Hopefully not lost in all the earnings hoopla is an interesting announcement in its own right -- this week, EMC is conducting its 4th annual Innovation Conference.
As all business leaders know, the business of innovation is a very serious business indeed. At EMC, we compete successfully in a very demanding industry segment: IT infrastructure.
Disruption is the norm.
Without a steady stream of innovations to power our business model, we'd be in dire straights indeed.
So, how does EMC go about the "business of innovation"?
Three Primary Sources of Innovation
I make a clear distinction between the innovations themselves -- and the background processes used to achieve a steady pipeline of innovations to power the business. And building the processes and mechanisms in place to create a steady pipeline of useful innovations is hard work indeed.
Two of our primary sources of innovation are pretty well understood.
First, various engineering teams will come up with new ways of doing things (usually patentable!) in the course of their work. Alongside them are very similar CTO-ish type functions that regularly churn out new and interesting ideas.
I think these teams contribute more than their fair share in this regard - - across the portfolio, I can point to several clever and unique things they've come up with over the years.
The second source of innovation that most people are aware of is through company acquisitions. One way of looking at smaller, technology-oriented M&A is that you're essentially buying pre-fabricated and pre-proven R&D.
EMC does a lot of this sort of innovation as well :-)
The third source is through extended collaboration -- bright people working together in newly-juxtaposed contexts that stimulates new ideas and new approaches. And it's this third approach to innovation that I want to explore today.
My Hero, Steve Todd
Most of how I think about the processes behind sustained innovation I owe to my interactions with Steve Todd. His blog, "Information Playground" is a fascinating study in how a very bright mind goes about that third form of innovation. He self-describes as an "EMC intrapreneur" -- a fitting title indeed.
One of Steve's core premises around successful innovation is the need to interact and collaborate with people you don't usually hang out with.
For example, if you bring up an idea to your co-workers, there's a very high probability that they will not embrace and promote the idea enthusiastically. That's not to say all co-workers are bad people, it's just the way working group interactions tend to work. Sound familiar?
However, bring up that exact same idea to an entirely different and relatively new group of people -- not only is there a much higher probability that they will embrace and promote the idea, but they'll probably add to and enhance the line of thinking as well.
Hybridized ideas are generally stronger and more vigorous than the inbred strains :-)
That's why many of us so passionately seek out conversations with customers, partners -- even competitors -- because their unique perspectives is a powerful engine in creating new approaches to old problems.
But how do you formalize and institutionalize this process across thousands of employees in dozens of countries? And -- more importantly -- keep it fun?
My Other Hero, Burt Kaliski
For the past few years, Dr. Burt Kaliski has been the guiding force behind the EMC Innovation Conference.
He has cracked the code on how to create a scalable and repeatable process that brings together thousands of EMCers and results in valuable innovations that we put back into our business. The central showpiece of the conference is the Innovation Showcase -- a global competition for who can come up with the best ideas.
It's mostly a team sport, with a strong regional flavor.
This year, multiple categories and themes were handed out to not only guide the ideation process, but to broaden the scope beyond technology innovation alone -- categories for customer support, or other business processes, for example.
In addition to the usual US-based submissions, we get boatloads of submissions from our Centers of Excellence (CoE) that are self-contained corporate entities scattered around the globe: India, China, Russia, Israel and more. In turn, many of them have their own regional competitions to help come up with the best-of-the-best for the EMC-wide global competition. And the friendly rivalry that results makes it even more fun.
The internal voting process can be entertaining as well -- I can't tell you how many 'VOTE FOR OUR IDEA" emails I got this year :-)
The EMC Innovation Conference
All of this leads up to the conference itself -- an orchestrated global event done using a backbone of telepresence, video streaming and webcasts.
For those two days, EMC creates a compelling experience for those of us with a creative and innovative bent -- over 2,000 people participate from every corner of the globe. Presentations are made, idea finalists are shared, and it all ends with a big announcement of the winners in each of the categories. Very cool indeed.
Sure, this is all a great way to create a steady pipeline of cool ideas at reasonable cost -- but there's far more to this than meets the eye.
The EMC Innovation Conference also sends a clear and unambiguous message to bright minds everywhere -- we care about you, and we want to create an environment where you can both give and receive great ideas.
It's also an acknowledgement that day-to-day working situations may not give creative minds what they need to thrive and grow. If you fit the profile, it's yet another great reason to work at EMC, and -- if you already work here -- another great reason to stay.
To all of you who participated this year -- and especially to the prize winners -- congratulations!
Always Room For Improvement
Although I think we've accomplished a lot in creating formalized innovation process, there's always more to do.
For one thing, it'd be great if our various engineering groups could spend more time together simply brainstorming. Since I interact with many of them, I see bits and pieces of great things here and there -- but there's no easy way to link up the participants so the magic can happen.
I think we also could find a better way to directly connect the people who have a problem with the people who might be able to come up with an innovative idea. Typically, there are usually many layers of abstraction and aggregation that tend to make interesting dialogs a very rare thing indeed. And, yes, I get frustrated because I usually get to see both sides of the equation.
Finally, there's the whole matter of translating "idea" into "capability". So many promising ideas remain unimplemented. That can be discouraging to many of us. As a result, I've finally come around to the perspective that finding people who can implement a great idea might be more important than the idea itself :-)
Back To Big Ideas
EMC does other forms of extended collaboration as well -- our extensive work with standards groups, or any one of the dozen or so universities we work closely with. There's a consistent pattern of EMC investing in creating relationships and environments that bring bright minds together to do what they do best -- thinking of new approaches to traditional challenges. Put all the pieces together, and it's a pretty broad landscape indeed.
EMC's approach to creating fundamental innovation processes may or may not be all that unique or differentiated -- but we're doing it, doing it well, and investing in getting better over time.
Indeed, as I interact with various business leaders, they're sometimes interested in the entire "business of innovation" for their own organizations. They can be very curious as to how an innovative and successful company -- in a brutally competitive industry like IT - approaches the innovation challenge from a strategy, process and investment perspective.
Innovation isn't something you'd like to leave entirely to luck, especially in our industry.
Which brings up a rather pointed question -- how does your company tackle the challenge of creating a steady stream of new innovations?
I'd be interested in hearing how other folks are doing it.