NUIG: Turning new ideas into useful inventions
Dr Eoin Whelan recommends using an organisational network analysis to give a visual representation of how information flows around in an organisation
What makes some organisations innovative and others not? Why do companies such as Intel and Proctor & Gamble seemingly have conveyor belts of innovative new products, while others like Digital and Wang simply disappear because they have failed to keep pace in markets they once led?
The search for answers to these and other similar questions has resulted in a highly prestigious award from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for NUI Galway lecturer in business information systems Dr Eoin Whelan.
Dr Whelan won the 2013 Richard Beckhard Memorial Prize awarded by MIT’s Sloan Technology Review for the “most outstanding” article published on organisational strategy.
They examined how some companies are acknowledged innovation leaders and argue that others have failed to match them because the mix of external and internal ideas for innovation doesn’t happen as efficiently.
“We were interested in how companies become innovative,” Whelan explains. “We found that innovative companies have to constantly scout what’s going on in the outside world to see what new ideas are out there and what new technologies are being developed.
“Some people in companies are very good at doing this and we call them ‘idea scouts’. And some companies are very good at bringing in new ideas and technologies but are not necessarily very good at getting them to the people who will do something with them and turn them into useful inventions.”
This interest led to research with an Irish software company. “The company develops software for call centres and lost a major contract to a competitor who was viewed as having superior interactive voice technology.
“However, when we looked at it we found that the company had actually known about that technology more than a year before and an employee had brought it to the attention of management at the time. The problem was that the manager who the employee went to didn’t know what to do with it or how to bring it to the next stage.”
This is a little like the poor soul at Decca records who turned down The Beatles because he didn’t see a future for “groups with guitars”.
“The problem is that companies need people with the skills to bring the ideas on and add value,” says Whelan.
“We call these people ‘idea connectors’ and it’s the combination of the scouts and the connectors that can make the difference.”
Whelan believes that the lack of recognition for these roles is preventing many organisations from realising their innovative potential.
“A company might have 100 people in the R&D division, but there might only be a handful of them with a genuine interest in keeping up with what’s going on outside and with the latest trends in technology.