Last Friday’s The Economist goes lyrical about Apple’s ability to innovate. Not that I’m complaining (as an Apple fan) although the magazine does overdo it a bit.
The interesting part is that it raises again the concept of the “innovation network”. Not (as usual) as a group of companies that meet and share ideas, but as a softer general awareness of other innovations in its ecosystem, and a readyness to learn from them and incorporate the better solutions. Meaning, usually, technologies and products making its way across the industry. Apple’s proving an expert at building better mousetraps with pieces dreamt up by others.
On the other (old) hand, you have the innovation networks we all know and love: communities of practice. They are distinct in several ways:
- The members are individual professionals and the interactions are usually meant to enhance their own ability and performace (not the wider company’s).
- A CoP’s usually not such a formal, event-determined outfit as a network of companies: conversations go around continuously with few set-pieces.
- You don’t find often CoP members licensing technologies or selling products and services to each other, as companies might and formal networks facilitate.
A CoP is an innovation network in the best sense: it facilitates the spread of change in business practices, change that allows farther reach, higher efficiency, larger size… but it does not operate at the same level as those networks.
It allows business to improve through the spread of ideas and methodologies, rather than technology and products. It’s an accelerator of change, spreading those ideas among an industry (or sector, or geography) faster than any government campaign or trade fair could.
A clear example is the adoption of a new technology among workers in a particular industry. Say (for a real-life case), printing professionals in Spain. When a new technology appears, adoption is driven by CoP-shared experiences of its usefulness. Early support is often to be found among those pioneers better than with the manufacturer. On-the-job, issue-driven training is granted through CoP conversations (on web forums, for instance). Eventually, tips and tricks are found, shared and improved. Different and evolving methodologies of using the new technology appear and compete. Breaking news spread as fast as they are relevant. Introductory (and not so basic) guides and reference materials are eventually written by active CoP members. Leading work is commented and inspires. And the cycle goes on.
Compare that with an isolated company’s efforts to learn through trade publications and experimentation (time and cost and limited scope), paid training (more cost) or industry fairs (more time and spam). Or a “classic” innovation network, periodically and formally attending events where a company’s representative tells a case in the best possible light and the rest discuss a couple of issues with an eye to not hurting their own competitiveness.
The best of those networks try to use continuous conversation tools (forums, etcetera). Most don’t succeed (I could finger a couple of empty caskets, but that would be unkind). Because the focus is not put on the practitioner, the professional, the worker: it’s put on the company, whose interest in sharing is quite different, and mediated by managers, whose attention is elsewhere. And if they change it, in effect they become CoP hosts… which is no bad thing, I dare say.
Indeed, not so long ago that was exactly what I was reccomending to a similar sort of innovation network. Wonder what they eventually did… maybe it’s time to find out.