Organizations increasingly seek new forms of innovation—and, for themselves, transformation—by engaging in co-creation with the suppliers, clients, and consumers that comprise their value streams. What insights might be gained from organizations that have begun to realize their potential for leadership by embracing openness as a core element of their charter? In this article innovation architect Doug Collins reflects on the progress that the Beijing Genomics Institute (B.G.I.) has made on this front. What lessons does B.G.I. have to teach organizations that decide to paddle with the Digital Age currents as opposed to against them?
The Gene Factory
In January The New Yorker published, “The Gene Factory,” by Michael Specter. Specter describes the rise of the Beijing Genomics Institute (B.G.I.). Starting small in Shenzhen a few years ago, B.G.I. today produces a quarter or more of the world’s genomic data.
Specter catches us up on B.G.I.’s progress at an opportune time. B.G.I., through its accelerating work to map the human genome, forces us to confront the implications of our new found knowledge.
- Does embryo selection turn into a form of preemptive eugenics?
- Will personalized medicine, tailored to our specific gene sequence, radically minimize disease?
- Where might we redraw the line between nature and nurture?
“The Gene Factory” offers food for thought, too, for people who pursue externally focused collaborative innovation. Specter reports that, early on, B.G.I. decided to publish the full and complete databases of the genomic maps it decoded. One can visit B.G.I.’s resource site to explore at no charge the genetic codes for the giant panda, the cucumber, and the camel.
The Two Ingredients
For the past three years I have worked with a variety of organizations on advancing their practice of collaborative innovation. Of late, I have noted a substantive shift in their interest from pursuing the practice internally with colleagues to pursuing the practice externally with suppliers, clients, and—for brand-driven entities—consumers.
Two factors seem to be driving the shift.
Firstly, I see confidence borne out of maturity: organizations have cut their teeth on the internally focused version of the practice. They have learned how to convene to arrive at the critical question to pose to the community. They have learned how to navigate the ideation flow.
Secondly, I see relentless pressure to perform—specifically, to transformatively improve the organization by pursuing innovation across the three horizons of growth. The Digital Age is reconfiguring the DNA of the firm many times faster than nature allows us to evolve our own genetic code.
Researchers such as Eric Von Hippel find that the most effective means of realizing authentic transformation is to engage in co-creation with the firm’s end users. Organizations are beginning to cast aside the reservations they have with pursuing greater openness with the promise that, when they do so, they can realize the desired, positive transformation.
Lessons to Be Learned from B.G.I.
B.G.I. offers two lessons for people who decide to pursue their practice external to their organization.
Firstly, reach a shared understanding of what the organization does—what knowledge the people in the organization gain—that might be of value to people outside its walls. The B.G.I. example would seem to be straightforward. This organization produces information on the genomic code faster than anyone else on the planet. In the right hands, this information can help us solve problems and open doors to the human existence.
The B.G.I. charter—and the opportunities it opens for pursuing openness—would seem to be hard to beat. Yet, every organization produces something—knowledge encapsulated in the form of a product or a service that is of interest to someone: the immediate set of consumers paying for this knowledge and potentially a new set of consumers who might find value in the knowledge, were it presented to them in a new, open form. The B.G.I. databases serve as a good, tangible example.
Secondly, map out as a conscious act the organization’s platform strategy. That is, even in the earliest days of experimenting with the openness strategy, articulate the expected quid pro quo in terms of what each party gains from going down this path together.
On this second front, B.G.I. likewise serves as a good case in point. What did they gain? They gained initially recognition and ultimately reputation as the “go to” resource for the latest genomic data. This reputation opens the door for them to offer as a service deeper intelligence—knowledge—to their clients on the implications of how the data they produce might lead to breakthroughs in minimizing disease or maximizing crop yields. The likelihood that they would enjoy this trusted advisor position, relative to the incumbents in the field, without first having pursued a policy of openness would have been close to zero.
My crystal ball, which I polish with each client engagement, tells me that, over the next couple years, the expectations of Eric Von Hippel will come to pass. The relentless immediacy and transparency of the Digital Age will cause organizations to pursue the externally focused form of collaborative innovation as a means of differentiating themselves through the resulting innovation and through the intimacy that co-creation brings. The end state of meaningful client engagement is co-creation.
Are you responsible for your company’s direction? Are you starting to think along these lines?
If so, then I encourage you to read “The Gene Factory.” It’s a fascinating tale in its own right. Have a look at the B.G.I. site. Consider how this organization pursued openness. How does it go about packaging and presenting its knowledge in a way that external parties can make ready use of it? What does B.G.I. give? What does B.G.I. get?
Then, ask yourself two questions.
- Firstly, what knowledge does my organization produce that we might package and present in a way that others might find useful?
- Secondly, what quid pro quo do I envision? How might my new-found policy of openness aid and transform my vision and my mission for the organization in the Digital Age?
You do not have to have full and complete answers to both questions: a set of hypotheses that leads to experimentation will do fine to start. However, I anticipate that your organization will be a laggard—and in time an evolutionary dead end—if you fail to find a way to express the authentic forms of leadership that openness demands. You will leave no trace.