A useful article on Sunday’s edition of the International Herald Tribune explores the ways which corporations use the new idea-sharing networks in order to spur innovation and create successful new products and services. Two types of idea networks are presented: self-contained internal units used to propagate ideas to the senior management; and external independent networks such as InnoCentive that promise breakthrough discoveries based on sources outside the corporate walls.
The author, William C. Taylor (co-founder and founding editor of Fast Company magazine), concentrates on the innovation practices of Rite-Solutions, a software company that builds advanced – and highly classified – command-and-control systems for the Navy.
One interesting project at the company is an internal market where any employee can propose that the company acquire a new technology, enter a new business or make an efficiency improvement. These proposals become stocks, complete with ticker symbols, discussion lists and e-mail alerts. Employees buy or sell the stocks, and prices change to reflect the sentiments of the company’s engineers, computer scientists and project managers – as well as its marketers, accountants and even the receptionist.
At the heart of this approach is one central idea: the most brilliant insights tend to come from people other than senior management. As Taylor explains:
“Most companies operate under the assumption that big ideas come from a few big brains: the inspired founder, the eccentric inventor, the visionary boss. But there’s a fine line between individual genius and know- it-all arrogance. What happens when rivals become so numerous, when technologies move so quickly, that no corporate honcho can think of everything? Then it’s time to invent a less top-down approach to innovation, to make it everybody’s business to come up with great ideas.”
According to Tim O’Reilly, the founder and chief executive of O’Reilly Media, the computer book publisher, and an evangelist for open source technologies, creativity is no longer about which companies have the most visionary executives, but who has the most compelling “architecture of participation.” That is, which companies make it easy, interesting and rewarding for a wide range of contributors to offer ideas, solve problems and improve products?
As an example of external independent idea network the author mentions the InnoCentive which is literally a marketplace of ideas. InnoCentive has signed up more than 30 blue-chip companies, including Procter & Gamble, Boeing and DuPont, whose research labs are groaning under the weight of unsolved problems and unfinished projects. It has also signed up more than 90,000 biologists, chemists and other professionals from more than 175 countries. These “solvers” compete to meet thorny technical challenges posted by “seeker” companies. Each challenge has a detailed scientific description, a deadline and an award, which can run as high as $100,000.
“We are talking about the democratization of science,” said Alpheus Bingham, president and chief executive of InnoCentive.”What happens when you open your company to thousands and thousands of minds, each of them with a totally different set of life experiences?”
Last month, InnoCentive attracted a $9 million infusion of venture capital to accelerate its growth. “There is a ‘collective mind’ out there,” Dr. Bingham said. “The question for companies is, what fraction of it can you access?”
- Here’s an idea: Let everyone have ideas – International Herald Tribune
- URENIO blog post about InnoCentive