Editorial Opinion: Managing innovation

Like children and gardens, companies and marketplaces either grow or wither. Nothing stays the same. One challenge follows another. These days the business challenges come faster than ever as it truly becomes a small world after all. The cry “innovate or perish” has become a mantra for manufacturers and retailers.

As Paul Sloane writes in The Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills: “Innovation is not just releasing new products. It also encompasses implementing new business processes, fresh new ways of doing things, radical alliances, brilliant new routes to market and business strategies.”

This issue highlights mobile computing, RFID, product lifecycle management, lean manufacturing, Six Sigma, Web services and other relatively new IT strategies that you or your counterparts are putting in place to meet your various challenges.

But an article by Kathleen Melymuka in the Feb. 16, Issue 7 of Computerworld U.S. illustrates a company’s approach to innovation that is so, well, innovative that it seems appropriate to highlight here in this editorial.

It seems that U.S. appliance maker Whirlpool Corp. has made being innovative part of every employee’s job description, rather than create a “skunkworks” – a strategic innovation group isolated from the pressures and bureaucracy of mainstream life. Melymuka writes that Whirlpool’s approach was to use IT to facilitate innovation much as it has been used to streamline supply chains. Whirlpool built an IT intranet infrastructure called the Innovation E-Space. It starts with the “fuzzy front end” of innovation where random insights are systematically generated and shared to spark ideas.

The back end is the I-Pipe, a dashboard view of the innovation pipeline adapted from Strategos. It tracks ideas from concept to scale-up and provides project details as well as the big picture, enabling management to focus on areas in need of attention. For example, a dozen innovations that deal with pricing may indicate that there’s a problem in that area.

Melymuka cites CIO Esat Sezer as saying that the IT infrastructure didn’t require an extensive investment. On the front end, Whirlpool used a Lotus Notes-based intranet and added new capabilities using collaboration tools like QuickPlace and Sametime from Lotus. For the I-Pipe, the company built a platform on its SAP infrastructure using SAP AG’s xApps for project resource management.

Whirlpool is working with Cisco Systems Inc., Sun Microsystems Inc. and Siemens AG to develop “connected homes,” with routers, security systems and Internet-connected appliances all consolidated into a “smart home” system.

Today, the Benton Harbor, Mich.-based appliance giant has more than 500 ideas in its innovation pipeline and has produced several unique products.

Whirlpool re-engineered management processes that slow down innovation and used IT to improve and accelerate the innovation chain from idea to final product. Significantly, the directive to do so came from the company’s chairman and CEO.

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