Google, Applied Materials execs debate how taking risks fosters collaboration

How does a company properly foster "a culture of risk taking" -- especially amid a very uneasy global economic climate?


BERKELEY, CALIF. -- Everyone in business and technology love to toss around the word "innovation" haphazardly, but at its core, perhaps it would be better to define it as plain old risk taking.

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Speaking during a panel discussion at The Economist's 2013 Innovation Forum on Thursday, executives from technology and healthcare industries discussed how any kind of sustainable model for innovation requires "a culture of risk taking."

But how does a company properly foster that -- especially amid a very uneasy global economic climate?

Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google, suggested it starts with the recruitment process, which is complex (to say the least) for the Mountain View, Calif.-headquartered company, which has millions of applicants each year.

But Bock stressed that the Internet giant looks to hire for capability before expertise. That in itself could be viewed as a major risk considering you could be hiring someone who doesn't have enough experience to make founded business decisions.

Bock explained that Google would rather hire "smart, curious people" over experts because someone in the former category is "90 percent" more likely to come up with a "pretty good answer" to a potential problem or question.

Bock admitted that "you need a mix," but he stipulated that Google still skews heavily towards this interest in curious people.

Mary Humiston, senior vice president of global human resources at Applied Materials, described a new program at the semiconductor company dubbed "Innovation Academy." The project includes a program that brings together technologists from various verticals within the company, such as solar or displays, to discuss and try to answer some of the highest-value customer problems.

While Humiston hinted that the program is still in its infancy, even just after a year, she highlighted that the sessions have led to approximately $3 billion in revenue opportunities for Applied Materials.

Martin Giles, U.S. technology correspondent at The Economist and the panel's moderator, asked pointedly what about motivating employees with cash.

Bock immediately shut the concept down, citing studies that such incentives don't really foster innovation.

Humiston pointed towards leveraging crowd-sourcing models for internal competition with a potential reward being corporate funding for winning ideas.