Sustaining Innovation on the Network

By Sarah Sorensen
September 2, 2009

There is no monopoly on great ideas - they can come from anyone and anywhere. And in today's networked world, it is more than likely that the next big breakthrough will come from someone we probably don't know who lives in a place we may never have even heard of and probably couldn't pinpoint on the globe.

Of all the sustainable attributes of the network which I write about in my book, the innovation enabled by the services and connections made possible by the network, is potentially our single, greatest hope for a progressive future. We can plod along making incremental progress, but we need innovation, that pure 'aha' kind of innovation that turns routines on their heads and changes everything. Human history has depended on these flashes of brilliance to illuminate its path forward, and our 21st Century will be no different.

The network helps people, organizations and even countries retool and reinvent themselves. It brings people, information and resources together in ways never before possible - creating new collaborative opportunities that can bring the best resources to bear on any particular issue. For example, a team out of corporate headquarters in Munich can tap the combined talents of a freelancer in New Jersey, a consulting firm in Bangalore, and a business partner in Singapore. A problem can literally be worked on around the globe, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The network also supports the generation of new ideas or approaches to problems and opportunities by extending the scope and relationships of participants.

Customers can become product managers, providing insights that influence product development and go-to-market tactics. There is an interesting article in September's Harvard Business Review on crowdsourcing, which is designed to harness the essentially free intellectual property of groups, highlighting lessons learned by networking giant Cisco Systems. Basically, Cicso called on "the wider world" to come up with ideas, submitted via an online portal by more than 2,500 individuals from 104 countries, that could spawn a new billion-dollar business for the company. The goal of "I-Prize," as described by Cisco, was to "harvest ideas that had so far escaped our notice and in the process break free from company-centric ways of looking at technologies, markets, and ourselves." The result, was a sensor-enabled smart-electricity grid, which is currently in process.

And private industry isn't the only benefactor of crowd-sourcing. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) have created portals for employees to make suggestions and comment on ideas in hopes of uncovering ways to create efficiencies and improve services. An article in InformationWeek reports that to date "25,000 (TSA) employees have posted 9,000 ideas, left 78,000 comments, and submitted 270,000 ratings. It's led to the creation of more than 40 programs, such as the family security lanes at TSA-screened airports." (An idea I am particularly appreciative of as the parent of two little ones.)

The network can also help foster collaboration and extend relationships to the point that competitors can also become partners. Take the automobile industry, which is struggling to revamp and reinvent itself. For years, the major auto companies have been globally sourcing materials and manufacturing, and standardizing components across models in their portfolios to achieve operational efficiencies and scale. However, keeping up with all the technological and market advances needed to meet the rapidly changing customer requirements remains a challenge (among other things identified in the recent bankruptcies by General Motors and Chrysler). In the networked world, product cycles are under more pressure than ever to compress and keep up with customer expectations. So auto companies, such as GM, Chrysler, Diamler and BMW, are coming together to set up joint R&D teams to develop engine platforms and hybrid systems to create and bring innovations to market quicker. And we have seen these kinds of collaborations in other industries too, such as JVC and Kenwood's joint technological development of components.

How important is it to leverage new collaboration and innovation models? The analyst firm Gartner Group predicts that by 2015, companies will not be able "to build or sustain a competitive advantage unless they it capitalizestake advantage of on the combined power of individualized behaviors, social dynamics and collaboration." McKinsey estimates that "in the US economy alone roughly 12 percent of all labor activity could be transformed by more distributed and networked forms of innovation."

Just look at the world in 1990 and then take a look around you today, you'll see that almost every major advancement was either brought about by the network or the availability of new networked services. This is because the network offers a platform that we can use to effectively adapt to changing landscapes and creatively address problems and needs. It is one of our best tools to sustain innovations, from simple, incremental improvements that take existing concepts a step farther to monumental ideas that change our life or business in a radical way.

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