Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Innovation in the Corporate Environment

This is a hot topic for me. I work in one of these environments and I'm involved in a fairly traditional (these days) role of enterprise architect: nominally responsible for the overall design of systems to ensure they meet business needs, and typically driven more from the perspective of policy and process than the introduction of new ideas. I'm afraid I'm not a very good enterprise architect.

Being on the back foot and not contributing to the ideas that form the basis of many of the commercial opportunities seems quite daft to me.

My aim in life is instead to communicate the opportunities of technology, or in fact, any thing that comes to mind actually. You know I went through university in a rather clueless manner and it's only now I see the possibilities of the methods taught to me at the time. There is just so much out there that can help give you an edge. (Wish I'd paid a bit more attention in the lecture rooms....)

Ensuring technology meets business needs is never going to see innovative solutions deployed, it's never going to see solutions applied when problems aren't yet realised to exist. How often have we looked around and seen only in retrospect that we missed the ball completely (trust me in my 4o years it's happened a helluva lot!).

So, yes, innovation is a hot topic for me.

Today I read an article syndicated from some offshute of The Economist called, innovatively enough, The Economist Newspaper, referring to the demise of traditional R&D and the rise of a new form of directed innovation concentrating on the D aspect. I'm not against this, a lot of the great ideas out there (that I've missed the boat on) have typically only been a couple of years ahead of everyone else's thinking. But the fact they were ahead proved a significant advantage.

The article began by looking at the output of Vannevar Bush, a gifted thinker in his own right, and an advisor to the Roosevelt and later administrations. It was Vannevar that spearheaded America's implementation of government and military funded R&D from the 1940s to the 1970s. "Industry is generally inhibited by preconceived goals, by its own clearly defined standards, and by the constant pressure of commercial necessity," he wrote in 1945. It still rings true today.

But, the days of the big labs are gone. Bell Labs has fallen apart, IBM's research labs are far more highly directed now, Microsoft Research nominally allow free reign but then look at the narrow range of papers on their site. Where's all the Research and what can a smaller company do?

It seems to me that in the mid-size corporate environment (with a few hundred staff) there is one classic failing: the creation of the product delivery chain. You know the one. It starts with the customer on the street, then there's marketing, then BAs, then project teams, and at the end of the line, the implementors.

Nothing driven down such a long chain will be innovative. The people at the end of the line act out a Dilbertesque cartoon living in perpetual frustration. The customers only get what they ask for; and no more. The nimble, smart companies out there create their own new niches and the slow ones are left to play catch up.

I think the secret to this is to keep team sizes down and allow small teams to experiment with ideas ensuring that at an overview level there is a process of nurturing and selection. Allowing failure to occur has to be an integral part. "Please fail very quickly - so that you can try again" says Eric Schmidt from Google.

Ground breaking products and processes are always due to the conceptual insights of individuals. So it should be the task of every innovative organisation to provide a mechanism to foster the intellectual output of their staff.

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