The world’s best innovators – Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk to name just a few – have all shown at one time or another that simply building quality products and services for customers is not enough. Businesses that want to truly be customer-first must continually upgrade and improve their offerings – connecting new ideas, customer feedback and emerging technologies to always innovate and deliver seamless products and services, that surprise and delight customers beyond what competitors can offer.
The need to not only create products and services to match high customer expectations, but to put them through cycles of self-improvement is a form of customer obsession. Businesses that seek this never-ending drive for improvement is the reason why R&D investment is seen as a platform to get ahead in the innovation race and stay there.
But having the ambition for sustained R&D and actually seeing it through are two very separate things. And the key blocker is not available budget, as you might expect.
• According to research from Innovolo Group, 22% of global executives say that not having enough great ideas is one of the biggest obstacles to innovation ROI. That’s almost one in four businesses that are crying out for sources of inspiration.
• And even when ideas are flowing, it’s an inability to translate them into new products, services and strategies, at pace, that is putting some organisations at risk of failure – according to one of our own studies, Innovating in the Exponential Economy, carried out with Professor Feng Li, Chair of Information Management at Bayes Business School at City, University of London. This argument is further explored here.
At VMware, we put around 22% of revenue back into R&D and have always been and always hope to be a disruptive innovator, a co-innovator with our partners, and a sustainable innovator. Just recently for example, we opened our new R&D office in Dublin to drive local innovation and greater diversity in the software industry. But these blockers show innovation needs more than money. To turn an idea into something tangible, it needs an environment to thrive.
Building a home to capture R&D innovation in your business
There was a time when business innovation was considered top secret and the preserve only of the C-suite and super geeks. Closely guarded organisational IP that was dispensed on a very much need-to-know basis.
Trade secrets still exist, of course, but in an era of inclusivity, attitudes towards innovation are evolving. In gradually opening up and expanding channels of communication through technology and travel and changing business cultures, ideas are being spawned from all company corners and it’s a hugely influential factor in the products hitting the market today.
Our own annual RADIO (Research & Development Innovation Offsite) event is a good example of a breeding ground for innovation. This year’s RADIO conference was led by our CTO, Kit Colbert and his team (OCTO), where engineers at all levels within VMware came together like every year, to spitball ideas. Think of Dragon’s Den at scale meets a science fair, with individuals or teams pitching their great idea, be it a new app, a new work-around, an enhanced service, a better way to build products or the next new AI invention.
In fact, throughout the year, any one of our 38,000 employees can submit an idea to be showcased at the event and considered for adoption by the company. Borathon, for example, is a type of hackathon fondly named by our engineers after one of the original code repositories, which was named after islands: Bora Bora. This type of session enables our people to collaborate around a theme on Flings, features, proof-of-concepts, hacks, or new workflows, as well as build a culture of creativity and enthusiasm for our products.
Some of the greatest innovations in our company history have come from these types of engagements and little wonder that VMware itself has been the source of more than 5,500 patents over the years. As a market disruptor, many of VMware’s products have originated from this collaborative culture.
This is proof if it were needed, that in a world of connectivity, nothing stands alone. Quite the opposite, in fact. By creating an environment for inspiration to thrive, voices can be heard, and ideas brought to life. Whether it is from celebrating customer achievements, university partnerships or new business units specifically designed to incubate, capturing, and acting on brilliant ideas has become a major metric for business success. Turning ideas into reality - focusing on outcomes - has been a transformational force here.
True R&D innovation requires everyone
It’s clear today that innovation is not decided by a small handful of people but by everyone. Seniority and experience do not automatically guarantee a seat at the ideas table and the fact that companies are waking up to the fact that ideas can come from anywhere is a good thing.
R&D is the hidden jewel, the DNA of a company’s very existence, but it is not a job for one person or a team – its full potential is in the coming together of ideas, from the graduate to the seasoned architect to the executive assistant to the CEO. Some of our best ideas have come from our technical folks in our Global Field, working with customers directly on real outcomes and driving change and innovation back into the heart of our R&D. That should not be a fight for them, it should be supported, encouraged, and essentially expected.
Nobody needs to reinvent the wheel but simply by being open, sharing ideas and contributing to the debate, influence can be exerted, and progress made.
Innovation is all about culture. Culture is constantly evolving; both changing with and being enabled by technology. We should be excited by that, embracing it and rushing with open arms to meet it.