Is Your Company’s Culture Ready to Open Up?

During a TED talk, British business professor Eddie Obeng said “We spend our time responding rationally to a world which we understand and recognize, but which no longer exists.”

In this talk Obeng is referring to the speed of communication and its affect on business and innovation. He goes on to say the density of information interactions is amazing and speeds up the rate of change faster than a company’s ability to learn versus the speed of information happening out in the world.  
Obeng’s thesis in this talk is that the pace of change overtakes the pace of learning.  This reality is something that most executives and employees instinctively feel. They know that the speed of information, the volume of information and the expansive reach of connectivity is changing the playing field as it relates to their competitors, their industry and the way they interact with the world. This speed, volume and connectivity have a very profound effect on innovation. The effect is not just for companies but also for regions and countries.

Typically in the past, innovation was done internally and locally. Today, however, companies and countries are starting to learn that these organizational structures no longer hold monopolies on their specific specialties and strengths. Innovation can come from anywhere and in some cases from alternate industries. External innovations as a force have become relevant in the age of the Internet.

According to many leading experts in open innovation, executives no longer ask why, but have moved forward to the question of how?  How do we successfully connect external entities? How do we prepare our company to accept weaving ideas and technologies from outside into the corporation?

After the contemplation of these questions comes the biggest question of them all. Is our company’s culture ready to open up? Now its one thing to send out a memo letting all staff know that you have just become an open company that is friendly to external partners and Bob from the mailroom is now in charge of the “submit idea” link on the company website, which will be viewed once a year to see what came in.  The question leads to a host of other questions like; Does your company understand what it knows and what it does not know? Does your company have all the needed information to make strategic decisions?

Does you company have a way to tame the large volumes of information in order that it make sense? Two main components are sourcing innovations and fostering a culture that embraces that which was not made within.

Articulating the innovation needs of your company in a manner that still keeps some of the company secrets takes significant effort, as you will have to decide what is too specific vs. what might not be specific enough. Another tough piece of the puzzle is being able to gain insight on cross industry innovations that provide value and potential breakthroughs.

The next step is sourcing the innovations. Identifying business ecosystems around your strategic needs here is paramount. Creating on going relationships with your suppliers, the suppliers of your suppliers, government agencies, universities, venture capitalists, potential innovators, and patent holders, while being able to gain and share insights that benefit the entire ecosystem is the holy grail of sourcing real innovation opportunities. This works out for your company, but also ensures that you are seen as a fair corporate giant and will help to maintain your brand as a net contributor to the economy and society as a whole, which will become increasingly important as the world becomes more connected.

It is said that culture eats strategy for breakfast; if this is indeed the case then changing culture should be a major consideration with regard to external innovations. According to Ben DuPont, venture capitalist and open innovation veteran some key considerations should be adhered too with regard to changing company culture.

“Changing the culture to be receptive to outside ideas and technology requires more than a speech or memo. Changing the culture requires changing work habits and changing incentives. Every employee should be looking for external ideas monthly, technology leaders should be looking for and evaluating ideas weekly and open innovation leaders should be looking for, evaluating and championing external ideas daily,” says DuPont. “The best scientists are not frequently the extroverts. Find the ones who are and name them open innovation champions. Find the person with friends in every business unit and name them head of open innovation.”

Once you have tracked down external ideas and innovation, the process becomes about people. People’s ability to connect in meaningful ways with others and to gain insight is imperative.

Another leader in open innovation is Stefan Lindergaard, who also had some ideas on cultural change.

“Communication is extremely important,” he says. “The communication is both internal and external. So companies need to build excellent communication strategies on what the goals are with the innovation efforts and how they are going to approach these goals and what their expected outcomes are” Lindergaard also stresses that companies have opportunities to learn from failure. Smart fails that are small enough to provide learning along the way and small enough to not to completely tank the entire effort are key to changing culture, because it deals with the high risks of the naysayers.

At the end of the day, culture is about the stories we tell ourselves to provide a point of departure for our premises about who we are, what we do and what happens in the particular space and time we find our collective selves. Culture is about stories. The more dramatic the stories are, the more profound its effect on those premises that create our situational reality. Changing culture may then be about a collection of stories that build a momentum starting from a small place of success and growing out to the larger group over time via the different influential voices.

By Dwayne Matthews

Dwayne Matthews is the Executive Director of d&a Visual Insights, a leader in ecosystem intelligence.