Big corporates can’t innovate.This myth has become increasingly prevalent in the age of the startup, with people pointing to companies like Nokia, Blockbuster, and Kodak as evidence that corporates just can’t keep up with today’s rapid and disruptive pace of change.
And, if you believe the headlines, they’re right. Single startups are transforming whole industries and leaving traditional stalwarts at the door. Technological advancements and changing consumer behaviors are helping companies rise and fall at a rate that is faster than ever. In today’s business environment, simply keeping up with the pace of change is no longer an option — it’s a death sentence.
So – what should we be doing to solve it, and is it solvable at all?
The Central Innovation Model Isn’t Dead, But…
To begin with, large companies must change the way they approach innovation. Most big corporates have traditionally had a designated R&D department, with a small team of people in charge of driving the company’s global innovation agenda. But can one team truly push a company forward if tens of thousands of their co-workers, hew to the well-worn processes, hold them back?
Instead, when it comes to innovation, culture and process — together — are key. Innovating is as much about mindset as it is about implementation. Fostering a culture of innovation and placing this at the heart of your business processes is crucial. This means integrating innovation into every fiber of the company, shedding the outdated R&D model that you’ve had for years, taking a bottom-up approach, empowering employees in every department and region to generate ideas, and providing an easily-understood path to execute on them. People are inherently creative and, ultimately, a company should only have to facilitate and unleash what is already there.
At Experian, although we have central teams dedicated to the cutting edge of data innovation, such as the Data Exchange, Data Labs, Experian Ventures, as well as regional innovation teams, we are also working to integrate innovation into every aspect of the business through initiatives that drive the overall innovation system of the company and allow us to manage and support progressing innovations at pace — regardless of where they are generated from. Events such as our Future of Information Conference and annual Si Ramo prize are aimed at engaging employees in this innovation process and empowering them to contribute.
This isn’t to say that the central team model is dead. Indeed, in a corporate where innovation is facilitated and explicitly supported within business processes, the output from central innovation teams and investments are more readily operationalized, amplifying impact. To this end, Experian continues to broaden its portfolio of dedicated innovation activity. We recently launched the Data Exchange, a central innovation team of “intraprenueurs” focused on identifying, learning, prototyping and iterating new value propositions and business models that leverage new data and advanced data science.
Although the team was launched just seven months ago, it has already developed several models that are now being rolled out in key markets. Its mandate is to develop new businesses models and concepts with non-traditional and so-called “alternative” data (data not directly related to a consumer’s credit behavior). As its name implies, a foundational principle of the team’s work is that the use of data requires the explicit creation and exchange of value with data holders.
The Data Exchange and Data Labs are separate groups reporting to different parts of the company, but they are very complementary and work together. The Labs employ data scientists that enable us to know what is possible from the data, whereas the Data Exchange focuses on developing the business models and value propositions which use the data and associated analytics.
Experian Ventures is our corporate venture arm – a venture group that makes early stage minority-share investments in companies and industries that we think may have future potential. Located in Silicon Valley, Singapore, London, and Brazil, they invest globally in startups developing innovative consumer and business solutions for data creation, analytics and machine learning, and information security.
A significant amount of innovation is coming out of the teams mentioned above. Recent examples include the Ascend platform (which provides near real-time access to data sets), Experian Boost (a way to improve one’s credit score), and Text for Credit (which enables consumers and lenders to communicate about financing offers by text message).
How I Assemble Teams
Creating the right teams and fostering a creative mindset is also key when it comes to innovating effectively. I believe firmly in creating innovation teams that are as diverse as possible, bringing together people with different backgrounds and experiences to facilitate creativity. Diversity forces more lateral thinking from all group members and creates an environment where problems are seen from different perspectives, exposing and challenging assumptions. My motto is, if everyone around the room thinks and looks likes me, then we have a problem. The only constant? Find and empower people who are open-minded, agile and intensely curious, as well as passionate about data and delivering customer value, of course.
My team members are a mix of internal and external hires. Internally, I look for people that are constantly breaking new ground and are proactively engaging, learning, sharing, and pushing new concepts — people who are excellent in regards to their remit, but don’t sit still nor limit themselves to what they are currently working on. They are too driven by curiosity and the potential they see from new data and technology to stay within their role bounds. Externally, I tend to look for people who have successfully started things, either as a startup or within a corporate entity, and who also show indicators of curiosity, proactiveness, and learning. These indicators can be as part of their day job or outside of it. While traits of curiosity and hustle are consistent, it’s critical that as a group they represent a diversity of backgrounds, experiences, ways of thinking, and cultural norms.
Innovation Can’t Be Just an Initiative
Innovation within a business is a constantly changing process. Our innovation approach at Experian is still evolving and, if managed right, will continue to do so. Anything new or different is always a bit of a learning curve, and it usually takes an organization a while to understand and adjust; Experian is no different, and we learned quite a bit along the way.
For large corporates to be innovative, innovation itself cannot be an initiative – it must be a core value and, as such, nurtured, supported, and embedded into every aspect of the firm. I am proud that Experian is committed to this end, and I’m currently leading a multi-year program that will enhance how we manage and support innovation across the organization; accelerate innovation at pace and scale; support and up-skill our people; and improve how we generate and manage our innovation processes systemwide.
Corporates have a steep learning curve when it comes to innovation. But by integrating innovation at every level of business, embracing emerging technology, and empowering employees to take risks and challenge assumptions, even the largest blue-chip companies can lead a wave of disruption.
Let’s bust the myth that big businesses can’t innovate. For corporates, the future of development should be seized, not feared.