Unleashing knowledge and innovation in business

As we design for the future there are some key lessons that legacy firms can learn from start-ups. These small emergent businesses have the flexibility and agility to pioneer cutting edge technologies, adopt novel approaches, challenge long established industry norms and design organisational models where individuals can create and define their own roles.

As the nature of business evolves at a seemingly faster pace, our traditional notions of corporate structure, employment and careers will continue to change and adapt. Increasingly, we are seeing the convergence of new technologies and innovative thinking being applied across disparate areas of business and society. For example, HR and logistics alike may well benefit from blockchain, a technology that up until recently has been predominantly associated with financial applications. Artificial intelligence (AI) is already transforming some areas of medical diagnoses, but also has many applications in the legal and accounting sectors. Individual security, personal mobility and commercial transport may all be improved by linking people, vehicles and road infrastructure via the internet of things (IoT). How we work, and when and where we carry out our business are also changing; the digital revolution has allowed firms to tap into a global talent pool, individuals are embracing the gig economy and creating a portfolio style of working.
Increasingly, start-ups are leading the way on the adoption of many of these changes.
These small emergent businesses offering innovative new products and services often have the flexibility and agility to pioneer cutting edge technologies, adopt novel approaches, challenge long established industry norms of how things are done and design organisational models where individuals can create and define their own roles. Indeed, those working in start-ups often eschew more traditional working practices and job definitions, have multiple roles, develop a portfolio of work in and outside the firm, and cultivate disparate skill sets. In the course of one day you may be selling product, pitching for funding and later representing your organisation at an educational or networking event.
So, for so called ‘legacy companies’ with more history and associated potential baggage, as we design for the future, there are some key lessons we can learn from start-up culture, the levels of employee engagement many appear to achieve and the speed with which such firms can often respond to opportunity and change. The first is around the design of roles and the acquisition of skills:

  • How can we develop a more flexible workforce, with the willingness and capacity to perform multiple roles and a learning mindset that ensures they can continue acquiring different skills as the need arises?
  • How can we identify, encourage, support and incentivise departments to pioneer such new ways of working?
  • How should C-level executives demonstrate that they are walking the talk and role modelling the behaviours and attitudes to the acquisition of new skills they desire from their teams?

Another key area for organisations to consider as we move forward into the next future for work is how to accelerate the convergence of knowledge and expertise across the organisation and its partners to address new problems and opportunities. One approach that has proved particularly popular here is the use of ‘Hackathons’. These are organised events where small teams of cross-sector specialists compete or collaborate to solve one or more problems over a set time period – typically 24-48 hours. These intense ‘sprint events’ are providing a wealth of creative convergence bringing together a variety of skillsets – visionaries, web developers, software coders, designers, physical prototypers, analysts, industry specialists, project managers, and mentors – allowing for a great depth of knowledge and experience to come together at once.

When done well, the convergence of disciplines, coupled with a time challenge, serves to vastly accelerate the pace of product and service invention and refinement. Importantly, the success of hack events rests on the sharing of ideas, knowledge and expertise. To inspire ideas and guide development, teams are often paired with a mentor. An additional benefit of Hackathons is that they enable the gap between industry sectors to be bridged and a variety of firms are emerging to accelerate this process. For example the London based virtual and augmented reality applications start-up Realities Centre has at the core of its mission the goal of closing the gap between corporates and new players, by providing acceleration through events including industry specific hackathons – educational technology and medical technology have been the focus of two recent hacks events.
This increasingly popular approach to product development and innovation radically subverts the traditional business philosophy of protecting intellectual property. As the challenges faced by business and society become ever more complex, such convergence of disciplines may be increasingly necessary to tackle issues and opportunities at speed. For many companies the approach butts up against traditional models of innovation and business case led exploration of opportunities. Firms have to develop the rapid innovation gene and learn how to fail fast and cheaply. This bringing together of diverse disciplines is evidenced by DeepMind, once a small start-up, now acquired by Google, the company is partnering with the NHS to apply AI to healthcare problems. The learn, iterate and adapt model being adopted here poses significant questions for more traditional organisations. For example, as constant and rapid innovation becomes critical to new product and service development and commercial success, how can large corporations - with a history of heavy investment in their own IP, products and services - facilitate their own transition to the use of more collaborative approaches?
Importantly, I think this raises key questions as to how we perceive knowledge in a world of convergence and increasingly rapid obsolescence of what we know. To maximise the potential of their existing knowledge and experience base, develop new products and further expand their franchise, big businesses may well have to adopt more fluid notions of ownership, and a flexible and accelerated approach to developing, using and sharing intellectual property.
For each firm, the challenges of learning from start-ups and accelerating collaborative innovation may be different, but there are some critical considerations that all businesses need to contemplate:

  • What are the barriers that have historically prevented us from adopting or embedding a start-up ethos?
  • In a world of radical convergence, how do we perceive ownership of knowledge and how does that need to evolve?
  • What experiments can we start with to learn about these alternative innovation approaches?
  • Who are the people best suited to lead or champion such initiatives?
  • How do we overcome natural internal reticence to adopting unfamiliar and internally unproven techniques?
  • Internally, what processes need to be in place to help encourage and embed a start-up mentality? Where is it most required?
  • What incentives will best facilitate convergence of knowledge, ideas and expertise to focus on common goals?
  • If they are not currently part of our culture, are workshops and hackathons the best way to start fostering collaboration internally?
  • Externally, what other organisations should the firm aim to collaborate with? Who should make those decisions?