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Software // Information Management

Practical Tools for New Ideas

Innovation is the wellspring of prosperity. This second part of a series looks at products that help spur new ideas - and prevent them from dying on the vine.

The cost component of the profit equation has received most of the attention in the past three or so years. But cost-cutting is now yielding diminishing returns. Furthermore, the strategic value of reducing costs has been neutralized by the fact that everyone has done a pretty thorough job of it. Going forward, improving business outcomes will depend more on attending to the revenue side of the equation. To increase revenues, we need to be able to innovate.

The technology sector continues to invest heavily in research and development (R&D). IBM, Microsoft, and Hewlett-Packard lead the way with more than $4 billion each in R&D spending according to their most recent fiscal year reporting. But the business of innovation is not just about R&D; it's about using innovation management technology at all levels and in all operational domains of an organization.

In part 1 of this series on innovation management, I defined innovation and its value, considered innovation as a business process, and outlined Gartner's five categories of innovation management products (see Resources). In this part, I discuss the technology used to automate parts of the innovation process: environmental scanning, road mapping, creative thinking, and idea management.

Environmental Scanning

Environmental scanning is "the acquisition of information about events, trends, and relationships in an organization's environment, the knowledge of which will be of assistance to top executives in identifying and understanding strategic threats and opportunities," according to F. J. Aguilar (see Resources). As far back as 1988, studies indicated that an estimated 53 percent of multinational companies had formal in-house scanning capabilities.

Businesses often use environmental scanning to underpin competitor intelligence and reputation management initiatives, as well as to monitor "megatrends," trends of widespread and major impact. They also use it to track the "weak signals" of emerging trends and to look out for "wild cards" — left-field events that may significantly affect the business.

Environmental scanning involves more than regular keyword searches on Google or other search engines. Traditionally, the starting point for a scanning process was the newspaper clipping service, which was usually outsourced even in the pre-Internet days. Today Internet business service providers such as Nexcerpt and CyberAlert use software agents to search online publications, Web sites, newswires, and newsgroups to find information of interest using keywords you supply.

However, most services go beyond using mere collections of keywords as the basis for a search and let you define complex Boolean queries, assign priorities to different information themes, restrict the scope of sources covered, and add content and context to the reports produced by the service before they are distributed by email to internal audiences within your organization.

Environmental scanning is an essential foundation for your own innovation process, as well as a means to track that of your competitors.

Road Mapping

How a business uses environmental scanning can be driven by or contribute to its product or organizational road maps. Technology companies, and especially software companies, are major advocates of road mapping, a technique that helps create a combined strategic, product, and marketing perspective for the stakeholders involved in delivering innovation. Road-mapping software is important to innovation because it helps to define, update, and visualize the route toward realizing an innovative product, service, or organizational change.

As more and more businesses operate as part of value webs — collaborative networks of business partners and customers that exploit their combined knowledge to create new kinds of products and services — clear road maps have become vital to keep all participants synchronized. Value webs generally include a driving brand leader, around which the other participants cluster. For example, the software supplier would be the leader in a value web that includes customers and business partners, such as value-added resellers (VARs) and independent software vendors (ISVs). In order for these participants to feel comfortable about their participation in the value web, they depend on regular and transparent roadmaps provided by the brand leader. Without these road maps, an innovative product or service may fail to execute on its vision, solely due to poor communication.

According to the 2002 "Roadmapping Software Survey Report" by the University of Cambridge Centre for Technology Management (see Resources), a software solution for technology road mapping is likely to consist of two major components:

  • A graphical presentation tool for displaying the road-mapping data
  • A central database/repository for storing the road-mapping data.

It's possible to use generic tools such as Microsoft PowerPoint or Microsoft Project to visualize individual road maps or to store the road-map steps and the links between them. But where road mapping is established as an integral part of corporate strategy development, more sophisticated software is required, such as Geneva Vision Strategist and Vision Synergy from the Learning Trust. Motorola uses this software to manage a strategic road-mapping effort that keeps track of some 10,000 future development programs. To find out more about this software, visit the Purdue University Center for Technology Roadmapping. (See Resources, under The Learning Trust).

Road-mapping software helps to create a workflow for innovation execution. This workflow helps all stakeholders understand what is being delivered and what their roles are in delivering it.

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