Innovation Perspectives – Innovation Industry on Display

by Cynthia DuVal

Social media is exposing the emerging innovation industry to public view

This is the final of several ‘Innovation Perspectives‘ articles we will publish this week from multiple authors to get different perspectives on ‘What is the role of social media in innovation? (Either inside or outside the organization)’. Here is the next perspective in the series:

by Cynthia Duval

Innovation Perspectives - Innovation Industry on DisplayI hesitated to write on this month’s Innovation Perspective topic because my view on the role of social media in innovation is from a single perspective, mine. And as an ethnographer, that doesn’t feel particularly comfortable since it is usually my job to see the world from the perspectives of others and communicate those perspectives juxtaposed against my own. So let me offer this blog post as an invitation to you to provide your perspectives as comments on mine.

I spent many years working with innovation teams of one sort or another in our big technology companies i.e. Xerox, Apple, Interval, Microsoft, Verizon, IBM. Some of these teams were organizational change teams, some were early stage technology design teams, some where concept design teams, others interaction design teams. It was all very fresh, new work and I was using a fresh, new ethnographic approach to research and design. It was a career, it was fun and it was lucrative. Innovation was in the air we breathed, expectations were high, people were passionate, the sky was the limit. I was privileged and I liked how that felt. But unfortunately, most corporate cultures could not sustain innovation groups, timelines to success were too long, organizational structures were too tight, inventors were ahead of their time and business strategies were focused on short term gains for stockholders. I think we all know this story.

After being laid off from IBM and unable to find innovation work to replace that job in 2005, I looked at my strengths, I looked at where my passion was in the ethnographic work I was doing and I set off to build a consulting business around innovation discovery and concept design. Good luck sister! As I entered this new marketplace, I saw many many others rush in and began to realize that innovation as a practice and objective was transitioning to something I began to see as the innovation industry. This was an insight for me.

If you are reading this blog post, you probably play some role in the innovation industry. Perhaps you are a consultant working with organizations to change corporate culture so that innovation programs flourish. Perhaps you are the person at the corporation who makes the consultant hire recommendation or perhaps you are who that person is hiring for. Maybe you are a software entrepreneur and build applications to support the innovation business. You are chief innovation officer. Maybe you are an inventor who is seeking funding for a start-up. You might be an innovation educator, an intellectual property lawyer, a designer. Or, you may be like me, an ethnographer who makes innovation opportunity discoveries and then sets about to develop those discoveries into new programs, processes, products and businesses.

OK so how does all this relate to social media and innovation? For one, I have a large network of innovators who I communicate with through social media and networking channels. We network with each other, learn from each other and compete with each other for work and sometimes we team up to create and deliver new value out of our collaborative strengths. We are a group of corporate ex patriots (and by this I mean to say people who were purged from professional innovation jobs through lay offs) setting up consultancies and not finding enough work to sustain our families. With time on our hands and networking to do and the real desire to contribute something worthwhile to the world we volunteer to help each other and start-up companies get a foot hold. This seems to be starting to work for some and not others. There is very little money flowing and there are a lot of people who are skilled and talented and experienced who need it. There is not enough innovation money or innovation work opportunity to go around. Am I right or am I wrong? There is very little understanding of just how innovation expert practitioners can function outside of the corporate world in multiple and emerging industries; am I right or am I wrong?

The emerging innovation industry has two forks, one that is public, the other that is private. Corporate insiders are for the most part using social media among themselves within corporate firewalls and people on the outside are using it publicly to try and create a public or open innovation industry. Right now, if there is any money flowing at all in the innovation industry, it is flowing very privately, in internal corporate groups and in small, local educational and business development programs. I don’t detect any clear understanding or direction as to what has to change on a system level to make innovation a viable way of life and core business activity for the thousands if not millions of people qualified to work in this industry. I sometimes wonder if that is because innovation is still seen as a process and not as an industry in need of leadership, sponsorship and strategic planning.

Innovation as a practice remains secret and privileged and social media hasn’t yet played a large enough role in transitioning the secret practice of innovation to the public sphere. There is a cultural clash between the economic and social principles that underlie innovation (closed) and those that underlie social media (open) and this dichotomy reflects the narrow view we hold on what innovation is and how it happens and what kinds of support innovators need. Until this complex issue is resolved, I foresee slow growth and an uncertain future for the innovation industry and the loss of major talent forced to move overseas or transition to new homes and communities because all they can find if they are lucky are low paying service jobs.

If innovation workers can find the strength to openly discuss the dismal shape of the innovation industry in America using social media channels, like this one, we may be able to cause a shift in thinking and and innovation outcomes by developing new types of support for innovation in the public domain. By this I mean support for ad hoc innovation teams that come together across borders, with the experience, passion and intention to innovate and create a sustainable personal, family, community, national and global future for us all.

The people I’ve met through social media channels who are like this are pioneers working for good on a global scale by linking with communities around the world who share sustainable living goals.

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You can check out all of the ‘Innovation Perspectives‘ articles from the different contributing authors on ‘How should firms develop the organizational structure, culture, and incentives (e.g., for teams) to encourage successful innovation?’ by clicking the link in this sentence.


Cynthia DuValCynthia DuVal is an experienced ethnographer and the Founding Director of the DuVal Ethnographic Research Center & Change Agency.

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