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Is corporate innovation an oxymoron?

Katherine Manuel  Senior Vice President, Innovation, Thomson Reuters

Katherine Manuel  Senior Vice President, Innovation, Thomson Reuters

How companies can build a culture that fosters and enables innovation.

Is the term ‘corporate innovation’ an oxymoron?

Generally, large multinational corporations are not thought of as the most dynamic workplaces. The perception that corporations are too hierarchical and mired in bureaucracy has been a drain on recruiting talent over the last couple of decades. Startups, market disruptors and organizations perceived as more dynamic are gaining a competitive edge because of a stagnant mindset.

Corporations need to focus on a culture shift. The world today, and therefore the workplace of today, is changing quickly. New technology, market accelerators, family dynamics and globalization have changed the way we live and work. In order to attract and (maybe more importantly) retain key talent, corporations need top level support to focus on breaking down silos that create barriers, work with external partners and democratize the culture so everyone becomes a contributor to the holistic success of the enterprise.

Building a culture that fosters and enables innovation is essential to the financial health of an organization and there are a few key ways to implement this.

1. Build change from internal points of strength

Every large corporation has something that differentiates it from the rest. Really look at those factors and determine how you can use that strength to jumpstart an innovation mindset. For example, if you work at a software company, you house incredible developers. These techies likely write code and build things outside of work. How can you engage their creative imaginations to use some of those personal passions for problem solving and emerging technology within your company? If you run a marketing company, how can you use the analytics and messaging power that your company uses externally to ignite change inside the company? If you run a consulting firm, or one that focuses on content aggregation and distribution, how can you mine data on your leaders to determine who delivers organic growth above and beyond market trends? Find ways to empower those leaders to teach others.

2. Democratize the process

By definition, these large multinational corporations have many, many employees. While often times the coordination factor of this many people feels an impediment to innovation, it can be turned into strength by democratizing the process of innovation.

  • Take the time to develop a common way of talking about and defining innovation that includes all of your people. Why do we tend to get hung up on product innovation alone? Innovation can mean finding a new path to reach customers when they need support or automating processes that once required human intervention.
  • Invest in and promote common tools and resources that support employees to participate. Today there are many out-of-the-box software solutions that help collect and crowdsource new ideas. There are also incredible online training programs that take the boring e-learning of yesterday to a new and highly interactive level.
  • Demonstrate senior sponsorship around this initiative. Whether through dedicating C-suite time through company-wide events or a clear investment prioritization for new ideas, there are real ways to use the hierarchy and deep-pockets of large corporations to affect the culture as much as the outcomes that lead to innovation incubation.

3. Establish open channels

Even the largest companies of today need to rely on partners to keep up with and meet the pace of change. Operating in a vacuum is no longer protective; it is prohibitive.

Corporations need to ignite break out technology talent, develop partnerships with startups and universities, and develop ways to experiment on emerging technologies hand-in-hand with customers.

Today, many companies are investing in or building their own Labs or ‘accelerators’ that focus on agile experimentation and disruptions. Labs offer many positives for large corporations if positioned correctly. They can create environments that pull from the best of start-ups, such as attracting top talent, testing new ideas in an agile way, and more easily partnering with start-ups and university change makers through less bureaucracy and greater proximity.

All in all, innovation in a large corporation is as much about broad culture shift as any single investment or a bright new idea. It is necessary to give the evolution towards creating an innovation culture a home within a large corporation. This will both fuel the ecosystem and measure the elements driving change. If corporations that have established success can tap into their own differentiators, enable their talent and find ways to embrace the external factors driving change – they will create environments where innovation can thrive.

View this piece as it originally appeared on The Economist Intelligence Unit.

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