All companies manage information to some degree. This will depend on what type of activity they are engaged in, their sector, their size, and the stability of their operating and competitive environment, as well as many other factors. Their need to manage information will range from that needed to coordinate their activities, up to complex surveillance systems of their environment and what the competition is up to.
A company’s ability to innovate depends in large degree on information management. Businesses, like people, do not usually come up with great ideas from nowhere. Innovation, in a large number of cases, comes from exposure to new ideas, to different environments, to training, and to other situations. Companies, like people, do not generate ideas from thin air. Innovation, in most cases comes from exposure to new ideas, to different environments, to educational processes, and to other situations related to exploration. Situations that, furthermore, many businesses tend to consider as exclusively the preserve of the Innovation Department, which supposedly have a vocation for specialization oriented to productivity. But the most common side effect of such an approach is simply to deprive the company of innumerable opportunities that could come out of a vision that employees in other departments have.
At root, many businesses’ supposed vocation for innovation suffers from a fundamental problem: it’s a lie. The reality is all too often that the directors of these companies prefer environments characterized by stability and tend to dismiss any innovative idea immediately because it threatens their understanding of balance. Hiding innovation away in a specific department is a way of trying to control it, to stop it from distracting the company, where it can be filtered before becoming a cause for concern. This process, which sadly tends to characterize the growth of many companies, hides the process of blocking the mechanisms that lead to innovation, one that usually accompanies the fossilization of its leaders.
How should companies that want to create an environment characterized by innovation manage information? In the first place, they need to understand that the company wins when its workforce is alert to what is going on around them, in the widest sense. Dedicating time to reading the newspaper in the morning, or flicking through the sports pages while having a cup of coffee, helps mental balance more than innovation as such, although breaks can, in many cases, help the creative processes, or create opportunities for serendipity.
But in general, casual, non-systematic reading does little for innovation, because it offers few opportunities to follow ideas and build up on them individually or collectively later.
Ideally, companies need to look for mechanisms for specialist reading: in the same way that many tools offer popularity indices, we should be able to offer our workforce environments within which they can keep up to date on what is happening in the industry, combined with other, freely chosen, sources. At the same time, we need to incentivize coming up with new ideas and contributing them through tools that allow for the creation of repositories and to contribute to them through commentaries or simply through participation statistics. A company with people who have access to common sources allows for the development of conversations and creativity associated with such sources, without preventing inspiration coming from other areas. Combining this with internal indicators can help create an informed environment, one that encourages exploration, first mentally, and then in a wider context, opportunities.
Companies that have experimented with these types of environment, even at the level of LinkedIn groups, tend to show improvements in their innovation climate, at the same time developing social environments within which employees can discover motivating factors. In the post-industrial era, the best worker isn’t the most specialized one, focusing on a specific task, but the person who has a broad vision, able to see the big picture, and that allows him or her to come up with ideas that on many occasions may have no direct relationship with their job.
A company that lacks these kinds of inputs cannot, however hard it tries, be innovative, because it lacks the material to feed innovation. But a company where these inputs are badly managed, and that doesn’t offer an environment within which to process, discuss, comment, and store these inputs when they are considered relevant, also misses out on opportunities and tends to play down the importance of such information. In the final analysis, this information management can also be linked to outputs, becoming an internal showcase, or an external one at that, commenting on news that in many cases is linked to developments outside the company, and often initiated by its competitors, allowing the company to see itself as innovative, aware of what is going on around it.
These are outputs that, when well managed, can in many cases become websites whose development can, with each day, become a kind of magazine covering the sector or topics related to it: much more than just an electronic pamphlet. These are outputs that also encourage indicators and metrics that can provide new feedback.
In short, all this is no more than managing information. But in practice something that is very hard to do, and one of the factors that most impact on the company’s sustained ability to provide a creative and innovative environment. This is also a model that clearly characterizes the shift by companies from an industrial economy characterized by an emphasis on productivity to a post-industrial one where other factors are increasingly playing a bigger role.