Any time you get excited by attending a cool conference there is the inevitable "re-entry" into work life that can be a bit of a bummer. This happened to me yesterday upon my return from the World Innovation Forum. Innovation is a topic that tends to get people fired up; brainstorming, whiteboarding, and blue-skying are on the top of everybody's list when it comes to fun activities at work.
Plus, I had the privilege of hanging out with a great crew of bloggers that were covering the event. Roaming around Times Square with some new friends is always a good time.
I wanted to compare the advice I heard on "corporate innovation" against my own corporation (EMC). Based on what I heard there are two areas that I think EMC does well in, and one area where it needs to improve:
Performance Management System & Rewards
For three years now EMC has been intentionally rolling out a new innovation program. This program systematically hunts down and rewards innovators. I personally have benefited from the new approach. The rewards have included cash prizes for ideas, a strengthened career path for individual contributors (the EMC Distinguished Engineer and Fellow program), a yearly innovation showcase providing a level playing field for all 35,000+ employees, world travel for employees with the best ideas, funding for the ideas that present outstanding business opportunities, and collaboration with customers around these ideas.
Perhaps the best reward is the 15 minutes of fame that a given idea can get. This type of visibility (otherwise known as a pat on the back) can go a long way. So EMC has done well in this regard.
Willingness to Collaborate
There are two types of people that need to collaborate within a corporation: new voices and core players. One of the things I took from the conference is that collaboration between these two groups is critical to innovation.
EMC has no lack of expertise in their core business: the building of information storage systems.
They also have no lack of expertise in "new voices"; EMC has acquired forty companies in the past decade. Each company brings with it a fresh view which is often times outside the scope of the core.
The problem used to be that these stovepipes didn't talk to each other. Now they do. I see three reasons for this:
- the yearly innovation contest was designed specifically to unite stovepipes and stimulate dialogue
- the social media platform within EMC (known as EMC|ONE) was marketed and pushed to employees as a way to pursue topics of passion across different business units
- the DE & Fellow community has the responsibility of collaboration. As the technical leaders of EMC join the ranks of DE & Fellow there is an opportunity to communicate expertise. I've seen more phone calls, emails and collaboration amongst this group lately
The social media platform has probably been the key piece of the increased collaboration. A generation of bloggers have grown their expertise in collaboration on EMC|ONE, and graduated to either become an external blogger (the list is here) or to create customer-facing external communities for collaboration. So EMC gets good grades in this regard.
Tolerance for Failure
One of the assertions made at the conference is that corporations need to take the risk to set up new business units to pursue new ideas. EMC, by the way, does do this. Centera is an example of an acquisition that was funded and run out of a completely separate organization from the core storage products. Atmos was similar. These organizations had a mix of "new voices" and "core people".
However, in general I don't think EMC as a corporation does this as much as it should. When a new project rolls around, and a choice needs to be made between "letting the core do it" and "starting a fresh group", the argument is often made that "starting a fresh group" will fail. These arguments often include the comment: "look at all the processes we have in place to do those tasks".
As I learned at the conference, streamlined, efficient processes grow up around a core product that had a given target market for a given customer profile. They are not likely to work for the next big thing.
Nobody likes to fail, and EMC is a company that likes to spend every dollar wisely and execute a plan like nobody's business. Few people want to be associated with a product effort that might fail, so there can be a gut-reaction to build something new using existing processes.
What I learned at the conference is that doing so can be a mistake.
World Innovation Forum speaker Paul Saffo stated at the conference that in September of 2008 the "consumer economy" as we know it ended. He is calling the next phase of the economy the "creator economy". Using Google as an example, he claims that Google is thriving because we as users "create" search strings and give them to Google, which in turn provides a service (search results). Google has monetized this exchange by relying on all of us as "creators".
No matter how you slice it, the central currency in Paul Saffo's model is information. EMC, as an information company, is in a great position to be innovative in this new economy. It will be interesting to have an inside view of how innovation will occur within the corporation.