The quest for talent is one that has long preoccupied the world’s corporations. Many have honed their talent-acquisition skills to a very high degree, continuously boosting their intellectual resources by bringing in the most talented people from around the world. And it is undeniable that one of the biggest assets possessed by large corporations is their potential to find and connect some of the most talented and creative people in the world.
While the talent search is undeniably important, companies still often neglect the next crucial step: taking the intelligence inherent in their carefully picked talent pool and amplifying it to maximum effect.
The amplification of intelligence and wisdom is becoming ever more central to how corporations are addressing the challenges they face and to building resilience. As I discuss in my forthcoming book, The Key: How Corporations Succeed by Solving the World’s Toughest Problems, there are four key elements to achieving this: the surfacing of ideas, amplification through open innovation, experimentation and the celebration of risk taking.
For most of the history of corporate life, collaboration has happened when small groups of people worked together face-to-face. Technology is changing this – we now have connectivity tools which enable us to share ideas and knowledge not just within small groups meeting face-to-face, but also across thousands of people meeting in virtual environments. And yet, many large organisations still find themselves going back to the same small group of people for their next big business idea.
One example of how corporations can break this cycle and start harnessing the intelligence of ‘wise crowds’ is the Indian IT company Infosys. Their executive group decided to give younger employees a more active part in the long-term success of the business, by launching a virtual “Innovation Co-Creation Platform”. The platform enables employees to identify colleagues with whom to collaborate, to gain access to business data, and to consult experts and submit a business case for an idea. As well as generating valuable business insights and creating a fast and continuous flow of information from around the world, the platform has made it easier for senior management to identify the most knowledgeable and excited people in the organisation.
Amplification through open innovation
No matter how many great people you have within your organisation, there are always many more outside. Corporations have always been aware of this, hence their habit of engaging with universities and specialist research groups to boost their innovation capabilities – but they now have the opportunity to cast the net far wider and to gain access to ideas outside their established networks. Some good examples of this are InnoCentive, a platform which uses open innovation to connect problems to those with knowledge, and Proctor and Gamble (P&G), which has opened up its innovation challenges to the world through its Connect and Develop scheme – a process the company expects will deliver $3billion towards the its annual sales growth by 2015.
The importance of experimentation
One avenue for surfacing ideas which I think too many companies ignore is experimentation. This can be a particularly valuable process when you are faced with problems to which no-one has a ready-made answer. All the breakthroughs we have seen in medicine, for example, have come through a process of hypothesis, experimentation and clinical trials where several different options are tried out and compared.
Despite the scientific record, very few companies dare to experiment. When I was seeking out examples of corporate experimentation for my book, The Key, I found that they were few and far between and most of them were led by scholars or academics – further underlining companies’ apprehension about experimenting themselves. In fact, the only two that made it into the finished book were at Roche and Xerox. And yet, I feel that if companies would only dare to try, experimentation has a wealth of benefits to offer. After all, one of the biggest changes in the workplace – flexible working – was the result of repeated experimentation at BT.
One of the problems with experiments is that they represent a risk: it is not possible to be right all the time, and some experiments will fail. This can be a serious barrier to empowerment. If an employee is aware that their idea may not lead to the desired outcome, they are less likely to act upon the idea for fear of failure or – in the worst case – losing their job.
So how can corporations encourage employees to set aside their fear of failure? The key is to create a culture where experimentation is valued and failure is seen as a natural part of the process. At Tata Group, for example, the company’s Group Innovation awards include a ‘Dare to Try’ category for daring attempts at innovation which have failed.
It’s clear that the amplification of intelligence and wisdom – whether from inside or outside the corporation - plays a crucial role in helping people and organisations become more resilient. As the examples I have highlighted show, technology has a role to play, but it is those companies who are able to build amplification and connection into specific and every day organisational practices and habits that will reap the benefits.