For our series of innovation talks, we met Frank Piller, professor of tech & innovation management at RWTH Aachen University (Germany) and expert of open and collaborative innovation. We had the chance to talk about the best innovation management practices, the development of open innovation among corporates, and the challenges companies face to stay up to date in a fast-paced market. Deep dive into the interview to discover his revealing takes on the future of innovation.
Since innovation is a broad field, my first question to you is: How important is interdisciplinary collaboration? And what can they bring not only to academia, but also to the market?
“Multi-disciplinary” is preferred nowadays rather than interdisciplinary – since we refer not only to two disciplines, or to the interface of two disciplines, but to the collaboration between various fields.
That said, innovation is often correlated to diversity in a broad sense – different disciplines, different countries, different approaches – which makes it multidisciplinary by default. Indeed, most innovation is the recombination of existing knowledge in a novel way, so to develop it needs different knowledge disciplines to work together.
From a corporate perspective, looking beyond their innovation department teams, many industries have come together and got connected sense the rise of digitalisation. There’s increasing knowledge that cannot be confined into one discipline or group, so companies increasingly need to be more open.
So do companies increasingly have multidisciplinary teams, and apply multidisciplinary approaches?
Yes, indeed. Multidisciplinary innovation can be reflected in a team composition. If you think about it, nowadays we even see algorithms and AI becoming part of the team, increasing its diversity in a totally new way (more about this later). But many times a multi-disciplinary approach is not IN the team, rather it’s people from the internal team to reach out to experts that are external to the company, e.g. for a project – partnering in networks.
So, on the one side, multi-disciplinary is at the core of successful innovation. But on the other, it is also the cause of a lot of challenges – because of the need to get outside the corporation, to collaborate with and trust different entities that are external to you, and to incorporate external inputs and combine it all with your existing knowledge. All of this can be challenging and needs to be managed.
You’ve written extensively about the concept of “open innovation.” How can organizations effectively embrace open innovation to stay competitive in a rapidly changing world — particularly small companies that don’t have the resources or knowledge to enter in the process? What are the key challenges they may face in this endeavor?
For me, open innovation in a business means, first of all, to integrate non-obvious partners and their knowledge from the outside. Actually “closed innovation” does NOT exist: it’s impossible to innovate without external input knowledge. But open innovation is a strategy to identify relevant knowledge from the outside that’s not known to us (un-obvious knowledge), hence providing really novel input for us. So the key to success in this field is to lead a good search strategy. It’s a paradox: finding something that you don’t know if it’s helpful for you. It’s not like collaborative innovation where I reach out to someone that is already into my network, but instead it’s reaching out to people and knowledge we don’t know about yet.
To achieve this, there are two main strategies: open direct search and indirect search. The first one means that you use advanced tools, like text mining algorithms, to find knowledge in, e.g., social media, patent databases, project reports. One example is your Linkovate platform, which allows tech scouting and monitoring. In the second strategy, you don’t look for the knowledge, but you take care that the knowledge finds you. For example via crowdsourcing via an innovation platform that allows you to share your challenges openly with potential problem solvers. People that may have a solution to your problem then self select themselves and pitch their solution. Idea contests are a typical example for such an indirect search strategy.
But however you search for outside knowledge, the following step is always to implement the knowledge discovered through the different research strategies and put it to work in your company and innovation project.
About this latter step (implementation) – How much do companies actually need to invest in R&D and open innovation?
I simply don’t have a straight answer to this – probably no one has. Firstly, take in mind that open innovation is just one tool among many to make R&D more efficient
We know that there’s no direct correlation between the amount of investments in innovation and corporate performance. It’s more about investing smart – that is, the efficiency and creativity of the investment. To face some of the problems in the innovation process, this can be a good way to turn a specific amount of money into a higher return – and open innovation pushes clever and more creative investment.
The question is not whether we have to innovate – investments in R&D are necessary to stay competitive and keep up on track with new customer demands – but how to innovate. Innovation is about best practices. It’s to invest better than your competitors – and doing open and collaborative innovation right is one of these strategies.
How do you recognize a good innovator? What’s the best strategy or tool to detect innovation signals?
A company with good a high performance innovation process has a consistent system. They lead innovation consistently – not by chance, but by strategy. Many startups have a great idea once, but if they’re not capable of sustaining innovation over time in a consistent manner they don’t succeed. A really innovative company can sustain innovation, and they also keep balance between innovating their core business today and building platforms for their future. Few companies only are actually really good in this! An innovative system is a system that can plan and manage different kind of projects, improvement and exploratory projects at the same time.
The digital transformation has reshaped many aspects of innovation management. What emerging technologies or trends do you see as particularly influential in shaping the future of innovation, and how can businesses prepare to harness their potential?
IoT (Internet of Things), which is connectivity, is one of the most disrupting techs of our time. Not digitalisations, which started in the 70s, but machines that talk to machines that can talk to people, a development that is still going on and still has the potential to change a lot of things. MOre recently, generative AI came as a new game-changer, which has made things easier to do for many people in a very quick time. This is actually an area that we studied a lot in our recent research. A good starting point for your readers is this article how to augment human innovation teams with artificial intelligence (open access): https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/jpim.12656
You’ve been talking on various occasions about the relation between creativity and generative AI. Will AI kill creativity?
No, not at all. Human creativity does not stop. It’s like asking, is open innovation killing creativity? No, it allows you to get insights and knowledge from a different perspective. In the same way, Generative AI can be like a superpower to your creativity – in tools, giving domain-specific knowledge, association ability, connecting existing knowledge in a novel way. It can help us to overcome blind spots and get us out of path dependencies. And actuallyI for creative processes, the hallucinations of GenAI are a feature, not a bug. They may represent wild ideas! So, AI is not replacing us, I believe, but making us stronger. And never forget: In the end, innovation is not ideas, but implementation. Here, AI can help too, but don’t do the entire job. In the end, I see AI as a new tool to help us in the creation process.
If innovation is so important for our future, is innovation management the job of the future?
Well, we definitely need more innovation, not less. Although technological change can sometimes bring failures, innovation is a resourceful tool to solve issues related to it. Innovation is the driver of more sustainability (but also has been the cause of a lot of waste and resource consumption). So you also need balance here. And for this, you need innovation management. But perhaps no innovation managers.
In a really innovative company, you don’t need innovation managers: innovation would be something that everybody leads within the organization. If you look at really innovative companies, there’s no need for an innovation manager since innovation is everyone’s task – innovation is already within their business model and everyone can do it.
But in most companies, which do not have such an innovation culture, actually innovation managers can help a lot: To support their colleagues with new tools and methods, to enable new partnerships, to create better processes that help to balance between short term profitability and long term success.
Lastly, a personal question: what is the most important lesson you learnt from your career path? Or if, you prefer, the most important lesson you try to teach to your students?
Always stay open-minded. Be aware of your assumptions and how you make decisions and evaluate situations, to be able to overcome them and stay open to different ways of thinking and working!