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Does your company need an innovation lab?

John Brandon | March 8, 2016
Bi-modal IT may be tech buzzwords du jour, but creating a separate department (often in its own physical space) to do nothing but pure R&D is still an enticing prospect for embracing the innovator’s dilemma.

“Having a group of folks focused on innovation can be far more effective but only if there is some kind of cross pollination otherwise you can have an independent group coming up with products that aren’t implemented and processes in search of problems,” says analyst Rob Enderle with Enderle Group. “There is a real art in balancing the group’s independence with keeping it connected to the business. Too much connection and you don’t get the innovation, too little and it becomes redundant.”

2. IBM Research - Austin 

There’s no question IBM is one of the best examples of how to build and maintain an innovation lab. At its Austin, Texas facility, director Kevin Nowka can even take you a tour using a robot that lets you video conference with him and “walk” around the lab. Some of their key innovations include early pilots of sensor networks for the Internet of Things, research on processor cores and an innovative email tool that lets you revise a message before its read

Nowka says it’s important for any business to decide how they will fund the innovation lab, that it might not always be a revenue producer but will extend the capabilities of the company. He says you also have to identify “the customer” of the lab, whether that is other businesses who will partner with you (as is the case with IBM) or an actual end-user. 

“An innovation lab gives you the ability to test out and experience and experiment with new technologies and, more importantly, to find out how they will integrate with existing business processes or enhance them,” says Nowka, explaining that this “mad scientist” approach is critical because you never know what might come out of a lab when you take highly disparate products – such as sensors and wireless networks – in the same environment. 

He says it’s also important to identify the roles in a lab. You will need technical folks, but also people who can establish and build relationships with outside partners and “plumber types” who can run cables and do some of the physical work involved. He says building an innovation lab is like creating a jigsaw puzzle, but it’s often hard to know which pieces you need. 

They key, he says, is to understand the scope – is it intended as a proof-of-concept for upper management, is it more for partners and customers to experiment, or is it more about creating something brand new? PUND-IT’s King mentioned how quantify this is important because you have to know the outcome of the lab and what it will produce before ever building one. 

 

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