A few months ago, I wrote about a critical consideration for establishing an innovation practice – location. I explored the power of leveraging research-based universities and their role in invention and innovation. While I have focused primarily on prototyping (creating tangible working models that answer the singular question of “will it work?”), which affords an organization with the capability to experiment; experimentation is more than just prototyping. Early into formulating my vision for The Tech Nest, I didn’t want to limit the value we offered to AARP with a singular focus of prototyping. Although prototyping was a critical first step, co-location at a university was and is a force multiplier.
As we incorporated elements of product management and agile delivery practices in developing our first set of prototypes, we were cognizant to develop a multi-channel engagement model for experimentation. Any business or practice worth investing, and building should allow customers to engage with you, leverage your services, and most importantly, experience the power of experimentation in different ways. One size never fits all and it is critical that you meet your customers where they are in terms of their needs and in ways that are personal to them. For me, that meant categorizing the channels my business partners would need along their journey. Here’s a summary of what we considered, how we structured our approach, and how it’s progressing.
Start with a solid understanding of the opportunities that add value
Creating a multi-channel approach to experimentation is less about getting it right up front – you’ll learn, evolve, and change things up along the way. What’s critical is that you explore the opportunities to add value and group them in some fashion. Beyond the lab we leveraged opportunities to engage the university (professors, students, etc.), connect with other co-located labs, and reach a sophisticated start-up community.
Identify all of the possible channels for experimentation
Based on the variable categorization above, we created a multi-channel engagement model. A few of our channels are listed below to spur your thinking:
With a dedicated lab co-located at a university, this channel focused on creating tangible working models that allowed our business partners to assess if an idea, once pair with a disruptive technology, would work for our organization.
This started as a catch all for each and every way we could leverage a university’s vast resources and talent, however, we soon learned to further segment the opportunities.
Educators as consultants can be obtained by the hour or by the deliverable and there are opportunities to leverage professors in a multitude of ways. We have sought their expertise in user design and experience and as a consultant to assist with technical challenges or different ways to approach a particular problem. These engagements have been helpful in developing algorithms (machine learning) and in designing virtual reality prototypes.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the opportunities here in terms of frequency and sophistication. Many student run-organizations are consulting firms in their own right. It’s my experience that you should never discount the quality and the value students offer. In many instances, the graduate students that round out these teams have a number of years of global work and industry experience.
This is my favorite engagement channel in terms of speed, ease of use, and quality of the deliverables. In essence, this is an opportunity for student teams to work on a project/scope of your choosing. The students then work towards a final deliverable/presentation by the semester’s end. Like many of the other opportunities, you must learn to focus your request (scope) and think carefully about which channel to use for what. We have found that classroom engagements are an excellent way to validate a challenge that requires research. For example, we explored the potential readiness of blockchain to enable our social mission. The outcome was a polished research deliverable that rivals similar work from global consulting firms. Furthermore, these engagement were zero dollar and afforded the opportunity to engage non-engineering business students.
Partnerships are not always contractual in nature. The culture in these settings are more collaborative in nature.
When you are among other companies in an innovation lab, opportunities to collaborate abound. The conversations can evolve from input on designing lab space into numerous operating models each company leverages and the lessons learned of what works. These type of collaborations are invaluable, two-way advisory and mentoring conversations. My biggest takeaway here is that the framework you employ is always relative to your organization’s culture. What works for us might not work for you. Visiting other labs provides practical, hands-on advice relative to the strengths and limitations of some technologies.
In some instances, you may find that collaborating with a current technology provider on an idea at your lab might yield value. For example, you can engage a packaged software vendor to pilot a new suite of machine learning features which are applicable to your company’s needs, while leveraging students at your lab. In this case, all parties win. The students gain incredible experience collaborating with and learning from seasoned engineers and your organization gets a behind-the-scenes assessment of what might add value to the enterprise. The mere opportunity often results in a low-to-no-cost investment. Additionally, you can engage start-up communities and issue contests that engage the ‘crowd’ in sourcing your next innovation.
My hope is that the biggest take away you have from this post is that corporate experimentation is much more than prototyping. Technology leadership at its core should be business focused and multifaceted enough to meet your business partners where they are. A multi-channel engagement model is a way to enable this outreach.