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Innovation Is Not About Technology
Innovation is about connecting people, knowledge and skills
by Patrick Halek
• When it comes to innovation, technology is only one aspect
• The key is generating knowledge aiming at advancement
• Therefore, it is essential to connect people, knowledge and skills
• This requires vitality and a cooperative, "out-of-the-box" culture
Innovation is about people
The coolest gadget for wireless use, a waterproof mobile phone, e-cars learning to drive by themselves, or solar panels showing how to use what has always been there: the sun.
It is a pretty, fancy world out there, this world of innovation – and most of us feel being dragged right into it. There is still an overall view, though, which puts the focus on technology when it comes to innovation. But: the rigid focus on technological aspects does not tell even half of the story. Why? Because innovation is always based on a bundle of aspects and disciplines far beyond technology. In fact, it must be.
Technology tells us how to build devices, machines, software and apps, or how to improve physical or chemical reactions. Technology shows us results and gives us the hard facts, but it does not tell us anything about what is behind the latest hot stuff. It does not tell us, though, where the initial sparks come from and it leaves us almost blind about the most important ingrediency: knowledge - and how to put it together to create innovative novelties.
► So, talking about innovation we must be talking about people, their knowledge and skills as well as fruitful ways of connecting to each other. That is where innovative potential comes from, be it within established organisations, ventures or societal entities - or even all-across.
Connecting knowledge is the key
We have been facing a boost of generating knowledge for quite some time - and odds are we will still see it speeding up. The knowledge society is all ours. But: facing such development, there are 2 essential aspects to it:
• Generating knowledge is not about breeding by ourselves.
• Knowledge has no value without the ability to create advancement and innovation – catering to both competitive advantage and societal benefit.
Be it information technology, medical research, or any other field: we are facing a knowledge explosion. So, how to deal with such an amount of knowledge which is getting bigger and growing faster?
Just imagine: 200 years ago, it was still possible for some "universal academics" to embrace the entire knowledge mankind had in store. One person alone could claim to know all there was to know. But that was then. Today, even within only one discipline, say medical research, that is simply not possible anymore. Knowledge has become too broad, too wide and too deep. That means: We must cooperate fruitfully, if we want to grow and produce something useful.
Let's just think of today's Nobel Prize winners. Even in one category, it is mostly not one person alone being awarded, but two persons or even a team. Brains must connect their knowledge to be on top.
► That is exactly the reason why successful advancement and innovation can only be based on connecting to each other and on finding ways of fruitful cooperation and alliances.
Homework comes first
"What's the news?" you might think now. So, here is a little question: Being part of an organisation, corporation or venture, which methods of connecting people, knowledge and skills all-across departments, units and disciplines do you have? And even beyond that: How does that knowledge produce value creating innovation and break-through novelties? The answer is all yours.
Due to an inability to create innovation, a growing group of established corporations seem to have understood that there is a need to connect. "So, why not cooperate with start-ups?" they think. Quite a few of them get disappointed, though, since the outcome is not worth a story and does not generate any value. Why? Because connecting to someone outside the organisation always implies that some homework needs to be done beforehand. Some organisations forget about that.
If an organisation is not capable of changing its own attitude, structures and ways of dealing with change, odds are that connecting to someone outside will not boost that organisation's success. Efforts will rather go off like a torch-light on low battery.
► It is a basic rule when seeking alliances: Do your homework first and get prepared for your mission. If you do not, your alliance-partner will not enrich you but will drag you down or will waste your time and money.
Many of us are buried in details and the more knowledge we have the harder it is to understand the context. Only those who can understand the context, though, will understand the specific value of each detail. Without such value knowledge cannot create any advantage or benefit.
Generating knowledge is an ongoing process creating a wide range of various options changing quickly. To put it this way: Knowledge can be viewed as pieces in a state of "free floating" - waiting for a place to dock and being put together to create something useful.
The key to creating value is getting from a state of "free floating" to a state of "connecting". This means bringing together different disciplines, competences and skills based on – most important – different perspectives. Without connecting, the result would be: Knowledge still floating freely without entering a stage of creating something useful. And: Connecting always means giving meaning to the big picture by connecting details and context.
► That is why creating innovation needs a connecting spirit carried by a cooperative organisational culture. This way, freely floating knowledge has the potential to dock, connect – and enter a state of creating value.
You think that's nothing new, again? So, think of how many organisations manage to bridge the gap between different departments and units fruitfully. In many organisations departments and units have generated their own distinct culture producing their own rules setting their own pace and priorities. They do not connect, some even do not want to. Although organisational "vitality" and "agility" have become well-known issues, often, connecting all-across an organisation is just another lip service. But: No connecting means no vitality or agility.
Especially when it comes to going digital, quite a few organisations are facing trouble resulting from a non-connecting attitude. Because they still do not connect all-across their entire organisation, some units in these organisations do not even know the potential of other units which are just next door. They still cling to some state of glorious segregation. This way, the organisation's full potential is far away from being used. To get fit for the future, a solid digital strategy needs to connect IT, strategic development, HR, finance, product management and way beyond. Connecting to each other becomes a significant competitive advantage when it comes to facing the future.
► The less a culture is based on connecting the higher the risk to fail.
Knowledge never rests. Knowledge must be floating freely to a certain extent to keep developing. The crucial step is to be taken when knowledge is opening the path towards advancement and innovation – the step from "connecting" to "creating". It is the arrangement of pieces in a smart and distinct way.
That is why this seems very hard for some organisations when dealing with creating innovation. Creating something new always needs an attitude of connecting different people, approaches and perspectives – quite a challenge for some established organisational cultures. In many cases, the main reason for having such difficulties is a dysfunctional setting caused by these aspects:
• Innovation is no recognised crucial aspect for organisational success
• The organisational culture is based on "holding back" rather than on "sharing"
• People connecting to others are viewed risky to one's own position
• Existing structures and processes don't support an "out-of-the-box" attitude
• There is a fear that something new could put the established at risk
Vitality is essential
This is exactly why organisational vitality plays an essential role. Mostly, advancement and innovation get blocked by such dysfunctional settings and a false perception of keeping a stable position.
► Because: Keeping a stable position does not mean keeping the status quo. In fact, it means the complete opposite. Keeping a stable position means to change and develop on a continuous, well-balanced basis, in order to develop continuous advancement.
Be it established organisations or ventures: Innovation is always linked to a continuous transformation process – because it continuously means leaving the usual behind and introducing something new. Therefore, new and old need a continuous and solid point of connection to gain momentum and be accepted. That is why vitality is essential. And therefore, connecting all-across an organisation is crucial.
Out of the box
The point is: an organisation's ongoing relevance is not simply based on optimising the status quo, but on continuously creating uniqueness and a distinct position. That is why it is essential to view the usual "out-of-the-box".
What a surprise, isn't it? So, this is about the very core of managing an organisation - which is not about getting more and more efficient and just following change – but which is about entrepreneurship, one-upmanship and confronting a changing environment by (pro)actively shaping something new and attractive.
Fact is: Challenges of today and tomorrow cannot be met with approaches of yesterday - because rules of relevance are continuously subject to change. Thus, staying relevant and fit is not about showing more effort and trying harder. It is about changing perspectives and mindsets when one wants to advance successfully. That is exactly the reason why organisations and their responsibles who are creating entire new ways of behaviour, products or industries are called "game changers". They did not play well-known games more successfully. They got out of the box and invented completely new games.
Talking about new games: That is why the digital age is not just about going digital. It is about dealing with completely new options evoking completely new habits and business models. It is a new game having new rules.
► The message is: create where you can and follow where you must. Ask yourself what options and opportunities your core-competences and abilities have in store. Challenge the usual patterns of your thinking and acting. Get out of your box and connect.
Cooperative thinking and acting
Talking to responsibles in organisations, one will find almost no one telling there is no need for vitality fostering cooperative thinking and acting and getting out of the box. But besides will and commitment, the question is: How exactly is it done?
Creating advancement and innovation based on vitality and a connecting, cooperative culture is not about how to be nice to each other or how to involve as many people as possible giving as much input as possible. The essence lies somewhere else.
Innovation based on cooperative thinking and acting takes a couple of well-defined aspects, rules, structures and processes to exploit the full potential. And, most important, it takes both a clear vision and a culture defining a fruitful cooperative attitude a crucial asset.
► From tip to toe, innovation is always an act of balance between hard and soft aspects – between people, their knowledge and skills - and technology.
Therefore, an advancing and innovative attitude needs a framework offering both a strong backbone and well-defined rules. Maybe these 10 cornerstones might help to shape such framework:
1. Accept that a connecting, cooperative attitude is essential
2. Have a clear vision and define your overall goals
3. Develop your brand and culture, your values and identity solidly
4. Know and develop your core-competences
5. Align your organisational structure with external needs
6. Define a backbone carried by both clear rules and room for free, open flow
7. Connect people, knowledge and skills according to your overall goals
8. Define clear operational goals and how to get down to earth
9. Review and challenge your results
10. Define a method and procedure how to go through 1 - 9
Following these cornerstones, such framework offers ways of catering to individual needs, situations and tasks. Through keeping the balance between clear rules on the one hand and free room on the other, freely floating knowledge can dock, connect and create advancement and innovation continuously. This way, it only takes 3 more things: will, endurance and consistency.
This article has also been published on Linkedin-publishing