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Why industrial companies should be bringing in Open Innovation

Open Innovation strategies are still struggling to break into the world of industry, even if sectors like energy and building are admittedly moving fast. And yet these new organisational methods have proved their worth. Catherine Ronge, CEO at weave.air, an innovation, design thinking and collective intelligence consulting firm, explains why.


Why is digital technology obliging businesses to turn to more collaborative ways of working?

It’s a groundswell. Over and beyond digital technology, there are also all of the NBIC technologies – nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science – which are going to revolutionise the future. All major technology revolutions force businesses to reinvent themselves. Digital technology is shaking up the value chain, so easing the way for innovation, both within and outside organisations. Businesses have to respond to the risks and opportunities created by the new technologies.


So how would you define Open Innovation?

I would use a pleonasm: in Open Innovation, there is, first of all, “open”. We need to stay as open as possible: innovation is not just for start-ups. We are in a complex world. Take the energy and manufacturing sectors. In both of these areas, the whole conception of the business model is changing. Stakeholders are having to pay more attention to what customers want. Innovation is not just about rolling out new technologies. To reinvent yourself, you have to work with the broadest possible array of stakeholders. That means start-ups, naturally, but also NGOs, civil society representatives, private and public operators… And of course not forgetting the resources at hand. Tomorrow’s innovations will emerge from within our local areas.


How do you gauge industrial companies’ maturity in these approaches?

On a scientific level, major groups’ R&D departments adopted Open Innovation codes a long time ago. They are used to working in open ecosystems through platforms like InnoCentive. It becomes more complicated, though, when the issue is organisation, business models or managerial practices.  I’m afraid start-ups are sometimes like the fashion of the moment. Some big groups think they are doing Open Innovation just because they are signing partnerships with young start-ups. They are deluding themselves. They have not freed up their organisation. Their people are not allowed to innovate, to be enterprising within the company or to go against the codes.


What are the essential steps to follow?

You have to start by breaking down the silos: by this I mean encouraging cross-disciplinary approaches. To put it in more concrete terms, I like to talk about the 3P rule of design thinking: People, Place and Process. For “People”, the aim is to encourage multi-disciplinary in-house teams by combining different professions, functions and departments, or even by bringing in outside experts. This step, in itself, can make a very powerful effect. It has to go hand-in-hand with a culture that gives people the right to make a mistake and a benevolent attitude that unleashes creativity. For “Place”, we know now that creating a more open floor plan and places where people can talk to each other is good for networking. We have to get away from the traditional view where management stays on the top floor of its tower.


And finally the P for Process…

This includes all of the new working methods, such as design thinking, which have revolutionised industrial processes. Linear systems have given way to more iterative approaches. We start by observing how things are used in order to speed up innovation, then very quickly move into the prototyping phase. This is how businesses can accelerate their development and disrupt their markets, by adopting agile methods and disseminating a start-up culture.


Is this sort of approach suitable for all types of industrial companies?

For each of our assignments, we adjust to fit in with the in-house culture. On the whole, though, practices are the same in all types of companies. Whether they sell products or services, whether they operate on the B2B or the B2C market,  what matters most is being able to rely on a trusted partner. These new methods are experience-driven: you can’t just make them up as you go along.


About the author

weave.air is a strategy and innovation consulting firm that uses design thinking to speed up change in organisations. Its accelerated innovation approach, air.LAB, uses collective intelligence, a user-centred approach and rapid prototyping to explore relevant scenarios for each customer and how they can be adapted in practice to suit their particular organisation, culture and activities.



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