I was unable to attend this year’s EMC Innovation Conference, but had a lot of fun reading up on it, and was excited to use it as an excuse to meet up with some EMC folks from near and far who were in the area.
It got me thinking, of course, about the scope of innovation here at EMC, and at other businesses. What makes an idea innovative? If you simply take something you’re already doing and execute against it better, are you innovating? Or are you just trimming fat? Is innovation something we’ll know when we see?
A good example of this is the “People’s Choice” award given to one of the 30 finalists at this year’s conference. Employees were invited to vote on which of the ideas “best exemplifies the kind of innovation that is most valuable to EMC.” Their answer, as described in EMC’s press release, was “A semantic search approach to mining internal company data, making it simple for employees to access information quickly and easily and in efficient formats.” This choice fascinates me and tells me (and our customers and competitors) a lot about the world inside EMC. EMC employees, given the choice of 30 really innovative ideas, thought the best use of our brainpower and budget was improving the ability for employees (not customers, not partners) to search our internal knowledge base.
I don’t doubt that the ideas and technology behind the idea are innovative. But I do think the choice sends a clear message upstream — our employees are aware of problems that need innovative solutions, and these problems aren’t necessarily anything to do with opening new markets or even beating our competition in existing markets. They have to do with removing obstacles to our executing against our already-defined goals. That is where our folks “in the trenches” want us to concentrate.
I don’t have a problem with this, not at all. I would love to see that same level of innovative thought applied at every level in our organization. We need to be creative and save money at every level, especially in this economy. But I’m also glad that the conference judges chose finalists which were a bit more aggressive in terms of their reach. It makes me proud to know that we have a mechanism in place so that when someone thinks of something “high concept,” they have a way to bubble the idea up and out of their own immediate environment (where people may only be interested in innovation in the context of improving execution).
Because if everyone in the company spends all their time coming up with ways to execute more rapidly, we’ll be really really good at everything we’re already pretty good at … and while that has value, it’s not the way to grow by leaps and bounds into new markets and new horizons.