InnoCentive joined the great and the ground-breaking for this year’s FT Innovate 2013 event held in London, entitled “The New Groundbreakers”. It was attended by digital giants such as Facebook, Amazon and Dropbox, established corporations like Samsung and P&G, and start-ups such as Funding Circle, Decoded and the intriguing new voice in the crowdsourcing world, VoxPopMe.
Discussions touched a range of key issues for innovation in the age of a connected globe, the rise of the Cloud and the globalisation of talent, and speeches from thought leaders including Lynda Gratton and Alec Ross kept the focus very forward-looking. As one speaker put it, we can only usefully look six months into the future or have a vision for 10 years from now – anything in between is impossible to predict or keep track of.
Two key themes organised the two days respectively: Cloud technology, and the new workforce of the digital age. While both have big implications for business, the key message that emerged in a number of different guises was that now more than ever, people, not technology, are at the heart of innovation. On the one hand, businesses need to re-think how they attract and retain talent. Employees are increasingly impatient with employers that convert their innovations into tangible outcomes, and will cut loose and implement their own ideas if their employer is reluctant. The cost of starting a business has fallen from the hundreds of thousands (or even millions) to just $10,000, thanks in large part to the cheap availability of data storage in the Cloud, and the outsourcing of tasks to the lowest bidder in the world, via the internet. One of the panellists, founder of Funding Circle, said he responds positively when his employees choose to go their own way and set up their own business – setting a new standard for entrepreneurialism in the digital age.
On the other hand, individuals need to re-think how they build their career and manage their skill sets. Lynda Gratton of London Business School laid out how the Cloud will change the nature of work in the future: a globally connected workforce will lead to the “hollowing-out of work”, where mid-skilled roles will decline in prevalence, with the specialist becoming the most valuable to a company, who will be increasingly able to command a high salary. This of course places a big importance on gaining a high level of relevant skills and expertise; but in order to succeed, the worker of the future will also need other intangible assets, such as being connected online and offline, and emotional vitality. The new generation (or the “millenials”) will be competing with a global workforce, including highly skilled people from the BRICs and global South, who will be able to offer their services flexibly and at a competitive price. This brave new world of work was encapsulated by one of the most resonant, if terrifying, quotes of the event: “In the future there will be no room for paper-pushers to hide”. That is to say, in the future it will be more transparent and more closely watched how actions and initiatives are converted into outcomes, and those who do not prove to be effective in an enterprise will not have a role.
Some companies are already responding well to – and thriving in – this new paradigm of work. As revealed by its CTO, Werner Vogels, Amazon has taken innovative spirit to the point of obsession: it actively discourages nay-sayers from shooting down new ideas, by placing the onus on them to write a business case for why the idea should not be tried (which tends to weaken disbelief in new projects by a factor of around 99%, Vogels estimated).
A major point of contention was around the extent to which innovation should be left to its own devices: Hal Gregerson of INSEAD claimed that asking lots of questions, asking the right questions leading to disruptive innovation, is at the core of the innovator’s DNA. Ben Holmes of Index Ventures reiterated that investing in disruptive innovations is important, since marginal innovations on their own can lead a company to a local maximum, and obscure the higher summit beyond the horizon. But there must be limits to the budget spent on disruptive innovation, and without some accountability for output, innovation departments can become unproductive and disconnected from market need. There must be some structure and focus in order for innovation to be effective. Ultimately, as Luke Mansfield of Samsung pointed out, end-users are the drivers of innovation policy: R&D and product development departments that don’t keep their eye firmly fixed on user demands will lose out to competitors who make intelligent use of big data and connect with consumers, who are easier to reach than ever.
The event brought together diverse perspectives, provoked many thoughts and discussions, but still managed to keep everyone tuned in to the same conversation. From our perspective here at InnoCentive, the connected globe of the age of the Cloud presents endless opportunities for both breakthrough and marginal innovations to come together, and for insights to come from the most surprising and unsought-for corners. We could pick many closing thoughts, but our take on the event is best encapsulated by the story of Khadijah, the 12-year-old girl from Lahore who beat all of her online classmates in a Stanford physics class and who got a place of honour at Davos this year. In a globe better connected than ever before, the next ground-breaking insight can come from anywhere, and no one is in a position to say who can and can’t contribute to a solution. Breaking down boundaries of all kinds with the help of the Cloud, there is endless opportunity for a transformative insight or a disruptive innovation to come from outside the walls of a company, outside the industry, from the corners that you would never look to. This is the future of innovation.
Ben Miller and Steven Drew, Business Development