Innovation and the Future of Work

Stephen DeAngelis

October 27, 2015

“As the world of work continues to evolve at a rapid pace,” writes Jacob Morgan (@jacobm), an author and futurist, “innovation continues to become both a top priority and a top challenge.”[1] In order to meet the innovation challenge, Morgan argues that companies need to abandon their “not invented here” biases and their penchant to isolate innovation groups from the rest of the company. In an interesting six-part series, he discusses five different sources of innovation that companies need to embrace. They are: Employee innovation; Customer innovation[2]; Partner/supplier innovation[3]; Competitor innovation[4]; and Public innovation[5]. Morgan notes that the concepts and ideas found in his six-part article are drawn from his book, The Future of Work: Attract New Talent, Build Better Leaders, and Create a Competitive Organization. Like Morgan, I see the workplace changing rapidly in the years ahead and I’m interested in exploring all avenues of thought that provide ideas about how the human workforce can remain relevant in the age of artificial intelligence. Even in the age of automation and artificial intelligence, I believe that employees will remain a company’s most valuable asset — so does Morgan. He writes:

“Employees are the most valuable asset that your organization has, not some of your employees, all of your employees. Therefore it doesn’t make much sense to only rely on a few employees to come up with new products and services. The forward thinking and progressive companies allow any employee to come forward with an idea and thanks to collaborative technologies, doing so has never been easier. The concept of employee innovation is of course not new, but being able to scale it across a global company of many thousands of employees is. … The logic here is, why rely on the intelligence of a few when you can tap into the collective wisdom of many?”

Any company that deals with lots of customers (i.e., B2P) should appreciate the fact that people like dealing with people. Jerry Kaplan, author of Humans Need Not Apply, believes, “People who work in positions which require interpersonal relations can feel secure in their jobs for a long time to come.”[6] Although other pundits predict that jobs, such as those in call centers, are likely to replaced my AI systems, it’s well known that people hate having to punch their way through an automated phone system to reach a real person — and most people do prefer speaking with a real person. Why? David Hummels, a professor of economics at Purdue University, explains that humans still have a unique advantage that machines may never be able to emulate: our ability to respond to other humans. “We have evolved over 100,000 years to be exquisitely perceptive to visual and aural cues from other people around us,” Hummels states, “which is an important skill that machines may never be able to match.”[7] It makes sense, then, that human employees are also one of your company’s best sources of innovative ideas.

 

For the most part, your company’s customers are also human. That’s why Morgan asserts, “I’m a firm believer in ’employees first, customers second’.” In other words, after ensuring that your employees are tapped for new ideas, the next set of humans to whom you should look for innovative ideas are the ones who are most familiar with how your products and services are used — your customers. Morgan explains, “Customers interact with your brand on a daily basis. They experience your outages, they taste your products, they shop at your stores, they speak with your customer services representatives, and they interact with and buy your products.” Companies have learned (especially since the arrival of social media) that ignoring customer comments is not a very good idea. Many of today’s most forward-leaning companies have specifically asked customers to help them come up with ideas for their next product.

 

Morgan argues, however, that companies should look both ways (i.e., customer-facing and supplier-facing) when seeking new ideas. Morgan writes, “Many organizations around the world today don’t stand alone as independent entities. They work with and form alliances with suppliers and partners who they trust. Pretty much any organization you can think of today is somehow aligned with or supplied to another organization.” He continues:

“Partners and suppliers are oftentimes the lifeblood of thriving organizations because they provide many of the parts, services, and referrals that allow these companies to flourish. Without these types of ecosystems these companies would not be where they are today and chances are, many of them wouldn’t even be around anymore. This brings us to the third type of innovation ecosystem that companies must create for the future of work by teaming up with and innovating with partners and suppliers. Unfortunately many business leaders are still not comfortable sharing data information with their employees and customers let alone their partners and suppliers, but that is a mistake. … Creating this third innovation ecosystem with partners and suppliers does of course require a certain level of trust. But the idea of hoarding information to succeed is not one that will prevail in a world where knowledge and information is becoming commoditized. By opening up information and innovating with suppliers and partners both parties will win.”

Sharing information with suppliers has the added benefit of improving supply chain visibility — a capability that most pundits agree is going to be essential for success regardless of whether an innovation ecosystem is established. Much of that information (whether it’s used to promote innovation or visibility) will be exchanged through the Internet of Things, but Morgan argues that innovative ideas are more likely to be shared person-to-person. A fourth group of people that Morgan insists shouldn’t be ignored are competitors. “The organizations who team up with competitors realize that the smartest people in the world don’t always work for them,” Morgan explains, “and so they have to reach beyond their four walls to tap into top talent.” He elaborates:

“Teaming up with competitors actually happens all the time informally at conferences and events. How many times have you met someone at an event or a meet-up who happened to work for a competitor? Yet you still exchange ideas and share information. Innovating with competitors takes this further by creating formal programs that allow this to happen at scale and on a regular basis. Sometimes this is refereed to as coopetition.”

You also occasionally hear the term “frenemies” in this regard. The last group that Morgan writes about that shouldn’t be ignored is the public (i.e., people who are not employees, customers, suppliers, or competitors). “With public innovation programs,” Morgan explains, “organizations need to have a robust set of technologies and processes in place to manage the (likely) thousands of ideas that can come their way. Getting ideas isn’t always the hard part, being able to go from an idea to a product or service can sometimes be far more challenging.” He concludes, “I don’t recommend organizations start with this approach. Instead it is far more effective to start with employee facing innovation programs that allow the organization to test and properly develop a process and set of technologies to manage innovation.”

 

As I have noted in several past articles, I believe that the future is going to be characterized by human/machine collaboration. Although humans will likely come up with most of the good ideas (or good questions), I predict cognitive computing systems will enhance a company’s ability to improve ideas or answer complex questions that lead to better solutions or products.

 

Footnotes
[1] Jacob Morgan, “The 5 Types Of Innovation For The Future Of Work, Pt. 1: Employee Innovation,” Forbes, 27 July 2015.
[2] Jacob Morgan, “The 5 Types Of Innovation For The Future Of Work, Pt. 2: Customer Innovation,” Forbes, 29 July 2015.
[3] Jacob Morgan, “The 5 Types Of Innovation For The Future Of Work, Pt. 3: Partner And Supplier Innovation,” Forbes, 3 August 2015.
[4] Jacob Morgan, “The 5 Types Of Innovation For The Future Of Work, Pt. 4: Competitor Innovation,” Forbes, 5 August 2015.
[5] Jacob Morgan, “The 5 Types Of Innovation For The Future Of Work, Pt. 5: Public Innovation,” Forbes, 10 August 2015.
[6] Gregg Greenberg, “Rise of Robots in Labor Force May Spark Inequality Crisis,” The Street, 4 August 2015.
[7] Steve Talley, “You Won’t be Replaced by a Robot,” Scientific Computing, 8 September 2014.