Anamaria Magri Pantea, The Sunday Times of Malta – Business & Money, 16 February 2014
Innovation, innovation, innovation….nowadays we keep hearing about innovation. The word is buzzing around all the time: innovate to further develop as a knowledge economy; innovative solutions to current and future challenges to society; innovation centers are being established; innovation strategies are developed. Everybody mentions innovation, but what it really means seems to elude the vast majority of people.
Some argue that innovation is an outcome – a new, improved or otherwise altered product, service, design, technological or business process, the application of an existing technology to a new market or even a new business model.
But others however argue that innovation is the process by which the above concepts are developed. As a process, innovation can be planned and managed and taught as any other business discipline such as accounting, marketing, sales, logistics, etc. It is thus something that can be shaped and harnessed, that is influenced by attitudes and skills and as such people can be trained to become more open and receptive to innovation, as well as better innovators themselves.
A culture that encourages and facilitates innovation is hence needed to permeate a society in its entirety. Openness to new ideas, to communication, sharing and collaboration, to challenging the status quo, willingness to take new routes, and appreciating errors and failure as a rich learning experience, are all needed to create such an environment. Innovative companies, organizations, communities are not born like that – there is a constant effort to groom innovation and keep it flowing. Time, resources, persistence, perseverance and commitment are needed to do this. No easy task indeed, but it is the only true way to provide for the future of a society.
So how do we do this? Fortunately, there is a wealth of knowledge and experience nowadays providing guidance on how to develop and nurture innovation. So, we can learn from others and also try to create our own way. Innovation is not set in stone, it is not one and the same for all. Each organization, community needs to develop its own innovation process in a way that makes sense for itself, for its employees / members and for its outside partners. Innovation is less of a single organisation affair and more of a collaborative activity. Innovation definitely works best when taking a holistic approach, when it involves many stakeholders: businesses, education and research bodies, public sector, NGOs and the end-users.
One can mention a few concrete steps that could be taken to support innovation. On the supply side – generating innovative ideas and concepts within organizations:
- Making propaganda for innovation by vocally promoting, encouraging and giving recognition to innovation and innovative people. Facebook for example has a Minister for Propaganda, printing and distributing posters in its offices to continuously nurture an innovation culture.
- Reading and spreading the latest news on innovations and start-ups.
- Organising training on entrepreneurship for employees – this being a competence that can be learnt.
- Training and deploying in-house innovation and entrepreneurship coaches to support internal project teams.
- Interacting directly with real entrepreneurs and start-up founders – having your office located in an entrepreneurial hub, allocating some of your office area as co-working space for start-ups, inviting them for a networking lunch or coffee, including one on the company board, etc.
- Allowing employees to use some of their paid time to work on own initiatives and projects. Google, for example, practices this approach.
- Organising innovation bootcamps – mixing together for a couple of days, teams with different backgrounds with external experts, and let ting them work on a radically novel idea. Preferably in a contained, external environment.
- Giving innovative employees a share of the future generated profits.
- Not shying away from failure. Tata Group for example gives an annual award for the best failed idea.
- Making intrapreneurs feel special by publicly recognising them and giving them particular benefits. Vodafone implements such practice.
- Basing internal resource allocation decisions on a long term focus. Shifting the nowadays pre-eminent short-term focus towards the longer term – balancing what pays the bills today with what will ensure survival in 5-10 years.
Various measures also have to be taken on the demand side – ensuring that innovation is market-driven, appreciated and sought-after by the end-users – such measures typically falling under the remit of public organisations:
- Providing funding for industry-led research projects.
- Implementing pre-commercial public procurement.
- Encouraging creation or attraction of financial instruments suitable for innovative projects (i.e. with no track record, higher risk, limited guarantee collateral).
- Stimulating end-user appetite for, and capability to adopt new products and services,
- Actively engaging the wider public by creating and coordinating living labs communities whose members are ready to test new products and services.
Image courtesy of Facebook progaganda minister