Collaborate to Innovate

How can IT advance making innovation a core competency? Key to your success is collaboration: Find out what inventive software providers are doing to support collaborative ingenuity.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

February 20, 2004

10 Min Read

The concluding part of this series focuses on the essential role of collaboration-and what software solution providers are developing to support innovation.

They say that on the Internet, content is king.

But when it comes to innovation, collaboration is key. There will always be ivory-tower thinkers and iconoclastic product designers: but in terms of monetizing innovation, it's hard to beat the power of a diverse group of people coming at an idea from different perspectives. Collaboration is likely to have optimum impact when organizations take an idea and go about converting it into a new product or service.

In Part I of this series on innovation management, I defined innovation and its value, considered innovation as a business process, and outlined Gartner Inc.'s five categories of innovation management products. In Part II, I discussed the technology used to automate parts of the innovation process, including environmental scanning, road mapping, creative thinking, and idea management. In this concluding installment, I will consider collaborative design and product development and their part in the innovation management life cycle.

Collaborative Innovation

Many of today's organizations are geographically dispersed and divided by different kinds of organizational hierarchies and management matrixes, all of which are dependent on an array of information management systems. Collaborative innovation technology has to provide the means for a group of people to work together within and across organizational boundaries and to leverage existing information repositories. Inevitably, this means providing the ability to work over the Internet and to integrate diverse application assets into the innovation process.

Idea management vendors, discussed in Part II, recognize the need for stakeholder diversity. BrainBank, for example, supplies four versions of its Idealink software for developing the ideas of employees, customers, suppliers, and shareholders. Vendors of product life-cycle management (PLM) solutions also recognize that few products will get to market without across-the-firewall collaboration of customers and suppliers in the product development process.

Today, more and more organizations are operating as part of value-webs that demand close cooperation between customer, supplier, and reseller partners. This has been the case for some time in the automotive industry, and is also the standard operating paradigm for many technology companies. As Michael Dell puts it, "Collaborative R&D between IT buyers, vendors, and partners is central to future innovation." When a customer on Dell's "make-to-order" Web site customizes a product to meet their needs, they are in effect collaborating with Dell and its suppliers as well as helping Dell understand the PC configurations customers are looking for today — not yesterday.

However, collaborative innovation is not just about customer-driven innovation, community Web sites, or a fixed methodology that uses hard-coded rules to drive the process forward. Instead, it depends on diverse teams representing a wide range of stakeholder interests, working face-to-face and online, following and adapting to the generative rules that emerge from solving problems as they arise. And when collaborative innovation is focused on the product/service development phase — where vision is transformed into reality — then visualization also becomes important. This is when the look, feel, or experience of a realized idea gradually assumes more and more visibility in the process.

Design to Development

If you just want to kick off a low-cost collaborative design initiative focused on exposing your idea to a wide-ranging group and facilitating shared thinking, a ThinkCycle could be a good way to start. A ThinkCycle has been described as "a shared online space for designers, engineers, domain experts, and stakeholders to discuss, exchange, and construct ideas towards design solutions in critical problem domains." It aims to evangelize collaborative design among a noncommercial community to generate innovative dialog.

Most commercial organizations shoot for deeper functionality. A 2001 survey by PriceWaterhouseCoopers (now a part of IBM) reported that 55 percent of CEOs of the 427 fastest-growing U.S. businesses innovate through new product development methodologies.

Volvo used Centric Software's Centric Innovation product suite to help synchronize design teams based in Los Angeles and Gothenburg, Sweden. Through this effort, Volvo maximized the number of programs taken to market, reduced the market "entry-ticket," and shortened cycle time by half. A key differentiator in Centric's approach is the availability of a fully configurable 3D environment to create virtual project team rooms that support a richer online collaboration experience. It may seem obvious that visualization is useful in a car design project: but it's just as important in designing a new hamburger.

Formation Systems supplies the Optiva Application Platform to support innovation in the food and beverage industry by automating product development "from Concept to Commercialization". This solution supports the front end of PLM by helping to automate a new product development process through support of the following steps:

  • Defining customer requirements

  • Creating product specifications

  • Designing formulas and packaging

  • Testing customer feedback

  • Reviewing finished goods specification and regulatory requirements

  • Establishing production recipes to drive manufacturing scale-up.

Clearly, this kind of product development technology completes the kind of innovation cycle outlined in Figure 1 that can benefit from using many of the products discussed in this series.

Figure 1 Examples of semantics rules that are deeply embedded within applications.

ERP Embraces Innovation

Collaborative design and product development processes can leverage many other corporate information assets, such as customer interactions in the CRM system, bills of material and product pricing in ERP/SCM, employee skill registers in HR, and plans or component images in the engineering department's CAD system. So it should come as no surprise that leading ERP vendor SAP has already started to embrace the domain of innovation management with its new xApp (cross-application-application) called xPD (Product Development).

For those who are not familiar with xApps, the idea is to deliver a new kind of application solution that crosses other information assets to create a new value proposition. Needless to say, most SAP users have a lot of information assets to integrate, both within and outside of SAP's ERP systems. The xApps approach is the realization of "Packaged Composite Applications," an influential vision articulated by Dan Woods in a book of the same name. The approach leverages the SAP portal to assemble the application's user interface and SAP NetWeaver technology to provide the plumbing support needed to create and maintain the application integration on which each xApp depends.

SAP's xPD supports three phases within the product development domain, which SAP calls discover, define and design. Discover focuses on idea management but with the key addition of integration to possible idea sources such as the CRM system. Define focuses on a collaborative process of product concept definition, again with an emphasis on integration with ERP, PLM and supplier relationship management (SRM) assets. Design emphasizes mapping of the original driving concepts to the product design and integration with project management systems to manage the task-flows of the design process.

SAP's xPD is the first in a series of xApps that SAP plans to launch in this area. The others are the following:

  • Product Launch, to improve quality of mass production and shipment and market readiness for product introduction

  • Continuous Product Improvement, to maximize return on existing products and optimize product release cycles

  • Product Phase Out, to understand implications of product phase out and align them with product replacement.

When innovation is just another module in an ERP system, we'll know that innovation management has truly become a core competency of every business.

SAP is not the only industry heavyweight seeing the potential for enterprise innovation solutions. IBM has created a partnership with IDe to provide product innovation management (PIM) best practices and implementation services to complement IDe's IDweb PIM software. IDweb focuses on what IDe calls "development chain management" (DCM) and handles phased or "stage-gate" new product development processes that can extend from product concept, to product launch and distribution, to end-of-life concerns. The sidebar describes the kind of competencies that DCM claims to support.

If you've followed this series on innovation management, you'll know I've selectively covered a broad spectrum of technology, ranging from sub-$100 creative thinking tools to PLM solutions that could cost millions of dollars in software and services. But it's important to note that all this technology only supports the innovation process. You also need an innovation-centric corporate leadership and culture, not to mention individuals, at whatever level in the company, who are open-minded and are looking for market discontinuities. Innovation management is as much about encouraging creative and collaborative people as it is about process and products.

Stewart Mckie is an independent consultant and technology writer specializing in analytic, enterprise resource management, and Web services applications. Reach him via his Web site at

15 Things You Can Do With Development Chain Management

  1. Select the right projects to invest in; allocate the appropriate resources in the right sequence among multiple projects; and leverage lessons learned from running multiple concurrent projects.

  2. Integrate project, resource, and portfolio management in the context of your unique development process.

  3. Reconcile top-down strategy from senior management with the bottom-up details of project plans and resource assignments.

  4. Enter, analyze, and view product schedules, resource capacity, and assignments from standard Web browsers (Internet Explorer or Netscape) in real time.

  5. Set up the phase (or stage) process for each product portfolio; manage cross-functional project teams and decision boards; create the activity structure (steps, tasks, and milestones) associated with different types of projects; and forecast suggested resource needs for each type of project.

  6. Provide a flexible means of reinforcing structured development by facilitating the creation of a repeatable and sustainable development process while still allowing innovation by customizing plans.

  7. Configure multiple partner centers and exchange designated information within the context of your unique product development process with partners, customers, suppliers, or consultants.

  8. Give designated partners access to the information they need while protecting your interests and core competencies.

  9. Use a common baseline to evaluate and prioritize projects for funding, sequencing, and resource allocation.

  10. Analyze and consolidate information across multiple product portfolios.

  11. Create user-definable templates that contain standard project information such as structure (phases, steps, and tasks), cycle times, resource and skills required, deliverables, and so on.

  12. Integrate the resource needs, requests, and assignments with the project schedule and resource capacity.

  13. Anticipate resource bottlenecks ahead of time because all active and planned projects are managed with the same data source.

  14. Use a resource management dashboard to get a quick overview of new resource requests, projects using resources from their group, and planned projects that require using resources from their group.

  15. Get project highlights such as slipped items, key schedule items, calendar items, notices, action items, and team members from a project management portal.


R&D Leaders

Innovation is more than research and development, but R&D is one likely indicator of an innovative business. According to Technology Review's 2003 Corporate R&D Scorecard (see some leading R&D spenders are:

The Ideal Weight

In part 1 of this series, I discussed how "scanning" is a foundation for any innovation management process. By continually scanning a number of knowledge bases, companies can benefit from a vast repository of existing knowledge to drive or inform their innovation process. Invention Machine's Goldfire Intelligence is an example of a product designed to use advanced searching techniques to scour patent databases, scientific content, public research sites and internal personal or company-level databases. This kind of scanning can also support attempts to align innovation initiatives with existing intellectual property (IP) and future IP strategies. To make it easier to manage the morass of information available, Goldfire Intelligence offers topic-based categorization, automatic patent summarization, and mining of bibliographic information to generate company, inventor, and technology profiles. Collaboration isn't just about people working together; it's also about combining knowledge from many system and database sources to create a coherent picture of what's out there and what's on the way.


Related Articles at

Part I: "Let Innovation Thrive?," January 1, 2004

Part II: "Practical Tools for New Ideas," February 7, 2004


Centric Software:

Formation Systems:


Michael Dell quoted in Information Week Jan 27, 2003




Never Miss a Beat: Get a snapshot of the issues affecting the IT industry straight to your inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights