What’s your secret formula for innovation? Experts continue to debate the subject, and everybody seems to have a different answer. Steven Johnson, whose book “Where Good Ideas Come From” chronicles the history of innovation, says it all “comes from creating environments where … ideas can connect.” Others, like Stanford professor Tina Seelig, see innovation as a more complex blend of elements. Her “Innovation Engine” idea incorporates six internal and external factors: knowledge, imagination, attitude, resources, habitat and culture.
Here at NTT DATA, we have our own formula. I had the chance to discuss it recently when industry-leading research firm Gartner interviewed me for an entry in its Innovation Case Study Spotlight Series.
The spotlight report goes into more detail, but, boiled down, our formula is based on three best practices and go-to techniques.
- Define innovation priorities based on customer needs
- Foster a culture of innovation
- Develop and sustain the talent that’s needed to deliver optimal levels of innovation
While other companies likely deploy variations on these themes, the focus we’ve put on them for many years have engrained these practices into our DNA. And the results we’ve realized are significant.
A good example of our innovation in action can be found in the spotlight report. Partnering with customer Narita International Airport in Tokyo, NTT DATA delivered a high-precision airport navigation app leveraging radio frequency and geomagnetism to determine one’s position. Users can view a 3D map on their smartphones to help guide them toward preferred destinations. It’s the first app of its kind to be used in an airport in Japan.
Defining innovation priorities
Throughout history some organizations have succeeded by opening up innovation to a wide range of activities, with varying degrees of relevancy (and success) to their core business focus. At NTT DATA we concentrate more directly on one key attribute – developments that support our customers’ own innovation strategies. Initiatives could focus on one or more of the following aspects:
- Automating and optimizing business processes
- Integrating supplier, partner and customer ecosystems
- Reinventing the customer and employee experience
- Providing new digital products and services
- Creating new, disruptive business models.
Gathering customer needs for innovation is done a number of ways. We take a proactive stance by leveraging a planned portfolio of techniques including open innovation contests, global hackathons, digital bootcamps, customer visits, virtual labs, academia collaborations and centers of excellence demos. Based on current customer demand, our areas of focus these days include data and intelligence, intelligent automation, customer experience, Internet of Things (IoT), IT optimization and cybersecurity.
Fostering a culture of innovation
To build a culture of innovation, first you need to create a structure that nurtures innovation. NTT DATA currently operates several global centers of excellence (COEs), each focused on a specific domain. These CoEs act as innovation and business accelerators. They’ve provided digital competency in artificial intelligence (AI), agile/DevOps, blockchain and digital design, and starting this past year, intelligent automation, software engineering automation and IoT.
The CoEs are run by a technology and innovation steering committee (TISC). The TISC oversees corporatewide technology and innovation activities, and regional technology and innovation initiatives are aligned to the corporate direction. TISC coordinates virtually all aspects of innovation projects -- including innovation identification, acquisition, partnering, building intellectual property, and go-to-market and deployment/operational plans.
NTT DATA also founded an innovation school in Spain to train employees in the finer points of innovative thinking. The school, known internally as innCub3, provides a crash course in innovation. It conducts consulting, training and awareness programs to assess and increase innovation mindsets and learn innovation techniques. This also enables group learning via open laboratories and co-creation workshops on how to think in a customer-centric manner.
The innovation school encourages employees to generate and test creative ideas. Getting experience in real, challenging situations gives them the ability to generate “quick wins” and develop confidence as they pursue other innovation activities.
Developing and sustaining an innovation-focused talent base
Innovation initiatives won’t get far without a strong, skilled talent base. The question is, how do you build one? One way is to recruit creative and innovative talent externally from startups, corporations that are advanced in digital technology and/or management consulting firms. That’s expensive and uncertain. Our focus has always been on developing our own talent in-house to become creative and innovative, via collaboration with the CoE and working on customer projects.
Through the CoE, NTT DATA is targeting 5,000 employees to be trained in the selected digital competency. Professionals in AI (800), Agile/DevOps (300), blockchain (300), and digital design (550) have been trained while they worked on customer projects in these specific domains. We expect this number to increase, and in 2020, we added three new domains — intelligent automation, software engineering automation and IoT.
The innCub3 school plays an important role in the selection of top performers. The open labs inside the school help detect early adopters and elevate those curious about innovating. After initial sets of training activities, participants can request mentoring from innovation coaches to start practicing their creativity and innovation techniques with their respective teams.
Even though NTT DATA tries to focus innovation projects on is customer-related issues, we do open up an avenue for some freelance thinking. Each employee in the Tokyo headquarters, for example, can pursue 50 hours of self-directed innovation time per year. They use this time to develop their own innovation ideas, collaborate with others and explore new areas of innovation.
Innovation formulas vary from company to company. The important thing is to commit to the practice and come up with your own tactics.
What’s your formula?
To read more about NTT DATA’s own innovation strategies, visit the Gartner Innovation Case Study.
Gartner Innovation Case Study Spotlight Series: NTT DATA’s Go-To Innovation Techniques , Tsuneo Fujiwara, 28th October 2020.
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