R&D 100 Conference: How to Successfully Scout for Innovation

R&D 100 Staff
Nov. 12, 2018, 12:29 p.m.

How do companies know what is innovative?  What deserves investment? How should companies identify which direction to move in so they utilize their resources in the most productive way?

Scott Kirsner—the co-founder and editor of Innovation Leader, a research firm for executives in R&D focusing on innovation, strategy and new product development—is hoping to help answers all of these questions at the 2018 R&D 100 Conferencein Orlando. On Nov. 16, as part of his second-day keynote, “Finding the Future: How the Best Organizations Scout Emerging Technology,” Kirsner will discuss how large companies should be scouting for innovation and how they can introduce these newly learned concepts to the rest of the company.

Kirsner recently gave an exclusive interview with R&D Magazine regarding his company, his upcoming talk and the biggest mistakes companies make when scouting for new innovations.

R&D Magazine: What are you hoping is the key takeaway from your talk?

Kirsner: I hope the key takeaway will be that most organizations, given how much innovation is happening outside of their walls, could probably do a better job of scouting emerging trends and technologies.

R&D Magazine: Do you think that this is something that is a big challenge for a lot of organizations?

Kirsner: I think that is a challenge. The way that I would frame it is that most organizations tend to scout in one of three places. They go to trade shows and industry events and look for stuff there, which is obviously very close to the market and already privatized, so that has its issues. They scout in academia, where things are very far from the market and sometimes people have relationships with their alma mater or great universities that do work in their sector. And some people scout in the startup world and that is kind of the sexiest place to look right now because people believe, probably wrongly, that all the important innovations are happening in startups today. I think the challenge tends to be that a lot of organizations favor one of those things over the other and they don’t have a holistic sense of balancing what they are doing in all three of those places.

R&D Magazine: Can you give some examples of some of the things that these companies could be doing that they are not doing?

Kirsner: We did a survey late last year about scouting trends and emerging technologies and 55 percent of companies said they have multiple groups or teams doing it. One issue is are those teams aligned and kind of covering different terrain rather than duplicating each other’s efforts and meeting with the same startups, visiting the same universities or going to the same trade shows?  There is an issue in making sure you are aligned with the current strategy and often you say that the R&D group may have its own ten-year vision of how the industry is going to evolve and sometimes is aligned with the overall corporate strategy and sometimes it’s not.

We found most companies, 78 percent of companies, said once they’ve done all the scouting and  gathered information on what’s happening in their universe, access to that information is either somewhat limited or extremely limited to people in the company. So while you’ve done a great job of scouting, not enough people have easy access to that information. Surprisingly, only 22 percent of people said access to this scouting data is easy for others in the company. The last challenge I would add on is, often scouting is done by a really small group of people in the company, so the last challenge in the company is just can others in the company contribute in some way what they’re seeing. Most companies would say there isn’t a way to contribute observations for those employees.

R&D Magazine: So what you’re saying is there is often a disconnect in terms of communication between different parts of the company?

Kirsner: That shouldn’t surprise anyone who is part of a big company. The top three challenges that emerged when we did this survey, one was connectivity of the business. The second was identifying what area to scout, you can’t pay attention to everything either schematically or geographically. The third big one was time.

R&D Magazine: Are there any examples you can give of companies that do a good job at this in terms of scouting and staying up on emerging technologies and trends?

Kirsner: One organization I would say is Thomson Reuters just because it is a global organization. They’ve been very thoughtful of where to put their innovation centers and I also think they are very thoughtful on focusing their scouting activity on stuff that they know is going to be relevant to their different businesses, so not just getting seduced by the cool stuff. I think the carmakers and Silicon Valley are doing a pretty good job of scouting and understanding how in-car entertainment systems are changing and what’s going on with autonomy. I don’t know if it is yet permeating its product lines. The last one that I would mention, we talked to the head of R&D at Kellogg’s recently and they are doing a real interesting job of actually introducing new products around shifts in the way people eat. Being more conscious in health, wellness, and probiotics.

R&D Magazine: Why is this area interesting to you?

Kirsner: When I talk about Innovation Leader I say that we are a community of people in innovation and R&D roles, mostly in big organizations. We as a company just try to provide information and research and we do events for those people and try to help them solve challenges, but largely it is connecting them with their peers.

This article is based on an interview with R&D Editor Laura Panjwani