Kellogg School Researching Innovation Communities

Kellogg School Researching Innovation Communities

New research—and a request for your insights—on innovation networks around the world

Julie Anixter of Innovation Excellence (IE) recently interviewed Professor Robert C. Wolcott (RW) and Research Fellow Michael J. Lippitz (ML) from the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, about their cutting-edge research on the emerging phenomenon of “INets:” communities of innovation leaders who learn from each other about innovation management, primarily through mutual sharing of experiences and new techniques.

Rob and Mike are seeking suggestions from our Innovation Excellence community about INets that should be included in their research.

IE: “Innovation Networks” is a broad term. What exactly are you looking for?

ML: Julie, thank you for asking about our work. We’re excited about what we’re finding and eager to engage Innovation Excellence readers in helping us find innovation networks around the world. We’re seeking a particular type of innovation network, which we’re calling an INet. INets are a form of practice where participants focus on learning how to manage innovation, to build their capabilities for leading innovation and their personal networks. The difference here is that INets are not about making a product or solving a specific problem. They’re about capability and network development. And within that, they are about innovation leaders learning from each other – a peer-to-peer motif, if you will. This does not mean that participants are not interested in specific results. They usually are. But they come to the INet to make themselves better at managing all sorts of innovation projects, to become a better innovator, not to, say, find a supplier to solve a technical problem or find an investor for a particular venture.

IE: Why are you focusing on these “INet” innovation networks?

RW: Back in 2003, I founded an INet called the Kellogg Innovation Network, affectionately known as the “KIN.” At the time, early in my career at the Kellogg School, I was teaching and researching corporate innovation, which included dozens of interviews with innovation leaders at large, established companies.. A number of these leaders told me they didn’t have a neutral, ongoing forum for sharing their challenges and solutions with other corporate innovators at non-competing companies. It seemed to me that this is what a university could provide, so we founded the KIN. We didn’t design it first, we asked our potential members, the corporate innovators themselves, what they would value, and we created the KIN with them. I’m pleased to say that many of the people who were with us at the beginning, in 2003, are still with us today.

A few years ago, Jørn Bang Andersen of the Nordic Council began actively participating in the KIN. The Nordic Council is sort of like a European Union for the five Nordic countries—Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden— that coordinates policy initiatives across the region, including promoting innovation. Jørn was concerned about the connectivity of Nordic companies, both regionally and internationally. We worked with him to define a research project to characterize INets around the world with which the Nordics might connect.

ML: I would add that companies and governments worldwide are challenged with generating more opportunities at home and profiting from opportunities elsewhere. We expect our research will be useful to a wide range of corporate and government innovation leaders. Understanding various forms of INets can inform regional innovation initiatives and foster business partnerships, while connecting with INets in other countries can help local companies grow internationally.

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IE: What makes INets special? How are they different than, say, innovation conferences or networking events, or supplier or user-driven networks such as the Open Source movement?

RW: Networking and mutual learning occur in a variety of venues. One distinction of INets is that they are usually built around a diverse group of participants on an ongoing basis, developing trust and a sense of community. There is a deliberate aspect to how networking happens, with a network host who orchestrates and facilitates. They’re different from corporate or open source networks in that they are not focused on generating specific results. They’re about learning and generating networks of relationships that make everyone more effective. That’s not common. Most of the business networks we find are about fostering deals, like connecting innovative vendors with systems integrators or connecting entrepreneurs with investors. INets are about creating a learning community among innovation leaders who produce results on an ongoing basis.

ML: I’d add that INets come in many forms. Some are based at universities, some hosted by consulting firms, and others created by government. Wherever they are, a key ingredient for success appears to be trust, and having a credible “neutral platform” that Rob spoke about. Their stated purpose ranges from enhancing regional development, such as our research sponsors at Nordic Innovation, to supporting start-up entrepreneurs or corporate innovators, such as the KIN.

RW: To some extent, INets take a cue from established network organizations like Young Presidents Organization, or YPO, where members meet in small groups on an ongoing basis to share challenges and solutions. These interactions are very meaningful for the participants, and they often form personal as well as professional relationships. These types of models seem to be proliferating.

IE: What’s driving the INets phenomenon?

ML: That’s a great question, and one that we’re still considering. We believe there are several trends at play. First, more and more organizations seem to be getting the innovation religion.. Innovation practices are maturing and diffusing across sectors and geographies. Twenty years ago people focused a lot on the so-called “fuzzy front end” of innovation, involving ideation and concept development. Much of that has been formalized today. Leading companies ‘get’ that. Now companies struggle with piloting new businesses and transitioning and scaling them in the marketplace, and managing a portfolio of innovation initiatives and investments. Maintaining a portfolio is key, and maybe we can come back to that in a later interview.

Anyway, the difference today is that leaders seeking organic growth—be they corporate executives, managers of small and medium-sized enterprises, executive directors of non-profit organizations, or start-up entrepreneurs— are recognizing that there are communities of like-minded people facing similar challenges in the management of innovation. There’s a lot of commonality around innovation management challenges, and often the insight come from people outside your industry. And, still today, many companies are near the beginning of their innovation journey, so they need to look to innovation leaders in other industries to discover leading practices. Or if a company is expanding internationally, then linking with innovation leaders in those countries can help them approach the market.

RW: I’d like to build on your points, Mike. I did research several years ago with my colleagues Mohan Sawhney and Iῆigo Arroniz that found that companies within an industry tend to adopt similar approaches to innovation. When you look at it, manufacturing firms tend to focus on new technology; chemical companies tend to focus on process improvements; consumer products firms tend to focus on distribution and branding innovations; financial firms tend to focus on developing new services and customer experiences. So for a company to differentiate, it needs to absorb lessons from other industries and other parts of the world so that they can see things differently and develop a distinctive competitive approach. If we can self-promote here, your Innovation Excellence members can read about our research on the Innovation Radar in our book, Grow From Within.

ML: Thanks, Rob. It is important to understand what makes INets compelling…..what’s the “secret sauce,” if you will. Innovation is fundamentally about doing things differently, but you can’t learn about it effectively unless you share your weaknesses so that others can help. That’s a vulnerable position for an executive who is used to being a ‘strong leader,’ one who knows everything about the business. We have participants in the KIN who think of it as something like an “innovation support group,” and that’s a quote from a few of our KINians. In many companies, innovation is not well integrated with corporate strategy, and executives in charge of driving innovation find they have a lonely and often contentious job. Forming relationships with kindred spirits provides inspiration for engaging the battle.

RW: Yes, regulars—or INians, as we call ourselves—they tell me they find KIN events to be renewing. Their minds are stretched and their souls renewed. The latter is important. Innovation is hard, and it seems that innovators benefit from a sense of purpose. At the KIN, we try to inspire that not only in terms of corporate innovation challenges but also in terms of global problems. In 2009, we initiated an event we call KIN Global where we explore how innovation might be brought to solving the humanity’s most intractable problems. We ensure we have representation from all six inhabited continents and all sectors of society: business, government, academia, defense, non-profits and the arts.

IE: Will you be making the results of your research public?

ML: Absolutely. We expect to publish a report in the Spring of 2012. In the meantime, we will be publishing some of our case studies here at Innovation Excellence. We would sincerely appreciate it if your readers would contact us if they know about INets that we should consider including in our database. If you’re a leader of an INet, we would invite you to join a gathering of INet leaders that we hope to arrange next year, to review the findings of the study and take this research to the next level: What are lessons to be learned in creating INets and making them successful? It’s kind of the meta-meta level. Innovation results are the base. INets are the first meta level, which is learning about how to manage innovation to produce results. And if we can form a network of INets, that will be about learning about how to produce powerful new learning environments.

To participate in our research, please fill out our data form and we will contact you!

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Julie Anixter is Chief Innovation Officer at Maga Design and the managing editor and co-founder of Innovation Excellence.  

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29 Responses to Kellogg School Researching Innovation Communities

  1. Well, first of all let me start by congratulating you on doing such an interesting research and will certainly love to be updated about the results. I have being involved in different iNets that involved an innovation development. First of all it is important to state that there are different types of these networks such as “corporate open innovation networks” where big companies sponsor “innovation contests” which allows them to gather many ideas fast and worldwide while investing very little, in order to develop their “future products” thanks to the help of actual consumers or creative individuals out there. Examples of these companies include: BMW, Henkel, 3M, Electrolux, Whirlpool, etc. Moreover, there are iNets that function through “cooperative feedback & gain” such as the disruptive business model of “Quirky” that successfully launches one product every two weeks thanks to the “recompensed help” of people from the community that are allowed to gain percentages of royalties for their ideas or recommendations and the companies remains with the Intellectual Property plus gaining money from product sales. Additionally to all these models there are also “International Talent consulting” agencies such as “Innocentive” and “Ideaconnection” where international talents in different fields are gathered and the agencies find clients requiring “an innovation task” to be solved and then they pre-select the most adequate candidates from their pool of international talents to work on an innovation challenge where the winners will earn normally a monetary prize by giving the rights of their IP to the solution seeker. Actually I do encourage people interested in innovation to participate in any of these since working with an international team is really a very interesting and enriching experience that makes the magic of innovation possible! ;)

    • Mike Lippitz says:

      Hello Jessica, and thanks for your comment. There are definitely many different types of “innovation networks” out there. The focus of our research is on a slice of that universe: Innovation networks that focus on building innovation capabilities through mutual learning and support. Mostly excluded from our research were many important and valuable networking activities, such as the kinds you mention, which focus on achieving specific business, macroeconomic or social results. (Other examples of such networks would be technology transfer offices and IP brokers; incubators and technology parks; industry lobbying groups and supplier or user networks; funding agencies and investor groups; and standards bodies and research consortia.) Also excluded were less structured and unfocused networking events, such as conferences and other venues where interactions are episodic and largely unguided.

  2. Donna Galt says:

    Hi, I’m from an organisation called Digital Bimingham in the UK – our main focus is to ensure that Birmingham as a region remains competitive through exploiting the benefits of new technology.

    We have a Board which is made up of public and private sector organisations, education, health etc. but also small businesses workin in our thriving creative sector. We meet and have regular workshops where we try to focus on different areas of work, and everyone gives their ideas for a better solution.

    We’re part of Birmingham City Council, but within the Economic Development Division, with a wider remit of ecomomic regeneration of our region. 3 key themes are content, capability and connectivity. Key objectives are;
    Economic regeneration
    Green and sustainable
    Protecting the vulnerable (health and digitally excluded)
    Raising the profile of the city
    Quality of life

    Our format works well and anyone with any issues takes the issue to the table where a mix of expetise try to help find a solution (we have a thriving social media scene too who work closely with us and the wider general public).
    Our system seems to work well, and Birmingham is beginning to be seen as a leading digital city, with a creative and skilled workforce, great quality of life – where growing organisations are becomming interested in locating here.

    • Mike Lippitz says:

      Hi Donna. Birmingham’s effort is one of several INets that focus on regional development, serving as a hub for local businesses, universitites and non-profits to collaborate. I will be posting case summaries here at innovationexcellence that describe some of the ones we’ve found, where the mission includes peer-to-peer learning about innovation strategy and management, as well as addressing specific business or social concerns.

  3. Mim Bizic says:

    Just read about how Europe is going to spend a lot of money on modernizing their schools to bolster creativity, improve teaching quality, advance student mobility, promote campus entrepreneurship, encourage collaboration between education and industry, and support lifelong learning. Their goal is to double the number of young Europeans studying abroad from 400,000 to 800,000, so they can learn to live and work in a foreign culture.

    They’re interested in trying out the Shanghai model of using the best teachers and best administrators in the worst-perofrming schools.

    They want to be like Finland, and have many Cross-border Knowledge and Innovation Communities where they already have 30 start-ups in the works for clean energy and info-technology….

    • Mike Lippitz says:

      Mim — the international element of INets is important and interesting, as a complement to efforts such as Donna Galt’s in Birmingham (previous post in this chain). Companies seeking growth through international expansion find that success depends on creating new business models for different countries. Linking with innovation leaders in those countries can provide insights into the creation of appropriate approaches. Often, these leaders will be from different industries, as sometimes the companies in one’s own industry are not particularly innovative and therefore not much can be learned from them.

  4. John Kosic says:

    I would like to say great job, but do not stop this because the evolution of technology is fleeting. Continue updating us with your findings.

    All the Best,


  5. First of all let me say I didn’t know I was running an Inet!
    We started in 2000 with 14 large companies, mainly italian, having a main R&D department in the Emilia-Romagna region. Nowadays the companies are 26.
    They represent the base network, since they own the company -CRIT Research – which is the enabler/facilitator of the collaborative environment.
    A second, structured level of network is represented by a selected number of their suppliers, which they consider technologically excellent and decided to share.
    Of course these group of almost 90 companies relate – via CRIT – to a large number of other companies, research centers, universities, etc. according to the specific topic of discussion.
    The 26 shareholders are non competing companies, belonging to different industrial sectors.
    A peculiarity of CRIT Research, which I consider of relevant importance, is the fact that CRIT is – also – a Technology broker; in other words CRIT knows what they are talking about: it has a technical insight.
    Finally let me say that your research is very interesting (I’m going to fill the form soon after) and it is worth to connect the different Inets.

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  7. I would like join your research movement, but I can’t use the form online. Would you be so kind to provide me another way to share with you my high level of interest.
    Kind Regards,

  8. Hazel Wagner says:

    Another consideration: The business brainstorming meetings that I facilitate consistently produce many more ideas and much more innovation when there is a purpose. The methods that produce the most ideas get picked up and used by the organization on a more regular basis. Allowing for the time and effort for group brainstorming opens the doors for innovation. Companies that regularly include brainstorming encourage their employees to use those skills any and every time an appropriate question arises. It’s fun and creates an innovative culture.

    • Mike Lippitz says:

      Thanks, Hazel. Interesting angle. Agree that purposefulness is important. Our purpose focus is mutual learning.

      We like brainstorming, but it’s sustainable only if there’s a process for sifting and sorting and supporting promising ideas. Otherwise, if nothing much happens after everyone returns to the office–if good ideas are consistently ignored or seed funding to investigate them is slow or insufficient–then people become conditioned to stop trying.

  9. Jim Bullock says:

    This looks like an interesting and worthwhile exercise and I have completed the survey form.

    Our experience has got us to a similar place by a different route. Our network was formed out of a well-defined need expressed by companies in a subset of industries to collaborate more effectively in specific areas of science and technology. As things have developed then we are uncovering further needs in the more general are of innovation (application of OI, entrepreneurship, networking skills). These are becoming as important as the technical and industry themes which brought the network together.

  10. Mike Lippitz says:

    Hello Jim. The evolution of innovation networks from task-oriented collaboration in a domain-focused group to learning-oriented, diverse interactions is of great interest to us. I look forward to talking to learn more about how that evolution occurred with your organization.

  11. mohamed says:

    Innovation is the creation of better or more effective products, processes, services, technologies, or ideas that are accepted by markets, governments, and society. Innovation differs from invention in that innovation refers to the use of a new idea or method, whereas invention refers more directly to the creation of the idea or method itself.
    I found the best newsletter which achieve your innovation goals
    Your best source for innovation news is: idea connection newsletter
    Signup to receive the free weekly IdeaConnection Innovation Newsletter, currently going out to 40,000 subscribers.
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