Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Gratefully Invented Elsewhere

There is a fascinating interview with Joachim von Heimburg, Director of Corporate R&D at Proctor and Gamble, in a recent 'In Business' podcast from BBC Radio 4. Von Heimburg explains that Proctor and Gamble has set itself a goal of generating 50% of its innovation lead growth from innovations that come from outside of P&G. Instead of a 'not invented here' syndrome, P&G encourages a 'gratefully invented elsewhere' approach to innovation.

This struck me as a very sensible - though surprisingly innovative - approach for P&G to take. I've been involved in numerous 'innovation projects' with clients over the years, and the thought has often struck me that many of them would be better off approaching a few venture capital companies and offering to provide seed capital for any relevant new ideas. Rather than laboriously trying to 'invent it first here' (usually with little or no commercially valuable success).

Innovation has become an 'apple pie' word with a lot of policy makers in Ireland - who could possibly be against it? But their model appears to be firmly rooted in a bygone age of five-year plans and white coated laboratory technicians, beavering away in the bowels of corporate head quarters. Yet if mighty P&G recognises it cannot meet the majority of its future requirements for innovation from its own internal resources then it seems unlikely that 'Ireland Inc' can do much better.

For a far more convincing (and inspiring) read on the 'future for innovation' (and much else besides) check out the recent Forbes.com special feature on 'The Future'. In particular, read the article by Nassim Nicholas Taleb - to my mind one of the most original thinkers on the planet today (and someone truly deserving of the label 'genius'). Here's Taleb on the American way of innovation:

America's primary export, it appears, is trial and error, and the innovative knowledge attained in such a way. Trial and error has error in it; and most top-down traditional rational and academic environments do not like the fallibility of "error" and the embarrassment of not quite knowing where they're going. The U.S. fosters entrepreneurs and creators, not exam-takers, bureaucrats or, worse, deluded economists. So the perceived weakness of the American pupil in conventional studies is where his or her very strength may lie.

It is unlikely that any government minister is going to admit that Ireland's science, technology and innovation strategy is based on 'trial and error', and yet that is how so much (indeed most) innovation happens. This is one deluded economist who thinks Taleb is on to something, and that much of our future success will depend on those things that are 'gratefully invented elsewhere' - especially by our American cousins.

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