive collaboration model
  • Utility for both breakthrough and incremental innovation
  • Capabilities spanning market analysis, new product definition, product improvement, risk analysis, and IP leverage

What would you add to the list?

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