The importance of communication in the paradigm of Open Innovation

We asked our Managing Director to give us his view on Open Innovation, based on his research and experience with customers. Here follows an article published on Linkedin.

After much consideration, I finally decide to publish my first post on Linkedin. The topic is not the most original, since it concerns the Open Innovation, one of the hottest buzzword of the moment. Hundreds of books, thousands of articles, numerous citations.

However, in line with my studies on communication and considered that my profession deals with Open Innovation, I try to give a point of view that I have had the opportunity to discuss at the Italian Parliament at the first stage of a roadshow on Open Innovation, which is part of the Open Innovation program sponsored by my company (ADS GROUP): Open Innovation: the Italian Roadshow.

Only to proceed with order, let us introduce the concept of open innovation from a definition. I am not a lover of definitions (it is quite impossible indeed to agree with a unique definition of open innovation) and willing to “upset” no one, I take refuge in the orthodoxy, taking up one of the definitions of Prof. Henry Chesbrough, author of this expression.

Open innovation is the use of purposive inflows and outflows of knowledge to accelerate internal innovation, and expand the markets for external use of innovation, respectively. [This paradigm] assumes that firms can and should use external ideas as well as internal ideas, and internal and external paths to market, as they look to advance their technology. (Prof. Henry Chesbrough)

Thus said … who cannot argue with that? Imagine living the innovation in an open way, with the chance to have intentional access to both internal and external knowledge’s sources to accelerate internal innovation on one hand, and on the other, to expand your markets…. It looks simply awesome!

Nevertheless, it should be equally obvious the extreme concreteness that is given to the concept of innovation so declined. Innovation is able to expand the market of a company, to make it grow and prosper.

Equally on this point, it is quite impossible to disagree.

While, therefore, these are all acceptable concepts, it is still important to not be caught by over- enthusiasm. Said that Open Innovation is a very fascinating concept, it is actually very hard to adopt in an organization.

Why?

Because there is no recipe, there is not an universal formula to adopt Open Innovation.

Let us proceed with reasoning.

Knowing that from the point of view of biological science , it makes little sense what I am about to say, my passion for science fiction brings me to imagine the Open Innovation as a mutagen factor. If the DNA of a company is exposed to this mutagen factor, and if the mutagen factor succeed to overcome the target’s resistance (sometimes very strong), then the Open Innovation starts to genetically modify the company’s DNA.

Thanks to this mutation, the target company will improve its market fit, compared to an increasingly fast and interconnected world that offers windows of increasingly restricted opportunities.

After a complete mutation, we will have a company that will be better in listening to external inputs, a company that will innovate faster. We will have simply… a better company.

So, what is the main task of an Open Innovator? Definitely, the open innovator is the one who facilitates this crucial change in the organization, and in order to succeed, he has to be put in the right conditions, he should be supported and empowered directly by the CEO.

However, before starting to act, the manager of the Open Innovation must leave aside for a moment all his beliefs and conceptions he has about Open Innovation, remembering what is written on the temple of God Apollo at Delphi: gnoti seauton. Know thyself. Open Innovator should call into question himself at first and then focus his attention on the company he is going to help to adopt the Open Innovation’s paradigm.

When discussing with colleagues who deal with Open Innovation, I hear “the main goal of an open innovator is to open the doors.” That is right, absolutely right but…wait!

Shorten the pace, take a breath, fortunately, there is no hurry.

Let us remember what we said a moment ago, namely that there is no silver bullet for the Open Innovation and let us imagine ourselves standing in front of the temple of Apollo at Delphi. gnoti seauton, know thyselfWe should pause to reflect on who we are.

It is time to talk about my personal professional experience.

I am the head of Open Innovation for ADS Group. It is an ICT group that has 30 years of history but that still behaves like a start-up. ADS Group has more or less 1,800 employees and is actually a group that has several branches and associated companies. Every day more than a thousand of professionals are engaged, directly in the offices of our customers, on issues ranging from the facility to the cloud. We are embedded in the innovation processes of our customers. Therefore, we enjoy a very privileged and varied point of view of the future.

I can surely say that we are an open, as well as innovative, company. Every day we play the music of innovation together with partners and customers. The problem for us is, therefore, not only to create an ecosystem for innovation open to the external sources, – and we are doing it – but to bring back to home the know-how we develop every day outside the company with our professionals.

Therefore, it is true that, as open innovators, we need to open the doors, but primarily we have to transform our colleagues in “sources of innovation”.

If we did not, we would not get the music of innovation but silence, but if we did it in an uncontrolled way, we would get just noise.

Here is another difficult task of the Open Innovator: to orchestrate innovation. Since I have never seen innovation happening simply connecting machines, as innovation happens only thanks to the collaboration between people, and because collaboration implies communication, this is the main task of the open innovator: to identifiy and manage both internal and external communication’s streams.

This is an old theme, which returns in vogue today.  It is the well-known theme of the communication’s topics management. To figure out how old it is, let us go back in 1943. Kurt Lewin (September 9, 1890 – February 12, 1947) was a German-American psicologyst emigrated for racial discrimination in the USA. He published his study on exploring ways of influencing people to change their dietary habits towards less popular cuts of meat during the Second World War. Kurt Lewin was apparently the first one to use the term “gatekeeping,” which he used to describe a wife or mother as the person who decides which foods end up on the family’s dinner table. (Lewin, 1947).

The gatekeeper is the person who decides what shall pass through each gate section, of which, in any process, there are several.

Although he applied it originally to the food chain, he then added that the gating process can include a news item winding through communication channels in a group. The gatekeeperis the social actor who, with his very personal choices and thus his beliefs, is able to change the social behavior of a community.

I like to point out that the first identified gatekeeper of the history is the woman.

The “gatekeeper” so described, is a kind of opinion leader of these days, we can say a lead user .

In 1970 Thomas Allen resumes the concept of the gatekeeper porting this theory in the study of the R&D departments. In a R&D department, the gatekeepers are the individuals that serve as information source, thanks to their links with professionals outside the organization, for most members of their engineering teams. This theory will accompany us until the year 2000.

Is the open innovator “just” a gatekeeper? Absolutely no.

Therefore, should you choose a panel of gatekeepers for you R&D department? Sorry, no again.

Because the problem is just this: it is not possible to rely on one or more individuals of a single department for the most crucial part of the innovation process, i.e. the choice of the innovation’s streams. Because in any case, the gatekeepers will make decision and choices according to their own convictions, their background and knowledge, and in any case they will be influenced by the context, in particular by what is called “mainstream”.

This is why today we are talking about – and the musical metaphor is back again – the “orchestration process”. It is important to equip your company with a function of orchestration, involving not only the R&D but also all the others functions (HR, ICT, purchases, etc.). In a second step, the orchestration’s function should be enriched by external contributions too (universities, reasearch centers, other companies, start-ups, etc.).

Why? Because the concept of open innovation, its intrinsic creative enthusiasm, makes us feel what Kirkegaard defined: “dizziness of freedom”.

Together, everything seems possible.

However, since resources are limited, and time is limited too, the head of innovation perpetually lives the agony of choice. His job is to share this anxiety to minimize the risks. He should have the right skills and attitude in order to make the others involved in the innovation process. Open Innovator should be capable to listen, before even choosing the streams of innovation.

Creating a paradigm of extensive and effective innovation, will help companies to optimize their resources and to be more effective.

Someone might say … “Michael, wake up! Have you ever heard of gamification! hackatons, challenges???”  Yes of course! Apart from the fact that these are “old wine in a new bottle” ( read here …), the question is: who decides the topics of the so beloved challenges, hackatons and so on? Thus, we return, with different words, at the same starting point.

The key-point is to identify and manage the communication’s channels dedicated to the innovation process, and to ensure that they work and perform as expected once tuned in on the right frequencies.

This way, if we will be able to organize communication as the actual enabler of the innovation, then, and only then, it will be a completely different kind of music!