The Two Faces of Corporate Innovation

Digital innovation is a corporate virtue of the 21st century, and all businesses are innovative all the time - if you believe their PR. So why is so little actually changing?

One of those things that seems uniquely American to us this side of the Atlantic is the way its law gives a corporation the status of a person, in some situations. But there is an aptness to the metaphor. Like a person, a corporation has an immune system, and it’s one that tends to repel invader: often, invading ideas.

The traditional, industrial era corporate was about harnessing people’s work into a machine designed to deliver a known result effectively. It’s very nature was designed to protect the process and reject too great a change that might disrupt the process, and thus risk output. Once the business is established, mechanisms develop to slow and control decision making, to reduce the risk to the established business order.

It is, very literally, a corporate immune system. Its existence has necessitated the existence of skunkworks projects to allow new ideas room to grow - or enforcing change though acquisition.

That works great in an era of business stability.

That is not today’s era.

Corporate inertia

For the best part of 20 years, we’ve been talking about digital reshaping business - but the day to day reality for many people is that they’re doing very similar jobs than they were in the 1990s, just with different tools. Why?

In the summary of a recent workshop looking back on 20 years of the digital workplace, PostShift’s Laura Jane-Parker noted that:

Organisations concentrate on how digital tools can make today’s tasks easier, rather than stepping back to consider whether today’s tasks are the most effective way to get things done, or move us towards our strategic goals effectively.

Or, to put it another way, do we allow new tools to allow us to do existing processes better, or do we use them to rethink how we serve the company’s purpose?

There’s also a product-focused neophilia that creates issues. 15 years ago, when I first started exploring digital transformation of corporate processes, much of the excitement centred around blogs and wikis - how much do they feature in conversations today? But the fundamental usefulness of those tools for capturing knowledge within an organisation hasn’t diminished as the “new hotness” of tools like Slack has come along, but discussion and use of them has.

Wikis are still a huge part of the net. Many of us consult Wikipedia daily, and the Wikis network of sites are generating encyclopedia for every fandom under the sun.

Indeed, the ever-present risk of corporate knowledge loss is much diminished when staff routinely capture information in intranet-based tools, rather than in documents.

What can we learn from this?

There are parallel worlds of corporate innovation at work here. You might call them the “department of innovation” approach, and the “agile organisation” approach.

Department of Innovation

As Martin pointed out, we’ve been talking, thinking and writing about innovation for months. Innovation has become the great virtue of the second decade of the 21st century. No organisation can afford to be perceived as anything but innovative: and so, they fake it. Just as some companies have performed “greenwashing” to make themselves appear environmentally conscious, others are “innowashing” themselves, declaring every new product innovative in their press releases, and sticking new, trendy tools into their long-suffering teams to create a more modern atmosphere.

Once you start talking about a department of innovation, an innovation team, or a head of innovation, all of a sudden, you’ve made it someone’s job, rather than everybody’s job. It’s a commitment to the appearance of change, rather than the hard work of actually reforming how the company operates.

The Department of Innovation is where innovation goes to die. It’s the corporate equivalent of a cyst formed to prevent invasive ideas infecting the company.

Agile organisation

There’s plenty of debate about exactly what an agile organisation looks like. That’s great - it’s a feature of the idea, not bug. Just Google the term. You’ll see many completing visions of what it could be. Our parent, Accenture, has its own vision, of course.

The underlying idea, though, is simple: an organisation that can adapt quickly to changing situations. Rather than being, essentially, a machine built of humans, designed to deliver a know process with ever-greater efficiency, it’s design with flexibility for people to work how they need to, not as a job definition states they should.

Fundamentally, this means stopping seeing people as job-fillers, to be eliminated when the job changes, but a set of skills and aptitudes, that can be deployed and redeployed as the environment around them shifts. It makes a shift from job roles to project working, and a fundamental acceptance that you might be doing very different things in six months than you are now.

Technology is the enabler here - it allows new forms of communication, collaboration and knowledge-capture. And you’re goal-focused, not process-focused. When confronted with a new technology or product, your question is “can this help me reach my goal better?” not “can this make what I’m doing now easier?”

Too many in the corporate world are waiting for digitally-driven change to settle down. It’s not going to happen.

It’s a framework for VUCA - volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity - which is how most of us experience the working world right now.

So, while there may be parallel worlds - one could reasonably question if both of those worlds have a future…