Let your customers do the innovating

How 3M brings customers into its inner circle of innovation, and what it expects.

My colleague Heather Clancy just published a thoughtful piece on the need for businesses to relinquish their obsession with shareholder value and get back to a fundamental tenet of growth which seems to have been forgotten: building business around the customer.

Heather cites the work of University of Toronto Rotman School of Management Dean Roger Martin, who looked at the profitability of companies during times when shareholder value was emphasized, versus giving management more independent reign. Profitability lagged when the emphasis was on shareholder value.

It's about the customer, pure and simple. A movement is afoot, in fact, that urges letting customers guide the innovation process. In a recent New York Times article, another Harvard professor, Mary Tripsas, describes how 3M Company has opened what it calls a "customer innovation center" near its St. Paul campus.

Customer innovation centers such as 3M's are typically located near company research facilities, Tripsas points out. These facilities provide a forum for meeting with corporate customers and engaging them more directly and thoroughly in the innovation process.

The company is quick to point out that the work at the centers can get pretty intense. “The innovation center experience isn’t just about making everyone feel good,” John Horn, vice president for research and development at 3M’s industrial and transportation business, pointed out in the article. It has helped 3M to establish productive, long-term customer relationships. When customer teams arrive at the center, 3M's goal is to explore what they intend to accomplish, versus what they need at the moment.

Members of 3M's center try to prompt customers to think outside the box and come up with new innovations using various mixes and matches of its 40 product families. "3M hopes to prompt the type of novel connections — like using dental technology to improve car parts — that drive innovative solutions," Tripsas explains. She illustrates one successful customer engagement:

3M and the Visteon Corporation, an automotive supplier that is one of its customers, have worked together in the development of a next-generation concept vehicle that incorporates 3M technologies not originally developed with automotive applications in mind. Visteon’s visit to the innovation center, combined with follow-up collaboration, led to the idea of using 3-D technology from 3M for navigation displays, Thinsulate materials to reduce noise and optical films to hide functional elements of the dashboard unless the driver wants them displayed.

As discussed in previous posts, turning to networks for innovation is smart business because it opens up new ideas and avenues of opportunity that may be overlooked by more cloistered staff members. Making your customer network part of your inner circle for innovation.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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