How to win at the innovation game? By sharing

Can organisations become more successful by sharing their advances rather than keeping them secret?

Gordon Attenborough: "There are solutions to your challenges already out there, irrespective of the discipline, across engineering and technology, and be it through composites, processes, databases, or cybersecurity."

Image: Romolo Tavani

Someone in your firm comes up with a great idea -- is your first thought to keep the intellectual property confined within the enterprise firewall, or would you rather share those ideas with external partners, peers, and even competitors?

Some experts believe the closed nature of how most organisations deal with innovation means business and society at large are missing out on benefits that could inspire growth. One way to encourage a more open approach to creativity is through horizontal innovation, which involves the systematic transfer of knowledge and technology from one sector to another.

Naomi Climer, president of the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET), says workers must start thinking about how they can transfer their ideas to other businesses and industries. She recognises that inspiring this interaction will be no easy task, especially as new ideas can become locked in a single sector or, worse, an individual company.

When innovations are brought to market, the creativity is not necessarily used to the best of its ability across all sectors, particularly in the UK. "As a society, we don't tend to work together to fully exploit the potential of new technologies," says Climer. "It means we're missing out on many benefits and rewards."

Why are individuals and companies poor at sharing knowledge?

A lack of collaboration is nothing new. Climer refers back to her own experiences from working on broadcast and engineering for BBC and Sony -- and suggests employees often struggled to share innovative ideas, even between departments.

To counter this Climer and her team at Sony made deliberate efforts to understand the work of other verticals. They discovered the technology they developed had potential outlets in other sectors, including security, healthcare, and cinema. Climer says the cross-sector relevance of innovation still resonates today.

"Commercial and business innovations have begun to merge with consumer electronics knowhow and trends to push technology in new directions," she says. "Business and consumer innovations are coming together and developing something incredibly powerful and new. But we need to create even more opportunities to share our ideas."

In an attempt to address the lack of cohesion, the IET -- which boasts more than 163,000 members in 127 countries -- has joined with the Motorsport Industry Association (MIA) to raise awareness of horizontal innovation across the business technology community. IET is a charity and its Royal Charter involves taking the best of engineering to help create benefits for society.

The partnership between the IET and MIA aims to develop a systematic approach to the exploitation of innovation and knowledge across all sectors. Events and online communities are being launched, encouraging people from all sectors to engage and share ideas.

"The initiative should drive growth, it should create jobs and -- most importantly -- it should make sure that sector-specific solutions that already exist can be used to address business challenges in other verticals," says Climer.

How is horizontal innovation affecting the motorsport sector?

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The MIA is the trade association for the motorsport industry, including a global network of 400 organisations that are responsible for more than £5bn of high-performance engineering. The IET started working with the MIA about 18 months ago with the aim of boosting horizontal innovation.

Chris Aylett, CEO of the MIA, says the commercialisation of innovation is key to firms in his industry: a large proportion of the creativity that takes place in motorsport does not involve blue-sky research, instead, engineers in the sector work horizontally and quickly, taking an idea and turning that innovation into success.

"Engineers are often taught to be cautious and iterative," says Aylett. "It's an approach that doesn't fit well with motorsport, where the drive for success breeds competitive engineers. The specialists in our sector wake up wanting to gain an advantage over their peers."

Competitiveness, however, does not have to be the sole preserve of the motorsport sector. Young engineers, says Aylett, are flexible, curious and impatient. Business must take advantage of those characteristics, creating a cross-sector approach to innovation that helps foster creativity.

Many regions, such as the UK, are knee-deep in knowledge and yet information is often held in unconnected silos. Horizontal innovation, says Aylett, can provide the inspiration and help dissolve the barriers that persist. "We need to wake up the people who reside within these silos," he says.

What does horizontal innovation mean for the c-suite?

Gordon Attenborough, head of sectors at the IET, recognises the motor sport industry could quickly become an isolated bubble of innovation. The key difference, however, is that firms within the sector already understand the benefits of having conversations with experts in other industries.

Attenborough says business leaders in all sectors must understand the importance of horizontal innovation. He says good examples of idea sharing can be seen in the healthcare and aerospace industries. Such examples, suggests Attenborough, represent companies at the leading edge of knowledge sharing.

Other technologists should use their awareness to solve some of the greatest challenges in business. "There are solutions to your challenges already out there, irrespective of the discipline, across engineering and technology, and be it through composites, processes, databases, or cybersecurity," says Attenborough.

"Those challenges cover the broad span of B2B and B2C issues -- we just need to makes sure that cross-sector conversations take place. Horizontal innovation is a low cost way to create business solutions that can have a very big impact."

The approach could run across all sectors. Attenborough says the IET is keen to use its work with the MIA to demonstrate the potential of horizontal innovation to the wider technology community, including those at the top of business.

"This is a c-suite conversation -- but it's a big conversation that needs to be pushed right down through the levels of experience in different companies and sectors. An important engagement on horizontal innovation needs to take place now at all levels of business."

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