August 15, 2010

New paradigm, old trainwreck

Piller LargeAt our #AOM2010 PDW in Montréal, Herr Doktor Frank Piller gave a talk on a case he researched of Webasto. The talk was both exciting and depressing — and novel and familiar — simultaneously.

The company makes certain optional equipment for major car manufacturers, like sunroofs for Mercedes. Compared to auto suppliers, it has a relatively high R&D intensity: 7.5-9%. I’m guessing that’s because a lot of its stuff has to be exciting or people won’t buy it.

He told a great story of how the company brought in the lead user method and was admired around Germany, winning awards for its innovative approach to innovation. It made money selling open training to other companies. It even got hired by its automaker customers to tell them what their customers wanted.

And then in November 2008, the internal champion was fired and all the OI/UI activities were stopped (A quick Google search finds his name, which Frank didn’t mention). The board and/or management didn’t understand the value of the idea generation and either saw it as a distraction or used the recession as an excuse to get rid of someone who was getting more attention than they were.

Frank tells the story better than I, so I’ll defer to his slide deck for the details of the rise and fall of Webasto’s experiment in openness.

Let me instead try some free association: this to me is completely reminiscent of all the other innovative processes for producing innovation.

As a doctoral student during the 1990s (then in marketing), I hung with the PDMA/JPIM crowd because they were the most innovation-oriented of the marketing academics. I did a self-study on voice of the customer, cross-functional teams, lightweight and heavyweight project managers, and all these other good ideas for improving new product development.

Within an organization, usually such ideas start with a single individual, who learns about the latest and greatest, becomes a passionate champion and drags his/her employer kicking and screaming into the Brave New World. (I have also seen this pattern during my occasional consulting gigs.)

After a long time, if there are demonstrable results — or it gets institutionalized into organizational routines — the champion has protégés and assistants who can carry on if he/she disappears. But during its adolescence — or if a new regime wants to come in and sweep out the old — the innovation is only as permanent as the person pushing it.

So from a broader perspective, the innovation theories are new but the process by which organizations adopt them remains the same.

This seems like a good side bet for a doctoral dissertation: study open innovation practice within multiple firms, but write another paper about how it gets adopted in these firms (or non-adopted or unadopted). This is the ideal dissertation strategy: diversified theoretical perspective from a single data collection exercise.

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