If you believe collaborative interaction helps innovation culture flourish, read on . . .
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How BRIC Innovators Will Defeat You,
For reasons yet unclear, BRIC companies and entrepreneurs now consume roughly half my professional time. The Brazilian, Russian, Indian, and Chinese (BRIC) managers I meet are as sharp, credentialed, energetic, and hungry as their Silicon Valley or Rte. 128 counterparts. Sometimes their English is even better. They desperately want to be world-class innovators.
These people aren’t interested in launching imitations. They’re not looking to be even lower-cost suppliers or sub-contractors to a WalMart or HP or JPMorganChase. They want to be valued as much for their ingenuity as for their prices.
Consequently, they appear particularly open to ideas and experimentation. They know they lag so they’ll grasp any reasonable innovation edge they can. Measured by brainpower and grit, there’s no reason why BRIC enterprises shouldn’t consistently out-innovate their richer rivals. Money isn’t the vital variable holding them back. So what’s the issue?
One techno-cultural distinction does jut out. The BRIC companies I know have yet to commit to the internal information sharing and cross-functional collaboration that accelerates fast-followers into innovation market leaders. Culturally, organizationally, and operationally, authentic collaboration is an afterthought or accident. Support structures are inadequate. Intranets are mediocre; 360-degree job reviews are unheard of. BRIC firms seem to do much better jobs of collaborating with key customers and clients than internally. Top-down-ishness dominates. Aspiring innovators almost always look up for approval before they look across for alliances and support.
All generalizations are dangerous — including that one — but BRIC innovation seems constrained both by national and organizational behaviors that confuse cooperation with collaboration and see empowerment as what the Big Boss lets you do. Those behaviors undermine the collaborative interaction that helps innovation cultures flourish.
To be sure, BRIC firms have bought into the Six Sigma Deming/Juran total quality mantra and they’ll run through walls to win a contract. But companies the size of a Reliance or Foxconn have engineered their business units around efficiencies, effectiveness, and price. Not for them Jack Welchian nostrums of boundaryless organizations or New Agey-sounding IBM innovation jams. Optimization is internally valued more highly than innovation. Digital visibility into operations is seen as a mechanism the streamline processes rather than a tool to facilitate collaboration. Semi-autonomous business units have little explicit incentive to share information and innovative ideas across the enterprise. To the contrary, I’ve observed recognition, rewards, and accounting structures that discourage internal collaboration.
When I visited Embraer — Brazil’s high-flying aviation company — a few years back, I was struck by how top managers acknowledged that it was Jet Blue’s innovative demands as a big customer for a new generation of jets that pushed disparate divisions to communicate and collaborate as they never had before. The Embraer executives somewhat sheepishly agreed that the company wouldn’t have been so communicative or collaborative without the external prodding. An innovative American customer helped build Embraer’s global innovation brand.
Companies that push themselves to be more cross-functionally capable and collaborative are in a better position to innovate with key customers, clients and prospects. There’s enormous economic incentives for firms to go beyond being the low-bidder for an innovation RFP.
The more time I spend hitting the BRICs, the more confident I am that global markets will experience new surges of cost-effective innovation. This won’t just be the byproduct of increasing entrepreneurship in emerging markets but the inevitable outcomes on increased investments in internal communications, coordination and collaboration. I’d argue that the BRIC firms I’ve have invested far more and far more wisely in their CAD and factory automation systems for customers than in networks and technical support for their employees. I see that changing. Where a Russian or an Indian firm might lag its Western or Japanese counterparts by four or six years, the explosive growth potential of cloud computing and device-driven empowerment offer radical opportunities for catch-up sooner rather than later.
The conversations I have with BRIC leaders today echo the arguments I had with American and European executives more than a decade ago: it’s not enough to encourage individuals to be innovators; organizations need to give their people the tools, technologies and incentives to collaboratively innovate and innovatively collaborate. The most appealing innovations are almost always more the byproducts of collaborative interaction than individual initiative. Firms like IBM, GE, Goldman Sachs, and Google succeed not just by empowering their most innovative people but by making it easier for their most innovative people to work together.
The changes will be more a function of organizational innovation and leadership initiative than technological investment. It’s also possible that many of these firms (just like their post-industrial counterparts) will find creating collaborative innovation cultures too difficult and will be better off investing in the optimization of efficiencies than the innovation of opportunities. We’ll see. But the size, scale and scope of the growing BRIC economies virtually guarantee that there will be enough collaborative winners that the pace and rate of global innovation will increase. In that way, we’ll all be hit by a ton of innovative BRICs.