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October 19, 2007


Jim Belfiore

I would say that the innovation blindfold is often complimented by hearing protectors and a variety of other cultural accessories which result in the balkanization of innovation research and knowledge management activity within many of today's leading companies.

Years ago when I was Director of Knowledge Management for a well-known technology company, I was astonished to find out what internal information resources were being routinely overlooked or explicitly ignored (let alone external resources). My job rapidly became one where I would fly from Boston to Silicon Valley each week so that I could help coordinate critical knowledge exchanges between teams that were seperated by three buildings on the same campus. Without these visits, I was frequently told, these teams would not have taken the initiative to leverage each other's knowledge assets. The two largest barriers to my efforts were: 1) the limitations on knowledge management technology and 2) cultural attitudes on internal and external knowledge exchange and collaboration.

Today, some things have changed, but others still have room for improvement.

During any given week when I am helping one of our customers generate ideas which can lead to breakthrough product or technology innovations, the first activity I undertake is to help design and coordinate a knowledge management strategy. Advances in technology (including natural language processing) have greatly reduced the barrier to tackling the technical challenges I would have seen ten years ago. Unfortunately, with the removal the technical barriers, the cultural barriers seem to have become more pronouced. As vast sources of external and internal subject knowledge have become easier to integrate and leverage, the largest remaining challenge is one of changing the innovation and research culture.

Traditional knowledge-transfer barriers between R&D, Legal, Sales & Marketing, Manufacturing and Production are a direct threat to winning innovation. When a design engineer can quickly identify a relevant patent abstract, WikiPedia entry, journal article, or even a blog comment of critical interest to their product research and simultaneously, their discovery can trigger related market research, competitive analysis, and operational impact assessments in different parts of their company, that company will reap the benefits of effectively mobilzed knowledge, and likely emerge as an innovative leader in their industry.

James Todhunter

Very well said, Jim! This is a pattern that is not hard to see repeated in many organizations. Just in the last month alone, I have seen the stain of internal politics inflict the knowledge management component of strategic innovation programs with toxic malaise at three different organizations. This is why the leadership and cultural components of innovation practice deployment are so important. It requires serious organizational commitment to break down these barriers to innovation.

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