An Innovation Competence Process Coming from Knowledge Management

Companies implementing innovation programs often forget to focus on their employees. These programs are often top-down rather than inside-out trying to harness the innovation capacities of each and every employee in the company. In this blogpost and the accompanying image I try to show that there is another way by outlining an "Innovation Competence Process".

The image illustrates the process which is one specific way to tap into the innovation capacities of people in and around a company by building on an approach coming from knowledge management. I learnt about this approach from Geoff Parcell, formerly at BP and author of the best seller "Learning to Fly: Practical Knowledge Management from Leading and Learning Organizations Organizations". At BP Geoff helped to save millions of dollars through a particular people-centric knowledge management process and then he was brought into UNAIDS to help apply the approach to HIV/AIDS. I worked with Geoff at the Constellation where we applied the approach to HIV/AIDS, Malaria and Diabetes. It was a fascinating experience.

However, I think the process has enormous value for many fields, such as harnessing innovation capacities in companies. Why? Because it builds on people's strengths and their existing experience and it aims at putting these people in connection with others to learn & share.

In a nutshell the Innovation Competence Process can be broken down to five steps

  1. Appreciate: the most important basic principle of this process is the true appreciation of everybody's capacity to contribute to innovation - from the secretary to the CEO. Innovation can come from the centre of a company or from its periphery - empowering and encouraging people to participate in the innovation sphere is essential. Though this might sound mundane this rule is violated time and again, because hierarchies and titles prevail.
  2. Self-Assess: Once the basic principles are set, the group seeking to improve its innovation competences should proceed to a self-assessment done in an open participatory discussion (the process only works if everybody has a say and is listened to...). A set of statements such as "we include everybody in the innovation process", "we regularly brainstorm" or "we frequently try out new things" should be discussed and ranked on a scale from 1 ("we acknowledge the necessity") to 5 ("is a natural process in our organization"). For example, if a department realizes that they should try out new and innovative processes to achieve better results they would rank themselves at level 1 for the question "we frequently try out new things". Check out the self-assessment framework (pdf) we had used for AIDS Competence on the Constellation's website. Replace the title by "Self-Assessment Framework for Innovation Competence" and replace the statements to be disscussed by issues relevant to innovation and you'll get the principle (give me feedback if you try to set-up such a innovation self-assessment framework - I can help you).
  3. Prioritize: The outcome of the self-assessment is the recognition of strenghts and weaknesses in the innovation process of a group or organization. Naturally, the self-assessment exercice should be followed by the constitution of an action plan to improve innovation competence. It answers the question of where an organization puts its energy. Resources should only be put in 2-3 areas to avoid non-realistic and unachievable plans. Doing the same self-assessment as outlined above a few months later shows if any achievements has been made. This follows the important rule of "you have to be able to measure it to manage it" and gives a powerful visual representation of changing innovation competences within an organization.
  4. Reach Out: After constituting the action plan and prioritizing the group should reach out in order to find others that can share their experience. For example, if a department realizes that they need to try out new and innovative processes to achieve better results they should look for other departments inside their company or other groups outside the company that have become champions in overcoming lethargic states in process innovation. Finding theses countreparts to learn from works best if they have also gone through a self-assessment - the assessment will show that they have ranked themselves very highly.
  5. Connect, Share & Learn: After finding interesting countreparts based on the self-assessment of one's innovation competences the energy should go into connecting, sharing and learning. There is nothing more powerful than benefitting from the experience of somebody who has already gone through similar issues and problems... Obviously, a group should also share its innovation strenghts and experience with others. The basic principle here: Everybody has something to learn and something to share.

So why should an organization go through all the hassle of such an "Innovation Competence Process"? I believe for three reasons. Firstly, innovation on a small and large scale has become indespensable for any organization that wants to stay competitive. Secondly, this process taps into the existing strenghts of an organization, allows it to connect with others within and outside in a focused and efficient way. Thirdly, this process has a built-in simple way of measuring progress in increasing innovation competence...