Everybody wants to be innovative. It’s one of those universally positive traits, like intelligence and courage. Nobody ever said ”John would be a great guy if he just weren’t so darn innovative.” (Believe me, nobody has ever said that).
Innovation is also highly valued in the corporate world. In a 2010 study, Boston Consulting Group found that 72% of business executives surveyed said that innovation was one of their 3 most important corporate priorities. And yet, companies struggle to innovate.
In Canada this seems to be especially true. In the November 2011 report “The Canada we want in 2020”, published by the think tank Canada 2020, it is noted that “Canada’s innovation and productivity performance have been stagnant for years”. Contrasting this to the situation south of the border, the report quotes The Economist, “America gets more than half its economic growth from industries that barely existed a decade ago – such is the power of innovation.”
So, how can we increase our ability to innovate?
One of the first challenges is defining what innovation is. Most people associate innovation with R&D and the development of new technologies. In fact, innovation can take many forms. The Canada 2020 report identifies 4 types of innovation – product, market, process and organizational. While new technology may play an important role, clearly there is much more to it.
Gartner provides a broad but useful definition: “Innovation is the execution of new ideas that create business value”.
I think that this definition provides an important practicality and flexibility. A client once asked me how he could tell if a particular new initiative was innovative or not. My advice to him was:
- If it is a new idea that provides business value, it is probably innovative.
- If it is a new idea that provides business value, who cares what you call it – just do it!
One critical point to recognize is that, regardless of the involvement of technology, it is people who innovate. Stimulating the innovation capability of a company is about creating an environment that allows people to apply their experience and knowledge in creative ways for the benefit of the company.
Another observation is that most innovations are actually incremental change, or even more commonly, a new combination of things that already exist (after all, this is how Apple creates its products).
The implication of the points above is that innovation is within every company’s grasp. We all have intelligent, knowledgeable and creative people within our companies, and we all have access to the vast array of technologies and concepts available in the business environment.
Is innovation different when internet-based technologies are involved?
Yes and no. Certainly there are some things that are different about innovation in the world of eBusiness (or eInnovation, as we call it at ePath):
- The pace of change is faster, and the consequences of not keeping up with the latest innovations are more severe (see Forrester’s report “The eBusiness Innovation Imperative”).
- The opportunity for innovation is larger, as the potential of internet-based technologies and business models is just beginning to be explored.
- The skills required to identify and address these opportunities are more specialized (see our recent blog on the need for “T-shaped people”).
However, notwithstanding these differences, my recommendations to eBusiness clients usually come down to the same 3 concepts discussed above:
- Focus on enabling your people. They are the greatest source of innovation available to any company (and hopefully some of them are T-shaped).
- Focus on creating business value. Take the attention away from technology and redirect efforts to the generation of business value, be it through product, process, market or organizational innovation.
- Focus on incremental innovation. Hitting home runs is great, but it is a low percentage activity. Incremental innovations are a hugely underutilized source of value.
So, is there an “e” in innovation?
Perhaps there are actually two “e’s”. It is certain that internet-based technologies play a role in just about every new product, process, market or organizational innovation. However, it may just be that the “e” in Innovation also stands for “empowering” – providing your best innovation assets (your people) with the focus, tools and support to enable them to tap their creative potential on behalf of the company.
What are your thoughts on eInnovation? I’d love to hear from you.
That’s all for now – John