Nilofer Merchant is an expert on collaborative leadership and author of, "The New How," and "11 Rules for Creating Value in the Social Era."
Innovation has as many definitions as it has sources. Some like to describe innovation as something more akin to invention. That is - a new thought that never existed before. Others see innovation as an evolutionary change to something already in existence. I think that innovation is more cultural than actual.
Innovation is a change in the use or practice of something that exists and is already being used. The innovation itself could be a physical thing, a new way of using something, or just a different way of perceiving something. However it's defined, innovation is valuable and needs nurturing in order to make that value real.
I asked Joe Fuller, VP/CIO of www.dominionenterprises.com where he finds innovation for his projects. "Sometimes the innovative ideas come from managers, but more often they come from employees and customers. The employees know where the workflow problems exist and the waste is. We use an electronic suggestion box and encourage employees to post their recommendations. The software allows other employees to vote on ideas and allows management to publish an official response. Some of our best process improvements have come from this mechanism."
In addition to sources for innovative ideas it's important that when ideas do come through the process the people reviewing them are ready to make the most of them. Consumers understand much more about technology and its possible uses than many suspect, and managers need to be prepared to recognize a great idea when it is presented to them.
Fuller explains, "The managers must constantly adopt the latest and greatest technology. They have to be the first smartphone adopters so they know what "apps" are. They have to sign up for and use Twitter and Tumblr. They must go to SXSW and oher conferences and they must visit their customers and watch videos on 3D printing. IT can help push that. For example, in early 2010 we issued first generation iPads to 75 managers and told them to use them instead of their laptops to see what this tablet craze was all about. The earlier any company does these kinds of things, the quicker they act on and benefit from the new trends."
This advice can help companies stay ahead of their customers - with the help of their customers. Having a tech savvy organization can help to make innovation an integral part of the enterprise. As Fuller concludes, "When the managers are up on the latest technology, they can figure out how to leverage that technology to innovate within the company."