Our Guide to the Summer 2020 Issue

These summaries will help you navigate our summer 2020 lineup.

Reading Time: 8 min 


Accelerating Innovation Through a Network of Ecosystems

Elizabeth J. Altman and Frank Nagle

A United Nations agency with a sweeping mission and sprawling global presence may not seem a likely model for new techniques for accelerating innovation, but the authors’ research belies that assumption. They found that the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) — an organization of 17,000 employees spanning 170 countries that focuses on solving complex global problems — is building an exceptionally progressive innovation playbook.

It’s doing so by assembling one of the world’s largest networks of accelerator labs. Each of UNDP’s 60 labs generates its own ecosystem, building connections with local partners while also coordinating with one another. UNDP is essentially solving the acceleration problem with a portfolio mindset, employing the power of the collective at an unprecedented scale.

Business leaders can learn from UNDP by taking a similar approach to innovation challenges. One example is Syngenta, a Swiss agribusiness company. Syngenta developed a network of innovation labs in the U.S., the U.K., India, and Singapore to tap into regional efforts to digitally transform agriculture. A mobile app that came out of one of its labs can now use photos taken by farmers to identify an insect or disease and then provide potential solutions, including Syngenta products.

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How Legacy Businesses Can Compete in the Sharing Economy

Mohan Subramaniam and Mikolaj Jan Piskorski

The term platform is commonly associated with digital natives such as Uber, Airbnb, and Facebook — companies that have created vibrant ecosystems by connecting various sets of users. But more-traditional businesses are beginning to participate in the so-called sharing economy too, using sensor data from the internet of things.

Consider Ford vehicles. Equipped with voice-activated technology that can order coffee through Amazon’s Alexa, and using data on weather, traffic, and the vehicle’s location, the car can request a coffee to be ready when the driver arrives at the nearest Starbucks. This integration highlights two shifts from traditional practices: First, the established company (Ford) activates a new ecosystem consisting of consumers and third parties outside its value chain (Starbucks, Amazon, banks, and app developers). And second, the established company manages exchanges within that ecosystem — in Ford’s case, between drivers and third-party providers to offer a service. In so doing, Ford goes beyond its produce-and-sell role to become a platform creator and orchestrator.

This article offers a framework for managers to weigh whether their products are suitable for platforms and what their platform strategies should be.

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What Managers Need to Know About Data Exchanges

José Parra-Moyano, Karl Schmedders, and Alex “Sandy” Pentland

In 2018, four of the six top companies in market valuation — Amazon, Alphabet, Facebook, and Alibaba — based their business models on the use of data to optimize advertising. Data, of course, differs greatly from traditional factors of production, such as capital and labor. To achieve scale, companies need data about large numbers of customers, especially when algorithms are used in advertising and other revenue-generating models. And given that scale, data interacts with personal privacy — and even national security — in ways that other factors of production do not.

These special attributes often hinder the efficient and transparent trade of data in data markets. Organizations often choose to keep their information in closed silos, preventing a maximization of its value.

But the notion of shared data is gathering steam — specifically, data shared in exchanges. These platforms gather voluntarily shared data curated from many sources and allow third parties to draw insights from it.

In weighing whether to embrace collaboration with data exchanges, managers must become familiar with the unique characteristics of data and with how exchanges can capitalize on them — and the best ways to mitigate threats.

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Make Your Crowd Smart

Christoph Riedl, Victor P. Seidel, Anita W. Woolley, and Gerald C. Kane

Facing ever-increasing pressure to innovate, some companies turn to crowdsourcing for new ideas. But crowdsourcing efforts often fall short of expectations. Part of the challenge is that many companies go about it wrong, simply inviting the public to tackle a problem. In fact, different approaches to crowdsourcing are appropriate for different tasks based on their scope and complexity. Using a more strategic, finely tailored method to gather and deploy crowds can make the effort more effective.

The authors have identified a framework of three distinct types of crowdsourcing: search crowds, wired crowds, and crowd teams. Search crowds operate on the premise that the solution to a problem already exists and simply needs to be discovered by reaching out to a large and diverse group of people. Wired crowds allow individuals to collectively build on past experience and reuse existing solutions to tackle larger, more complex problems. Crowd teams are composed of members knowledgeable in a range of domains and take advantage of their collective wisdom. Experimenting with this framework as a guide can help organizations unlock the power of smart crowds to source innovative solutions.

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Fixing the Overload Problem at Work

Erin L. Kelly and Phyllis Moen

The way that companies expect people to work isn’t working. Employees are often expected to be “on” well beyond traditional work hours, and many become burnt out struggling to meet such expectations. The result is a demoralizing sense that the demands of work cannot be met with the resources at hand.

Research conducted over five years found that companies that push employees too hard lose talent and stifle creativity.

Employers can address work overload by making reasonable and feasible changes to how work is done. They can give employees greater control over when, where, and how they do their work. And they can provide clear direction on employees’ performance, goals, and priorities.

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Why Innovation’s Future Isn’t (Just) Open

Neil C. Thompson, Didier Bonnet, and Yun Ye

Many businesses that used to depend only on internal innovation have begun to tap external innovation for the digital capabilities to navigate new technologies. Research by the authors that looked at companies in seven industries in Australia, China, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, the U.K., and the U.S. suggests that most businesses need to develop innovation portfolios that include external sources.

For example, McDonald’s has invested in a mobile app and a mobile-based order system, as well as self-order kiosks inside its restaurants, all through innovations sourced from outside the company. McDonald’s has also focused on digital voice recognition, acquiring a startup that can handle multilingual, multiaccent, and multi-item ordering. The technology will allow for faster and more accurate order taking at drive-throughs and will eventually be incorporated into mobile ordering and the in-store kiosks. The authors found that, bottom line, it’s essential for leaders to think through different models for bringing needed skills into their companies.

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Five Musts for Next-Gen Leaders

Amit S. Mukherjee

Effective leadership isn’t ageless or immutable. Periodically, new technologies overturn established modes and sweep aside executives who don’t adapt. Today, business is being transformed by digital technologies. They render some elite skills obsolete and widely distribute others; make work more thought-driven than muscle-powered; shed light on unpredictable customer needs that create disproportionate value; reveal information regardless of the merits of concealment; and affect — and are affected by — environmental conditions near and far. They also connect companies and employees by distributing work across regions and over time.

Current and aspiring leaders must respond to this new wave of change in five key ways. They must truly champion inclusivity. They must quickly acquire broad knowledge beyond their narrow domains of expertise. They must collaborate more intensively, even when their teams aren’t colocated. They must push beyond a focus on productivity and nurture creative thinking. And they must become guardians of digital technologies’ awesome power, asking whether that power is humanly and socially usable. Experts who can speak to this last question may be especially hard to find — and valuable.

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Want to Make Better Decisions? Start Experimenting

Michael Luca and Max H. Bazerman

In a dramatic departure from its historic role as an esoteric tool for academic research, the randomized controlled experiment has gone mainstream. Startups, international conglomerates, and government agencies alike have a new tool to test ideas and understand the impact of the products and services they are providing.

Experiments complement intuition and guesswork with evidence-based insight, and their expanded use is generally a good thing: good for companies, which can use results to improve their people and operating practices and customer offerings; good for governments, which can use the results to better design and deliver essential services; and, when carefully designed and monitored, good for customers and citizens as well. But experiments come with a certain amount of risk, and it takes judgment to effectively incorporate experimental results into decisions and to determine when and how to experiment.

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Creating Jobs and Workspaces That Energize People

Anthony C. Klotz

We spend about 92% of our lives indoors — something that was true well before the COVID-19 pandemic. But excessive time inside is problematic because of what’s called the biophilia hypothesis: the widely held idea that because humans evolved in close connection to nature, we still harbor a strong innate desire to be in contact with natural elements and processes. Fulfill that desire, and we experience greater vitality and willpower, feel a sense of mental clarity, and engage in increased helping behavior. Neglect it, and we become more susceptible to stress, depression, and aggression.

Employers have begun to incorporate aspects of nature into employees’ day-to-day activities and workspaces through biophilic work design. Some of the motivation is simply employee well-being and sustainability. But the benefits may go further. The author’s research finds that interactions with nature have the potential to boost employees’ energy reserves cognitively, emotionally, prosocially, and physically — boosting their performance in the process.

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