How EMC Reignited Its Innovation Program

By Scott Kirsner |  November 25, 2014

Three years ago, when Calvin Smith took over The Innovation Network, the internal innovation initiative at the data storage and software giant EMC Corp., he identified a challenge that he felt could prove fatal to the program. “We had an innovation conference that was building morale and excitement,” Smith explains. “We were getting lots of ideas from employees. But if somebody asked, ‘What is happening with those ideas?’ the answer was typically silence, which is not a good thing.”

So here’s how Smith and his team shook things up.

1. Sharpen the Mission

The team is situated within the Office of the Chief Technology Officer at EMC. Its initial mission statement was “fostering the creation of high-value ideas for the company.” Smith changed it to “fostering the creation and delivery of high-value ideas for the company,” with a big emphasis on “delivery.”

2. Let the Business Units Set out Challenges

In the past, the Office of the CTO sought good ideas from employees. Now, however, they’ve switched to the “Sponsored Model.” Instead of casting a single wide net for ideas, EMC now asks executive “Sponsors” across all business units and functions like marketing or HR to lay out problems or challenges that they’d like to see employees work on. “That lets the business units set the course for the types of ideas they’re looking for,” Smith says. “This year, we had 26 different sponsored challenges.”

3. Create Some Structure

Even when ideas won recognition or awards in the past, Smith says that the next steps weren’t clear. So he and his team created a series of seven steps called “Incubation Readiness Levels,” or IRLs, that guide ideas from concept to customer use. “First we create a framework of a business case, then a proof of concept, then a requirements document, and so on,” Smith says. “At the end of the IRLs, assuming that the idea continues to successfully complete each one, we hand a product, service, solution, or process improvement back to the business unit or sponsoring organization that originally chose the idea as a winner.” (Some of the IRL stages are shown below in gray; the blue markers detail the earlier stages of the ideas challenge.)

4. Money Matters

Smith’s team has its own incubation fund that it manages. “We expect employees to look at their sponsors [in the functional groups or business units] as a venture capitalist or an angel investor, and we walk them through a process to convince those backers to give them funding going forward,” Smith says. “But sometimes, the interest in their ideas may wane after a period of time due to shifting priorities, so it’s good for us to have a separate, additional budget to keep those ideas moving forward, even if the business unit decides it is no longer of strategic importance. We can keep it alive when we feel it really matters to the company.”


5. Cut a Higher Profile

In earlier years, when EMC conducted idea competitions, it didn’t share externally what any of the winning ideas were. “It was tough to get approval for that,” Smith says. But, over the last two years, that has changed. “We’ve really pushed as hard as we can to allow this to go out externally,” he says. “The quiet, skunkworks approach is very old-school. If you don’t share with people how you’re innovating, and the exciting concepts you’re coming up with, people can view you as a laggard, a me-too company.” Part of the solution, he adds, was to apply for patents for all of the challenge’s most promising ideas. “All of the 27 winners are pretty well-protected from a legal standpoint,” Smith samark.

In terms of what happens next for the program, Smith says that employees submitted 5200 responses to the challenges this year. “We know that there are tons of great ideas being passed up, just because some may feel more meaningful for a particular executive or group in this time period,” he says. “But in cases where the technology isn’t ready yet, or the business unit isn’t ready, we’re building additional flanking programs to allow some of those ideas to be pushed forward outside of the Innovation Roadmap and current organic innovation structure at EMC.”

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