Ann Mettler has a great opinion piece in today’s Wall Street Journal on European attempts to spur innovation in their countries. (Warning: this may be on their subscription site only.) This is of particular interest to me as my own organization endlessly chants the mantra of "innovation" to very little effect.
When recently asked what his top priorities were for his country's European Union presidency, Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen had just three words to say: "Innovation, innovation, innovation." A collective nod went through Europe, a continent that never tires of pledging to build a knowledge-based economy, a place where politicians incessantly talk up entrepreneurship and risk-taking.“Necessity is the mother of invention” is an old saying, but an accurate one. Desire, freedom, knowledge and reward all contribute to innovation. In Ms. Mettler’s article, she is illustrating just why the EU isn’t a big player in “innovation.”
By the way, her metrics are suspect. The EU governments are measuring innovation by the amount of spending classified as research and development. I know that trick. You take something you were going to do anyway and then reclassify its budget in order to get the desired result. It is an old trick in government spending. You then trumpet the “new budget priorities” and “dramatic change” to the public and get re-elected. Left and right alike do it equally. It’s nearly impossible to catch because government budget details are about as interesting as watching paint dry. The media and the public lose interest quickly. Private firms do this, too.
Ms. Mettler hits the nail right on the head with this section.
The more important point is that if Europe is really serious about meeting the innovation challenge, it must look beyond arbitrary benchmarks designed to quantify progress. Europe must realize that innovation is a societal phenomenon, a collective task, largely carried out by the private sector, but not limited to it.Innovation causes change and without reward, the change never occurs.
Innovation rests on meritocracy, which is antithetical to traditional European instincts of picking winners and shielding national champions from competition. Little wonder that innovation is deeply threatening to so many of Europe's vested interests, whose power and status is dependent on sustaining the status quo.While such political considerations are driving the EU to ossify, in my own organization, technical freedom is being crushed as we move to a more rigidly controlled IT infrastructure. In order to protect ourselves from network attacks, we have eliminated the ability to use any innovative products or experiment at all.
Wireless networks? Too dangerous. Websites and servers? We have too many. (That one reminds me of the king in Amadeus. “There are too many notes!”) Chat rooms? Out of the question! Blogs? You must be joking. Professional web development? No way.
You should see our internal corporate website. Take every page in Yahoo! and throw it into a blender. Puree. Pour into a single web page. All done!
We actually have a blog. A blog. Our entire organization, nearly 4,000 people, has one blog. I started one for my team. The blogging capability is the most rudimentary piece of junk you’ve ever seen. It would never survive in the public.
This last example illustrates one of Ms. Mettler’s key points. Protected industries or organizational components don’t innovate. We are forced to use our IT support organization no matter how dreadful their service. They can provide whatever quality they wish. There is no need for them to innovate at all. If we were allowed to use commercial service providers, our IT group would be blown away almost immediately.
In the meantime, we’re told to be innovative and our management goes to endless training classes to learn how to lead an innovative organization. All the while, innovation is crushed as we are forced to use tools that were outdated in the 90’s.
Enough ranting. Time to get to work and be innovative. I’m sure there are a few tricks left to learn in PowerPoint.