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The Looking Glass

By: Jeff Falk
Posted: April 8, 2010, from the April 2010 issue of GCI Magazine.

I’m making this admission right up front—the comics remain my favorite section of the Sunday paper. And on a recent Sunday, I opened up those pages to find a Dilbert strip with direct relevance to a discussion often found in these pages, namely the interaction between a marketing department and R&D (in the case of Dilbert, it happened to be engineers). In the first panel, Dilbert tells his engineering colleagues that the marketing department wants them to make the product more “robust,” further confessing that, “None of us knows what that means.” The engineers go on to argue the meaning, and much hilarity ensues.

The point, for me, is not about the peculiarities of either side of this fictional organization (or any organization) or about diverging goals. The plot device in the strip and variations in terminology and operational methodology between any departments in an organization, for the most part, is irrelevant. It’s about communication, finding a commonality and working toward the greater, encompassing goal. How do we, as an industry, communicate? How do we need to communicate across specialties and job functions, and to consumers? I think that if we’re conscious of where communication both fails and succeeds, and question the reasons behind successes and failures in understanding, we are much more likely to achieve our individual and collective goals.

Thinking Innovation

Readers familiar with my articles know I love pondering innovation. My career necessitates that I stop and ponder the meaning of words: “What are you trying to say? What am I trying to say? What’s the clearest way of expressing an idea?” And innovation is one of those words, like “green” or “natural,” that has come to mean so much that it can wind up meaning very little. That’s not to say it should be discounted, but I do think that its use always needs to be questioned. So, I often ask, “What is innovation?” We generally consider it a good thing, right? A worthwhile concept and goal for pushing boundaries. According to Steven Herman’s September 2009 “Chemical Reaction” column, “The best and most successful organizations are those that ask everyone to be part of the innovation process.”

“If you look at many of the most successful innovating companies, you can see certain themes and common ideas,” offers Michael Doyle, the principal application scientist at Accelrys. “Firstly, they usually are teamwork group or small division organized. Case in point, 3M with its multi-competing project approach, HP with its functional product teams, P&G with its technology/product/research teams, and Shell with its global diverse research teams. All of these excellent examples indicate smaller, but coordinated, is better than larger monolithic or centrally planned activity. Secondly, they actively foster information exchange, sharing and disincentives to information hoarding or barriers to free flow of data and knowledge.

"Innovation is a complex and challenging beast to tame. It can either be slothful, that is the results of learned and siloed behaviors and data sources (‘My knowledge is my skill, is my unique differentiator’) or it can be hyper active (‘Your knowledge is my knowledge’), which can lead to uncontrolled proliferation of ideas and themes and dilution of corporate effort.However, a more interesting approach has been identified by some IT departments and stems in part from the rise of the Internet as an information source. Consider for example the CIA use of open source WIKI functionality for information sharing. In order to drive collaboration and innovation, the agency adopted some Web 2.0 technology that served to connect the dots of the large information systems that they had, and to also stimulate cross divisional or responsibility collaboration and sharing.