Science & Technology

Innovation: More Than a Buzzword

It’s happening. You’ve definitely already heard about it. IoT, Cloud computing, Quantum computing, Big Data, Blockchain, AI, VR, Machine Learning, etc.  Now more than ever before, you’ll see [insert buzzword here] in various company press releases and in the headlines of almost every tech article, promising ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ (and sometimes even ‘disruptive innovation’!), but are these just empty promises, being called out to gain the attention of stakeholders and potential investors?

In the past few years, technologies such as AR/VR have gained traction in the gaming industry, although they would provide numerous benefits for sectors such as health and military. Blockchain technology is now starting to appear in areas other than cryptocurrencies, such as healthcare, supply chain management, and more. Big data and analytics coupled with machine learning have helped many companies make smarter business decisions in order to promote growth. The point is, these technologies have so much potential to change our world for the better.

Imagine the world of Industry 4.0, where IoT allows devices and plant equipment to communicate seamlessly. Where an engineer or operator could receive a malfunction alarm in real-time from a plant that is hundreds of kilometres away, and be able to monitor and troubleshoot that equipment via their smartphone. With AI, we could even have equipment smart enough to shut down and troubleshoot itself. Analytics can help make production more efficient by optimizing the use of energy and materials to cut down on waste and defects. This vision is within reach, and some companies are already starting to implement ‘smart’ factories.

But the majority of progress is slow. Getting every company – especially well-established ones – to adopt these new technologies, is much more challenging. There’s just too much at stake, and most companies are more concerned with turning a quarterly profit to appease shareholders. Large companies are structured to be stable and sustainable, so it is hard for innovation to ripple through as it does in small companies and startups. It is hard to fit a new piece into a mosaic that has already been finished – many other pieces need to be moved.

Take, for example, a large industrial company who has recently acquired a smaller tech company that provides AR solutions for manufacturing. They hope that they will be able to integrate the smaller company’s technology into their own framework. This integration is where the challenge lies; most of the workforce is not familiar with the potential of AR, so it is difficult to see where it can fit within their infrastructure. It also appears that the costs outweigh the benefits, as outfitting a single plant worker with a Microsoft HoloLens costs about $5,000, and for what? So they can see instructions right in front of their face instead of turning their head a few degrees to look at a screen or sheet of paper?

Let’s say they start using this HoloLens system for real-time training or troubleshooting. They would need engineers that are capable of developing and using AR applications, so those engineers would need training as well, which requires more time alongside their day-to-day work. Extend this process into other teams, and eventually to different global locations within the same company – it will take time for everyone to catch up.

This is a relatively small example though, in the context of multi-million dollar corporations. Larger changes, such as converting a factory into a smart factory needs to account for other things; the roles of existing workers, data security, continuity and reliability, revenue stream, etc. There are many pieces to the puzzle, which all need to be planned out carefully in order to ensure smooth sailing into the ‘future.’ Either way, such a large-scale change is a big risk to take, which means an ‘all hands on deck’ approach is probably the best way to move forward – which means getting everybody involved.

Making Innovation Work

Startups seem to have the ‘innovation’ thing down because they are idea-oriented. Startups must push forward with this idea despite the high-risk environment because if they can’t, they’ll crash and burn. This means they need to constantly seek solutions for the problems they encounter on the way, all while lacking capital.

What big companies do have, for the most part, is capital. This added layer of financial security means that companies should be able to take more risks – maybe they could innovate even better without the fear of crashing and burning. The modern corporation could learn a few things from how startups are structured. Not just in a ‘free massages’ and ‘ping-pong tournaments’ kind of way.

What successful startups get right is that all members work cohesively as a team and they use an entrepreneurial mindset – they are always seeking new solutions. Sadly, many workers in large companies often feel as though they are just a small cog in a large machine, that they have no real effect on the state of the company. The motivation to innovate and to implement new technologies needs to come from within the individual, not just from upper management spewing fancy buzzwords at team meetings. But how can we change the mindset of an entire workforce?

Really, innovation needs some sort of breeding ground. The right environment can go a long way, and cubicles just won’t cut it.  What about a sharable ‘Innovation Space’? A place where any worker could go and contribute new ideas, collaborate with others, or just learn new skills. Let’s face it, not every employee is busy for all 8 hours of the workday. After finishing their important work tasks, if a worker finds themselves with not much to do, they could visit an ‘Innovation Space’ and use their brainpower to do more for the company. Designers and architects say that an ‘Innovation Space’ could even reduce stress among workers.

This setup would allow employees from all departments and backgrounds to come to collaborate and share ideas, which would add a sort of ‘open source’ aspect to projects. Anyone who is skilled with a particular tool or software, no matter what department they work for, could complete a specific task. This is opposite to the traditional approach, where a team or department has their own project to complete, and there is no way for people outside of the project team to contribute, even if they have the necessary skills. Using our HoloLens example from earlier, instead of training busy engineers to develop AR applications, other workers could learn this skill in their free time, and even find more uses of this technology within their own teams and departments.

To add more appeal to this ideology, incentives could be considered. Some companies already incentivize good work and behaviour with points systems, and expanding this system to reward fresh ideas and collaboration would be a win-win scenario for both the corporation and the individual.

The moral of the story is that in a rapidly-evolving technological climate, some companies need to do more to keep up. There are many breakthroughs that have been made in the past decade which could substantially benefit our species. Utilizing these technologies to their fullest capacity requires an effort from all employees, not just from upper management. Big companies should take some pointers from the way startups handle their business, and give individual employees the option to work in the way that works best for them.

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