25 March 2008

On having a “fostering innovation” culture

As I have repeatedly written on this blog, continuous innovation requires access to knowledge. So an organizational culture conducive to knowledge sharing will foster innovation as a direct result.

James Todhunter (CIO of Invention Machine Corp.) wrote an article just published in titled: “Fostering innovation culture in an unpredictable economy”. I am not sure what he meant by “unpredictable economy” as no economy has ever been predictable. “Knowledge economy” would be more relevant (and maybe what James had in mind) to relate to the current economy where knowledge (intellectual capital) is increasingly the most valuable asset for businesses, so the intangible taking over the tangible.

However, James Todhunter’s view that an innovative culture must be initiated and supported from the top of the organization is spot on:

<<[..] It starts at the top. The most common reason cited for why innovation workers feel their organizations fail to have an innovation culture is a perceived lack of management commitment. Organizational culture is created from the top down. In order to create a culture that supports repeatable innovation success, management has to make its commitment to innovation clear and unambiguous. [..]
It starts at the top. It really is that simple. Management has the power to set the tone and drive the culture. Managers who avoid taking responsibility for driving the innovation culture by using the “adoption must be a grass-roots thing” crutch, will always be met with failure and left wondering why they can’t achieve their repeatable innovation goals. Culture begins and ends at the top. To create a value-driving, sustainable innovation culture, you need only make it so.>>

I have constantly in this blog supported the idea that a sustainable fostering innovation culture (or knowledge sharing culture) can only be built with a honest top-down approach. In other words, it needs to be a strategic initiative. I know that many supporters of the social Enterprise 2.0 gaining momentum see it as an alternative to the top-down approach. They believe that if a large part of the people at the base of the organization start collaborating and sharing knowledge and adopting new (cheap or free) tools to do so, and if they increase productivity as a result; it will force the whole organization and its management to embrace these methods of working, this in turn forcing a culture change. Of course, people at the fringe of organizations will find benefits in adopting new collaborative technologies at a personal level first then within their team or department, as long as these technologies are answers to needs identified by them to do their work more efficiently and/or effectively. However, for these adoptions to force a company-wide culture change by themselves is not at all a given outcome. This might happen in some contexts but probably only in organizations where the current culture only needed a spark to turn into a knowledge sharing culture. In the majority of organizations where the culture is predominantly of a command and control type, matching my list of 20 syndromes I challenge the bottom-up approach to succeed on its own! Anyone aware of such a successful cultural change, please speak up.

What has happened in numerous occasions and will continue to happen, is for organizational cultures to be transformed with the impulse and leadership from the top (Buckman Labs, IBM and BP are only 3 of the most famous ex. of such cultural transformation). If we consider Google, surely one of the most innovative companies these past few years, its ground-breaking open culture was initiated by its founders, so therefore a top-down leadership. Enterprise 2.0 will not drastically change the balance of power and responsibility: Especially since the Enron scandal! The boss remains the boss and if he/she wants employees to stick to their job descriptions and wants remuneration and recognition processes to reflect this fact, no clever technology will fundamentally change this and Enterprise 2.0 initiatives will remain localized and accessory to standard business processes.

Now, is wanting to change the culture sufficient for a leader to succeed in this endeavour? Probably not. No matter how good a leader you are, you cannot simply tell people to start sharing knowledge and be innovative for everyone to do so overnight! James Todhunter gives a list of 6 methods for effectively fostering an innovation culture:

· Invest in your people.
· Reward the behaviour you want.
· Invest in infrastructure to support sustainable innovation.
· An important part of the innovation infrastructure is the framework to leverage knowledge
– both the knowledge within your organization and that which is external to the enterprise.
· Promote the value of innovation.
· Practice innovation in everything.

This is a good list and with a very good chance of success if followed. I would however like to add one method that should actually be the one to start with: Lead by example! Don’t count on people to do what you say, even if you reward them for it. It will surely be more effective if you start by doing it yourself: be open, share you knowledge, show off your own creative or innovative ideas (and you might then realize that special rewards are not as necessary as expected).


At 3:35 PM, Blogger James Todhunter said...

Hello Peter-Anthony,

Thanks for the great follow-up on the article. I posted a clarification to your question regarding the reference to an unpredictable economy on my blog:

At 5:59 AM, Blogger stephen said...

From the fostering front lines of foreclosed minds-for-gone reality - hiding behind corrupt corp.greed the seed has grown into a soiled mess - the innovation culture,my god if we could only recreate the Need .
90283 sho


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