Tearing Down Knowledge Silos: How Changes in Science Should Impact Corporate Innovation

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In a recent feature at Big Think Daniel Honan detailed an ongoing shift within the field of biology – a move away from strictly compartmentalized disciplinary boundaries within large university and public R&D laboratories to smaller, more nimble inter-disciplinary labs. In discussing the featured example, Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory (MDIBL), Honan describes the opportunities that mixing scientists of varied background in an open lab will provide. In a number of ways, this new lab paradigm mirrors what needs to happen for corporations to, as stated by Kevin Strange, head of the MDIBL, “speed the pace and reduce the cost of discovery.” In revamping what used to be a seasonal lab into a medium-sized academic unit with a budget of $10 million and a staff of 50 employees of varied background Strange has created a very powerful incubator for innovation.

In the face of continued cut-backs to R&D many leaders in corporate environments are struggling to do more with less. Besides utilizing the principles of open innovation to leverage knowledge outside the firm, perhaps there are some other lessons to be learned from the above example to assist the Osmotic Innovator in building an innovative and productive team.

Beware if this is what your organization looks like.

Unfortunately for the corporate innovator, creating and moving a cross-disciplinary team of 50 to a remote lab to accelerate the pace of innovation isn’t likely to be met with much enthusiasm from your superiors. Start-ups, with narrow budgets and a bee-line focus on commercialization in the current VC culture, are unlikely to have the necessary breadth to emulate this model even if they have advantages in their location. So, how could this model be recreated within the corporate environment AND targeted toward meaningful innovation within a company’s strategy?

–         Hire the right people: it has been discussed on this blog before, but it is important to rehash the importance of building a team having a wide variety of skill sets. However, this principle needs to go further than just hiring one Chemist instead of a Biologist or a fresh out-of-school generalist in place of a 20 year specialist. People of varied backgrounds and viewpoints are also necessary to build a culture that can support innovation.

–         Make collaboration a necessity: the MDIBL forces its scientists to collaborate in order to move science forward and survive in the ‘publish or perish’ atmosphere of academia. The Osmotic Innovator has a number of tools to execute this, from the straightforward, such as arranging project teams to fit the model, or to the indirect, such as rearranging the floor plan to encourage spontaneous interactions.

–         Encourage experimentation: 3M famously does this by giving researchers a set amount of time to pursue personal interests, even without a commitment to such large fractions of time innovation competitions or challenges can build this type of thinking.

–         Find a way to be agile: Process is important, but having the ability to rapidly change focus, whether it be a large initiative or small project, is equally important when trying to improve the capacity to innovate. Be willing to scrap process when reasonable to boost your teams’ effectiveness in responding to new challenges or opportunities.

Organizing and operating exactly like a small research facility is perhaps an idealized view of how a research department or company can operate. However, there are a number of lessons in these models that we can learn from and leverage within our teams to improve the capacity to innovate even without massive budgets or staffs. The next time you’re wondering how a small academic unit scores big with an important discovery in the face of diminishing resources, think instead about how you can emulate their best characteristics within your team.


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