Thursday, February 13, 2014

What Is Innovation? An Expansive View
On the business conference circuit today, innovation has become a buzzword.  It's too bad, because organizations today need to innovate as much, if not more, than ever before. So, instead of abandoning the word, let's try to recover it.

When thinking about innovation, business leaders often set the bar too high for themselves. They hear about new technologies coming out of Silicon Valley and other tech hubs around the world and they equate that with innovation. Surely, new technologies are innovations. But I would argue that view is too narrow, and what executives need is a more expansive view of innovation. Furthermore, too much focus on technology can actually lead to a lack of real innovation.

Innovation Is Something New--For You

According to Merriam-Webster, the word innovation has two meanings. First, it is "a new idea, device, or method." This generally fits the common understanding of innovation. But the second definition is, "the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices, or methods." The first definition is the new thing itself, while the second definition is the introduction of that new thing.

Smartphones were an innovation. But the introduction of smartphones into, say, your expense reporting process, is also an innovation. In business, innovation does not just mean that you invent something new. Innovation means that you introduce a new invention into your organization.

I would take it a step further. Innovation does not just mean you do something that no one has ever done before. Innovation means you do something that you have never done before. Others may have introduced smartphones into their expense reporting process. That was innovation for them. But when you introduce them into your expense reporting process, that is innovation for you.

A few years ago, I was working as a strategy consultant to a large high tech manufacturer that wanted to "transform the customer experience." The goal was to come up with a three to five year plan of strategic initiatives, in which new technology would play a starring role. Over a period of weeks, the project team came up with a long list of ideas, such as building a customer-facing knowledge base, new mobile apps for field service engineers, and big data analytics.

But some team members were concerned that none of our ideas were "far out" enough, that top management would think we had failed to be "innovative." At one point, a team member joked about coming up with a “hologram” of a service agent, which the customer in the field could conjur up, like a spirit.

Of course, in brainstorming, no idea is too far out. But that doesn’t mean that innovation is only in far out ideas. As it turns out, the project team had many good ideas, including leveraging the company’s smart products in the field as a platform for customer service. Were other companies already doing this? Yes. But this company had not fully exploited these opportunities. Rather than worry that their ideas were not “innovative” enough, this company would be better served by actually implementing the ideas they already had. In other words, it was not a matter of inventing a new technology but of introducing a new technology to their business.

Business Process Innovation

Second, innovation is not a synonym for technology. The innovations that many organizations need today are not new technologies, but the application of available technologies to their business processes. The goal should be to simplify a process--or even better, eliminate the process.

For example, again, in customer service, what if customers could serve themselves? Or, what if customers could serve each other? The technology for customer self-service and for customer communities is now widely available from commercial software vendors. Innovation is no longer a matter of writing customer self-service applications or community platforms. The innovation today is to introduce those technologies into a specific organization.

Of course, at some point, introduction of a technology becomes so commonplace that it can no longer be considered an innovation, even if it is new for you. If you are just now getting around to using a personal computer, instead of index cards, to track your inventory, it would be hard to say you are innovating.

Nevertheless, many organizations do not focus enough on business process innovation. Even when they introduce new technologies they do not spend sufficient time ensuring that they change their business processes. The customer self-service system is installed, but service engineers do not spend time to populate the knowledge base behind it. The community platform is installed, but no one invests the time to nurture a community. The computerized inventory system is in place, but when the materials manager wants to check on-hand inventory he walks out the the warehouse, because he doesn't trust the system. In many cases, the technology does not lead to innovation because there is no business process change.

Business Model Innovation

Innovation becomes even more powerful when it means introduction of something new in the organization’s products or services. This goes beyond business process innovation to innovation in how the organization makes money. Or, in the case of a public sector organization, how it delivers its services and fulfills its charter.

Business model innovation certainly can involve introduction of a new technology. For example, Uber's business model is heavily dependent on mobile apps to match drivers with riders who are physically near by one another. Here the mobile apps do not make money directly but enable the business model.

Caterpillar is another example. Sensors built into Cat's equipment have opened up a whole new way for the company to make money by offering job site services, such as controlling compaction of soil and asphalt. Caterpillar is no longer just selling heavy equipment and maintenance contracts. The innovation is not just in the sensor technology but in the business model that it enables.

Innovation should not be a buzzword. Business leaders should take an expansive view of what innovation means for their organizations and think beyond technology to business process and business model innovation.

Related Posts

How to Become a Chief Innovation Officer
In Defense of Incremental Innovation 

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