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Innovative Forms of Corporate Innovation


Evidence that cross sector innovation is alive and kicking in the manufacturing sector as companies across several sectors come together in Barcelona. 

When a client of ours asked us earlier this year, if we could help them with an interesting event they were planning around their particular interests in innovation, how could we refuse?

The client in question was a large multinational manufacturer of high tech goods and the event planned was essentially an internal conference for its worldwide personnel around the broad subject area of “Heating and Drying”. What was really innovative though was that the client wanted to attract and invite a number of senior technologists from non-competitive companies that shared the challenges it faced in this broad subject area. The idea was to engage with innovation champions from these other sectors who faced similar challenges and maybe, just maybe, we could all learn from one another. Novel? Yes, probably, but certainly innovative and without doubt a little brave too! Strategic Allies Ltd was keen to take on the challenge.

The logic was definitely sound though. Heating and Drying is possibly as relevant to a company concerned with the drying properties of coatings for offshore oil platforms and the like as it is to a company manufacturing dried pasta for example or producing paper or packaging media or even companies whose products cause heating and drying like hair dryers or washing machines. The trick was to create the right content and agenda to attract such companies and to then, through the environment and each personal interaction, to cultivate “trust” during the event to hopefully allow cross sector cooperation to occur.

The content and associated agenda were mainly set by the SAL client who had recruited many of its suppliers into the event at an earlier stage. These guys were charged with presenting the new ideas they were currently working on. Not current products, but those really new things, hopefully emerging in the next 3-12 month. SAL complemented this content by introducing other SME companies with really innovative technology in the area but who were not current suppliers of our client. The agenda was intended to be varied and stimulating, taking in presentations from these tech-supplying companies but not just technology alone. An academic insight into work in this area from two prominent universities was planned plus, and here was the significant innovation, each non-competitive company, in addition to SAL’s client’s personnel, was to present briefly upon its challenges and possible routes to solutions in this broad subject area. The environment was to be that of “relaxed” conference and an important stimulating part of that was an exhibition area where the technology companies could demonstrate and talk comfortably with attendees.

In any event like this IP is always raised as an issue. My personal view is that it is an issue to be confronted but it often becomes an issue to ensure such events as this remain ideas and never actually occur! How did we deal with the IP issues? Well, in advance of the event, a simple IP agreement was signed by all attendees stating that anything “shared” at the event was thereafter considered to be non-confidential. This was signed without significant question and without alteration. Maybe things can be achieved? This allowed each individual to decide “what” and “when” and even “if” to share their particular proprietary assets.

What was the aim of the event? Well wouldn’t it have been fantastic if we could have resolved our industry’s problems in one two-day conference. But we all know this would be a totally unrealistic aim. What we wanted was to start groups, around shared problems, that may work together in the future to mutual benefit. To accomplish this aim building trust was imperative alongside a shared knowledge of the common problems faced. IP and other very important commercial considerations could follow on after.

The event took place in April this year and was widely acknowledged as “extremely successful” by attendees and organisers alike. For me the most valuable part of the event took place on the final morning when, after all the “get to know my problem” presentations had been completed the non-competitive companies and our client’s technologists worked together, in a brainstorming session, to identify current shared problems and possible solutions. Four tables with mixed participants, thrashed out what were the main shared problems and identified who had “intellectual assets” that could be used to address each. Forty-two projects were identified and SIX gained sufficient cross sector support for them to have an ongoing life and support network after this event! Will they result in significant solutions eventually? Well that will be the real indicator of success or not won’t it. I think joint solutions will result but whatever happens eventually, we have already achieved a “coming together” of an otherwise apparently disparate group of technologists that now know they have shared knowledge and problems and who know each other! SAL’s client is committed to running a number of these events throughout this year on various other subjects. If each one is as successful as this, we may have a new innovation paradigm on our hands. Strategic Allies Ltd is currently working to replicate its own version of this model internationally.