Advanced manufacturers—people who make “things”—face the same challenges in the Digital Age as their counterparts that traffic wholly in bits and bytes. Relentless immediacy. Increased transparency. In this article, the innovation architect Doug Collins reflects on the results from a survey that the analyst firm Frost & Sullivan conducted as part of the Manufacturing Leadership Council. What are the more advanced of the advanced manufacturing thinking these days about the practice of collaborative innovation? Are they on track?

Collaborative Innovation: something for everyone

Broad applicability makes the practice of collaborative innovation powerful. A group in product development starts the practice. Another group—the retail store associates—picks it up to good effect. Human resources takes notice of the uptick in engagement. They come calling.

Contexts change. The essentials of the practice remain the same. Outcomes tend to be positive for all. At times, the outcomes, taken in aggregate, prove to be transformative.

I admit my bias. Yet, I am hard pressed to think of a case where the practice of collaborative innovation did not add value, outside the realm of an authentically disengaged organization.

The people who make things

In this spirit I read with interest the June 2015 issue of the Manufacturing Leadership Journal. Frost & Sullivan sponsors the Manufacturing Leadership Council, which publishes journal every other month. Council members consist of people working at firms engaged in advanced forms of manufacturing (e.g., Cisco, Doosan, Ford, Tata, GlaxoSmithKline, and The Procter & Gamble Company).

In the June issue, the journal reported on the results of a survey of its membership on the extent to which the members’ manufacturing enterprises have embraced collaborative innovation. By collaborative innovation, the journal means practices and processes by which the firm co-creates with customers, suppliers, industry consortia, and—internally—with one another.

I do not replicate the report in full here. Instead, I make note of a couple highlights that caught my attention, above and beyond the summary provided by the journal.

Co-creating with customers

The survey asked, “To what degree does your company intend to engage in collaborative innovation with the following external groups over the next one to two years?”

In response, council members cited “key customers” as “significantly more” 36% of the time, compared with “key suppliers,” the next most highly rated score at 25%.

This response makes sense to me in that the prioritization aligns with the growing interest in structured ways to engage with customers—at times as a natural realization of customer-centered approaches such as design thinking and agile being put into practice.

Which key customers, exactly, becomes the next question. My guidance is often to start with the firm’s advisory board, if such a structure already exists.

A source of new product ideas

The response to another question suggests the focus of such a collaboration: new product development. In answer to the question of, “What degree of emphasis does your company place on collaborative innovation in the following functional areas today, and will do in five years’ time?” 44% stated “product design” and an additional 32% stated “product-related services.”

One might argue that, from the perspective of the firm’s customers, the two categories speak to the same object: the complete offer the firm makes to the market—the product and the set of services that enable the customer to succeed in their use of the product.

“End user customer engagement” came second at 34%, today.

This finding, too, makes sense to me. The tangible outcome of co-creation—for a manufacturer, in particular—would be a new product that offers some new form of relative advantage for the client and greater profitability for the firm.

Crowdsourcing: not so much, today

Interestingly, in response to a question on whether the member’s organization plans to apply crowdsourcing as a means of achieving collaborative innovation, 11% of members responded that they were already using the approach and 5% said they planned to use the approach, intensely. The rest answered along a range from “no plans” to “do not know.”

Active engagement in crowdsourcing of around 16% suggests a couple observations to me.

First, the crowdsourcing model itself is still new to many people and many firms. We are early on the adoption curve. The “do not know” crowd is big. This response might help to confirm its maturity.

Second, figuring out the means to achieve desired business outcomes (e.g., increase product innovation by co-creating with clients) takes time and experience. Given that many respondents say their CEO drives innovation strategy directly (38%), the members’ firms may simply have not had time to figure out which approach is best for them.

To this day, for all the emphasis on innovation in the popular press, I encounter many firms that treat the subject as an organic, low-key act: an expression of tribal knowledge held by a few in the organization.

Collaborative Innovation: does it, like charity, begin at home?

One closing observation: respondents from the council’s membership work primarily in the manufacturing discipline: the sourcing, production, assembly, and delivery of their firm’s products and product-related services. They run plants. They manage supply chains.

Yet, the top application scenarios the respondents envision involve their peers in product development: co-creating new products with customers.

What about the home front: the people who make the products that the customers value?
In my experience, people who work in the manufacturing domain, along with the affiliated discipline of supply chain, make excellent practitioners.

First, the field of manufacturing seems to self-select people who are naturally good at solving problems. How might we minimize the waste associated with delivering the product or service to the customer?

Some of the most successful expressions of the practice of collaborative innovation which I have seen have been around reducing the cost of goods sold tied to manufacturing. The focus here was internal, largely, along with some of the key suppliers.

Second, the people in manufacturing are not saddled with the “innovator” label. By comparison, I sometimes run into territoriality with other groups, based on titles. The people who work as “creative” in the “creative department” feel as if they have a lock on the innovation charter or role, to the exclusion of others in, say, account services or the back office operations. These groups struggle to embrace collaborative innovation because doing so upends established pecking orders.

Not so in the manufacturing domain.

Backing into collaborative innovation by way of problem solving

In closing, I suspect that if the manufacturers had been asked about “collaborative problem solving” as opposed to “collaborative innovation,” they might have put their own needs at the top of the list.

Attempting to categorize various forms of innovation is a fool’s errand. The only attributes that matter are (a) what relative advantage does the idea offer, and (b) in which horizon does the idea belong?

By Doug Collins

About the author

Doug Collins serves as an innovation architect. He helps organizations such as The Estee Lauder Companies, Fidelity Investments, Johnson & Johnson, Novo Nordisk, and The Procter & Gamble Company navigate the fuzzy front end of innovation.

Doug develops approaches, creates forums, and structures engagements whereby people can convene to explore the critical questions facing the enterprise. He helps people assign economic value to the ideas and to the collaboration that result.

As an author, Doug explores ways in which people can apply the practice of collaborative innovation in his series Innovation Architecture: A New Blueprint for Engaging People through Collaborative Innovation. His bi-weekly column appears in the publication Innovation Management. Doug serves on the board of advisors for Frost & Sullivan’s Global community of Growth, Innovation and Leadership (GIL).

Today, Doug consults with a range of clients as senior practice leader at innovation management company Mindjet. He helps clients realize their potential for leadership by applying the practice of collaborative innovation.

Photo: Factory Worker Processing by