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Peter Cochrane's Blog: Innovation just isn't what it used to be

It's actually better - as long as the young and capable are engaged in the process...
The workforce has a part to play in innovation and almost certainly knows what is needed in more detail than the management team

The workforce has a part to play in innovation and almost certainly knows what is needed in more detail than the management teamPhoto: Shutterstock

Written in London between meetings and dispatched to silicon.com a day later from my favourite coffee shop in Woodbridge via a free wi-fi service at 20Mbps.

For the past three to four years companies have been hunkered down, cutting costs, rightsizing, hoarding money, preserving customers, and protecting markets.

Business has been static or regressive while the commercial environment has been really tough. For those still standing there is good news - innovation is back on the agenda big time.

After sleepwalking through the economic problems of the past few years, it's as if companies have woken up to the fact that they really do need to innovate. How come?

It's because a tech transformation has continued apace despite the global recession, and industry leading organisations have made hay to steal a march on the rest.

Meanwhile, many companies are now operating with old equipment, computers, systems, processes and practices. To stay competitive and prosper, they have to invest and innovate rapidly to make up for the lost years.

You can see the rise of interest in innovation by the number of publications, conferences, consultancies and discussion groups.

However, it is as if managers have become zombiefied by the past few years of economic sleepwalking and can no longer remember how to do it. In reality, technology has changed the name of that game and innovation isn't what it used to be.

One of the most misguided things I now see is management teams putting in place innovation processes and plans. Hmm. This approach is like trying to formalise the process of finding a spouse and getting to the magic point of the marriage ceremony, followed by starting a family. I don't think so.

I have never lived at a time when innovation could be rigidly planned. It has always been a somewhat organic process with a degree of chaotic activity and natural selection.

Today, that state of affairs still holds true but the innovation process has spread to include far greater numbers of people. In short, the workforce has a part to play in innovation and almost certainly knows what is possible and what is needed in more detail than the management team.

Tapping into that knowledge and experience, and especially that of the young, is now essential. It is precisely what the market leaders do - especially in the tech business.

I recently came across a really extreme - and I mean extreme - example of a young talent that might just change the minds of a few people in the education sector. Just watch this very young app developer.

When he eventually joins the workforce - if he hasn't started his own company by then - he will be a mine of experience and wisdom that should not be ignored or discounted.

Unfortunately, I engage with equally bright young people in industry who are not listened to and not engaged with in any way by management teams.

The outcome is always the same. The young and capable leave if they are not engaged in innovation. So my advice to companies and managers is to make innovation a team game and not a top-down diktat.

About

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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