Managing innovation: Microsoft forum showcases tool, processes for successful product development

If you had an idea for a new product that you were sure would bring your employer significant revenue, would you know who in the company to contact about getting that product to market? If the answer is no, you’re among the majority of people employed by manufacturing companies that want to be innovative but don’t quite know how to pull it off.
By Sidney Hill, Jr., executive editor November 10, 2008

If you had an idea for a new product that you were sure would bring your employer significant revenue, would you know who in the company to contact about getting that product to market? If the answer is no, you’re among the majority of people employed by manufacturing companies that want to be innovative but don’t quite know how to pull it off.

In fact, a recent study out of New York-based Accenture found 55 percent of management teams in large corporations profess a commitment to innovation, while 59 percent of CEOs support the concept. But only 41 percent of companies are satisfied with the frequency at which they bring innovative ideas to market, and only 36 percent are satisfied with the time it takes them to turn an innovative idea into an actual product.

These numbers have prompted Microsoft to start multiple initiatives—both internal and external—to foster innovation within corporations. They involve development of a formal process and the use of Microsoft technology—all of which was on display at an Innovation Management Forum held in October at Microsoft’s Richmond, Wash., headquarters.

In addition to highlighting Microsoft’s own innovation initiatives, the forum featured outside speakers—some of whom exploded myths about what it takes for a company to be consistent innovator.

For instance, Daniel Chow, senior executive for process & innovation performance with Accenture, said his study of the innovation process has shown that industry laggards tend to subscribe to the long-held myth that innovation results from creativity and chaos while leading companies develop the processes, structures, tools, and training necessary to deliver innovation.

He pointed to breakfast food manufacturer Kellogg as a leading innovator, noting that it has an executive-level position “that is accountable for enabling and delivering the organization’s innovation capabilities, with success being measured by outcome-based metrics.”

A desire to support structured innovation programs underpins Microsoft’s efforts in this area, including its sponsorship of the Innovation Management Forum , according to Don Richardson, Microsoft’s worldwide solution director for innovation management.

Microsoft’s innovation initiatives include:

• Creating an internal organization known as the IDEAGENCY, which Microsoft employees can tap into to shepherd innovative ideas from concept to market;

• Working with partners in the independent software vendor community to develop solutions that support innovation processes in specific vertical industries; and

• An Innovation Process Management (IPM) initiative to help manufacturers understand how Microsoft collaboration technology like SharePoint and Microsoft Project can support corporate innovation programs.

Simon Floyd, worldwide industry technology strategist of innovation with Microsoft, performed a demonstration of how a company might use the Microsoft collaboration tools to develop a formal innovation program. The demonstration started with a fictional engineer employed by a sporting goods manufacturer. This engineer had an idea for developing a ski helmet with a Bluetooth headset attached so skiers would be better able to contact rescuer parties in the event of an accident.

The engineer opens a portal application and enters his idea into a system the company has established for capturing new ideas. There the idea is viewed by a person higher up in the organization who has been assigned to sort through ideas and present promising ones to upper management. Once this person approves the idea it is passed into another area where people from other departments—including marketing, purchasing, and manufacturing—can comment and offer suggestions for improving its potential for success.

A major part of the process is ensuring this product will help the companies meet strategic business goals, such as expanding into new markets or increasing the company’s share of an existing market. The key to making this all happen, Floyd says, is ready access to the collaborative technology platform to everyone who’s giving input to the product development process.

Daniel Rasmus, director of business insight for Microsoft, says processes supported by Microsoft technology help manufacturers “think beyond industrial era economics” when it comes to new product development, and that is essential for companies that wish to maintain leadership in this age of global business.