NUIG: Turning new ideas into useful inventions


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.

The article “Creating Employee Networks That Deliver Open Innovation” was written by Whelan and collaborators Salvatore Parise, Jasper de Valk and Rick Aalbers.

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.

“This is a personality trait more than anything else. They are people with the skills and intuition to be able to sort out marketing hype from reality. Unfortunately, companies don’t tend to reward these people or recognise their value.”

Unsung status
One of the reasons for the unsung status of these prophets is also to do with their personalities. “They tend not to be well connected people within the organisation. They are not go-to people. One of the things we recommend is that mechanisms are put in place to connect them with the go-to people.”

And this need not be a terribly difficult task. “There are simple things that can be done,” he points out. “Physical proximity is one. If people work more than 20 metres from each other they tend not to interact.

“If you have an idea scout and an idea connector you can make sure they are working in close proximity with each other. You can also get them to work on projects together so that they get to know each other – that will make it easier for the scout to pass on the ideas.”

Access is also important. “Google is really good at this. One of their senior executives who is now with another company was a top idea connector. What she did was have set times every week when she was available for idea scouts to come and talk to her. People could just drop in and it worked very well.”

To help organisers overcome difficulties in this regard he recommends carrying out an organisational network analysis. “This gives a visual representation of how information flows around in an organisation. You can see how people are connected and identify the connectors. You can also identify information breakages.

“What we found in that Irish software company was that the managers who would get the ideas weren’t connected with the key decision-makers. Once you identify the breakages you can deal with them by putting the connectors in the right places.”

And creating these information flow maps needn’t be a very complex undertaking.

“There are a couple of ways to do it but a very simply way is to give employees a short survey to complete, asking them questions about the people they would turn to in different situations. This gives you a map of how people are connected.

“Other questions will help identify who the people are that bring in the ideas and who are the ones who can help turn those ideas into useful developments for the company. When you have that information you can put the people together and help bring the ideas to life and make innovation happen more efficiently in the organisation.”