Friday, September 28, 2007

Innovation and KM

There is a rather interesting Book I am reading these days ... Marketing as Strategy by Nirmalya Kumar. I am sure you must have figured out that it is not out of any love for the subject, but out of the fact that the Exam is on Saturday.

But he writes an interesting piece about innovation. While he is writing about the idea of Breakthrough Innovation, and illustrates the point with how Sony manages it, this piece got me thinking about the applicability of KM. The following are my drowsy thoughts on the subject (ya, ya, I have been awake quite early writing this ...).

Breakthrough innovation that reshapes the industry usually occurs in bursts in an organization, and is interspersed with large extents of incremental innovation. These periods of incremental innovation can get quite prolonged, even to the extent of eliminating the innovative component of the organization, with the result that the organization, during these periods, faces the possibility of losing its competitive thrust, and move from a company that is market-driving, to a company that is market-driven.

Lot of organizations are looking for ways to prevent this. While I am not saying KM is the panacea for this (cannot be), at one level, KM is an essential ingredient of this. One could say that the key is to create a culture of innovation, but if it were that simple, we would be working with innovation 3.5 by now. But we are not.

Lets look at the transition from disruptive to incremental innovation. An organization which can drive disruptive innovation obviously has been able to achieve success with the innovation cycle. But, the challenge faced by the organization is to ingrain innovation as part of its "corporate DNA". But, in order to do this, the organization needs to understand the concept of innovation, and this understanding of innovation must permeate different parts of the organization.

What does this require?

  • An understanding of what is innovation, what consitutes the phenomenon, and an understanding of the boundaries of the definition.
  • An understanding of the motivation for the disruptive mode of innovation (after all, it didnt happen by chance, and even if it did, there needs to be a way to understand the chance factor, and determine how that can be leveraged repeatedly).
  • An understanding of the process (in terms of people, and organizational processes). When I am talking about people processes, I am essentially talking about the thinking processes which led to the landmark.
  • An understanding of the organizational structure which led to the breakthrough (though this does not necessarily mean that the same organizational structure by itself would lead to a repeat burst, but then, none of the things I am writing about would, by themselves, manage the change!).
  • An understanding of the relationship of the innovation with the larger organizational context, in terms of market structures, the organizational business and strategic scenario, and related concepts which make up the business context in which the organization is operating.

As you can see, all of these ingredients which are essential chapters in the book of innovation, are not things which can be documented. Having said that, it is very improtant to have the answers to these questions, these elements of understanding, to permeate the larger organization milieu. And this is where KM needs to play role. Like I said, this is not to say that KM is driving innovation, but surely, as a management discipline, can play a facilitating role. This is something which is largely ignored from the perspective of KM practitioners, because the emphasis is not there on connecting KM with organizational processes, and even where there is the emphasis, it is more of embedding knowledge sources into transactional processes, and not tactical or strategic processes. Though, in this context, I think storytelling can play a vital role. More on this in my next post.

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