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