There is an iron rule in the construction business: before you begin erecting a building’s walls, you first lay down the building’s foundation. I wish this rule was uniformly followed by companies when they launch corporate innovation initiatives.
Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case: more often than not, organizations start with external innovation programs before establishing functional internal innovation networks. The end result may be disappointing: lacking internal support, the external innovations meet with a stiff resistance inside the company, most likely at the level of the middle management. The innovations get stalled, then tacitly boycotted and then eventually rejected. To add to the grief of the newly-created external innovation office, such an outcome gives additional ammunition to the company’s naysayers, who would jump at the opportunity to claim that “open innovation doesn’t work for us.”
Internal innovation networks, the foundation of corporate innovation, play two major roles in the overall innovation strategy. Firstly, they foster the very culture of collaboration, bringing together corporate units (R&D, business development, marketing, etc.) that in many corporations may have no institutional platforms to communicate on strategic issues. Quite naturally, the lack of internal communication doesn’t encourage communication with the “strangers.” After all, if your employees can’t collaborate across the hall, how would you expect them being successful in collaborating across the company’s wall?
Secondly, internal innovation networks provide intellectual and operational support for the company’s external innovation programs. In an ideal world, they first serve to select and define R&D problems that are most suitable for external innovation approaches; later they help assessing incoming external solutions and facilitate their implementation by the units that owe the problems.
There are additional benefits for organizations in creating internal innovation networks. One of them is the ability to identify the company’s emerging thought leaders who—especially if in junior positions– would otherwise remain unnoticed in “remote” labs and cubes. Another one is the opportunity to use internal networks to find solutions to problems that individual units have failed to solve by themselves. Such an internal brainstorming may turn to be especially productive in multinational corporations with numerous units spread over countries and continents. People in such distant units—often created as a result of M&A—rarely communicate with each other and almost never meet face to face. Yet, people in one unit may possess a specific knowledge that is desperately needed—and can be immediately used–in another. Connecting these people through internal innovation networks may therefore result in significant savings of time and money for internal R&D.
Internal innovation networks exist in different forms, and there is no “correct” one; each company will have to find a format that would suit its specific needs. One of the best known examples of internal innovation programs is Qualcomm’s FLUX (Forward Looking User Experience), an employee-driven, cross-departmental network that brainstorms novel solutions to the company’s existing problems and also identifies new problems. Launched by only 8 people, this program now includes 28,000 Qualcomm’s employees, yet exists on very limited budget and employs no single FTE.
Other companies choose using various innovation management software and web-based platforms. Coming in different shapes and shades, these tools seek to capitalize on modern trends in social media.
By no means am I saying that companies should postpone experimenting with external innovation approaches until they build internal innovation networks first –which, of course, may take years to achieve. (And, I suspect, there are people around here who would claim that construction and innovation are two different things.) My point is that the full potential of external innovation can only be realized by the concerted effort of properly connected people within organizations capable of identifying and properly defining their own needs. After all, knowing thyself is something that can’t be brought from outside.
image credit: harleyandmakara
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Eugene Ivanov is innovation consultant helping organizations establish internal and external innovation programs. He also assists his clients with selecting and defining R&D problems that can be successfully solved by using crowdsourcing approaches. He tweets at @eugeneivanov101.