A weekly newsletter on creativity, ideas, innovation and invention.
Tuesday, 2 March 2004
Hello and welcome to another issue of Report 103, your weekly newsletter on Creativity, ideas, innovation and invention. Today's issue is largely focused on the importance of communication to creativity, ideas, innovation and invention. But there's also a piece on outsourcing cheap innovation. Next week, I will treat you to the next killer app of the Internet. In the meantime – happy thinking.
A reminder, if you have news about creativity, please feel free to forward it to me for potential inclusion in Report103.
COMMUNICATING FOR CREATIVITY
The one ingredient essential for a company to become an innovation driven firm is communications. Consider the old parable:
One day while wondering, I came across three bricklayers. I asked the first bricklayer what he was doing.
“laying bricks,” he told me.
I asked the second what he was doing.
“Making a brick wall” he told me.
I asked the third.
“Building a cathedral” he explained.
In spite of an explosion of communication tools over the past decade, there are still many firms that communicate to their employees like the cathedral makers communicated to the first bricklayer. Employees are told to lay bricks and lay them well. But, without knowing why they are laying bricks, bricklayers like the first are unable to make much of a creative contribution to the firm. How can they suggest ideas when they hardly know what the firm is doing?
Today, too many firms treat their employees like the cathedral makers treated the second bricklayer. Employees know their place within their department. They know they are part of a team building a wall. But they are unclear as to why they are building a wall or where that wall fits in the big picture. Although bricklayers like these can contribute creative ideas, their ideas are largely limited to making better walls. While such suggestions are useful, it is worth bearing in mind that cathedral walls are different to house walls.
A precious few firms communicate to their entire workforce the way the cathedral makers communicated to the third bricklayer. But, those insightful cathedral makers who do fully communicate their plans and strategy will be richly rewarded as long as they open their ears to the bricklayers, concrete pourers, diggers, scaffolding makers and others involved in building the cathedral.
That's because bricklayers are so much more than bricklayers. They are multifaceted human beings with experience, knowledge, compassion and pride.
One bricklayer may have travelled Europe and seen many different styles of cathedrals. He can contribute all kinds of ideas based on what he learned during his travels. Another may be a keen experimenter, who has ideas about making the tall, thin walls of the cathedral more stable until the vaulting can be completed. Another may know a thing or two, about stained glass windows, which he can share with the window makers.
Why do firms not communicate completely with their people? There are many reasons. Sometimes it is the result of not developing lines of communication from the top down. Sometimes issues of strategy and vision are considered confidential and so not entrusted to anyone beyond top management. Sometimes, top management is kept informed, but no method is established for top management to communicate to people under them.
No matter what the reason, those firms that do not communicate to their employees; those firms that do not ensure their employees know they are working together to build a cathedral, will never build such good cathedrals as those firms which do communicate in full.
PEOPLE ARE MULTIDIMENSIONAL
One flaw with many idea management systems, whether using purpose built software or ad-hoc systems of e-mails and memos, is that they do not allow true, cross enterprise collaboration on ideas.
In many systems, ideas are two ways. People contribute ideas to management. Management reviews ideas and communicates back to the idea originator.
Some systems are three-way. The idea originator can send her ideas to colleagues – whom she selects – for feedback before sending the ideas to management. This is approach is somewhat better, but it ignores a simple fact: people are multidimensional, with knowledge, experience and passions in a variety of subjects.
Consider: have you ever met an accountant who only knows about accounting or a sales person whose only interest or experience in life is selling? Of course not, but the chances are, if a salesperson has an innovative new idea for her firm, she will send the idea to other salespeople for feedback. She'd probably never think to send the idea to someone in accounting, the human resources manager or that energetic new intern in finance who is positively bubbling over with new ideas which no one will listen to.
But, in every firm I have worked with, people across the enterprise are full of ideas. Ideas about their own area of work, of course, but also ideas about other departments. Moreover, employees spend at least eight hours a day working for their employers. They care about their companies and even dissatisfied staff want to see their companies become better. They want to share their ideas with people who will listen.
In one very hierarchical firm, the sales administrator had an excellent idea for the accounting department (after all the sales administrator often dealt with sending invoices and responding to customers' queries). The idea would have substantially reduced the time from finishing a project to sending an invoice, this significantly improving the firm's cash-flow. But, management refused to listen to the sales administrator's idea. Not surprisingly, this firm has stagnated while its competitors grow steadily.
Thus, to maximise a firm's innovative potential, it is absolutely critical to get everyone involved in the creative process. This can be done by choosing an idea management software tool that allows enterprise-wide collaboration (like Jenni, out software, of course) or building tools that allow everyone to see new ideas and comment on them. An idea I have always liked is to create an idea wall near a communal place – such as the staff canteen. Leave lots of markers laying about and encourage people to scrawl their ideas and their comments to ideas across the wall. While such a solution lacks the sophistication of dedicated idea management software, it would be jolly good fun.
OUTSOURCING CHEAP INNOVATION
Outsourcing overseas has been big news in Europe and America, as programming, call centres, bookkeeping and other white collared administrative work is outsourced to countries like India with high levels of ability combined with low costs.
The argument for outsourcing has been that it is the low level repetitive work (initially sewing garments and production line work, later software coding, now all kinds of activities) that is outsourced to low cost-of-labour countries. Meanwhile, more expensive people in the local market would focus on high value work, particularly innovation.
So, it was with great delight that I've learned that Samsung, together with a number of other South Korean countries have been outsourcing their innovation to Russia, where researchers are talented, well educated and comparatively inexpensive to hire. Samsung maintains in Moscow a research centre employing 80 engineers and scientists. Last year, they brought the company 50 patents.
Apparently, hundreds of Korean companies, including biggies like LG Electronics and Daewoo Electronics as well as many smaller firms have either outsourced innovation to Russia or have brought Russian scientists to Korea for research and development.
Unlike in the US, where politicians are demanding jobs go back to the USA (particularly in an election year), the South Korean government is actively encouraging outsourcing innovation. They are offering South Korean start-ups grants and loans to help them exploit Russian technical innovation.