Turning the supertanker: How large companies can innovate pt 2

Concluding his third article in the series, Rob Hubbard looks at innovation in larger companies.

Reading time: 3 minutes

Open innovation challenges

Increasingly, organisations are getting input from the outside by opening their problems up to the public to try and solve. There are innovation platforms that companies can use to anonymously post their problems for members of the public to try and solve.

They get potential solutions from thousands of innovators and they typically offer prize money of around $100k to buy the IP of the best solution, so people are encouraged to have a serious go at solving it.

Sounds unlikely that a company would do this so openly? Googling ‘Open innovation challenge’ returns more than 250m results including some from companies like Samsung and Lego.

The ability to innovate is not a function of size, but one of approach. Very large companies can be highly innovative

Lego use Open Innovation as a way to invent new Lego sets. On their Lego Ideas website members of the public can submit their designs for Lego models. If they get more than 10k supporters for that design,

Lego will evaluate it to potentially become available in the stores as set. Should this happen, the original design/builder makes some money. Not only is this a great way to engage with the thriving Lego Builder community it also generates them thousands of new ideas every year.        

Buy innovation

Another approach that some organisations take is to buy smaller companies, often startups, that have innovations or technology that the parent company wants.This again can be a quick win, however, care must be taken that what made the startup great to begin with doesn’t get diluted by the purchasing parent company’s culture.

The founders of the startup stand to make a wedge of cash in the purchase, so they might be looking for an exit strategy, rather than sticking around to continue innovating.

One notable LMS vendor bought a social platform a few years ago which it integrated very successfully alongside it’s rather dated-looking Learning Management System (LMS). This allowed customers to build social learning sites via which users could access LMS content, so avoiding the clunky LMS interface.

This bought them breathing space while they redesigned their LMSs user interface (UI). I would expect them to monitor which are the most popular features of the social platform with users and include them in their new UI – a smart way to buy in innovation.

Some organisations, however, buy emerging competitor companies purely to kill them off and neutralise the competition. While this makes business sense it feels unethical to me – using money-muscle to swat a gutsy upstart that could improve the experience of the user means the user loses out. Better to up their game and build better products in response to the competition.  


In summary

So what can L&D learn from this? Three things jump out at me:

  1. A cross-functional team is going to lead to stronger learning solution design and so we always seek to engage with a wide range of people in the Research and Design phase of a learning project.
  2. You could imagine a ‘Learning Experience Design Club’ where over lunch Learning Designers bounce around ideas for the projects they’re working on.
  3. In our experience; asking the users/learners (i.e. the community) for possible solutions to the challenges they face often surfaces brilliant ideas that we can use.

It seems that the ability to innovate is not a function of size, but one of approach. Very large companies can be highly innovative. This is encouraging; they were increasingly looking like dinosaurs; lumbering along, slow to adapt, vulnerable to changes in their environment and disruptive competition.

Instead large organisations should take heart; if they can change the way they innovate, change their mindset and embrace an agile culture, they stand a good chance of thriving long into the future.

Read part one of this feature here.


About the author

Rob is the founder and creative lead at LAS.


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