We have been working with a number of organisations on distributed innovation.

This is the challenge of how we get innovation and creativity (usually within R&D but also how we get “leverage across an organization”) when people are in virtual teams and organizations – particularly working in multiple locations.

The literature on innovation is littered with references to chance connections where people have bumped into each other in corridors or been working on completely differently projects and have somehow cross fertilised ideas and allowed new things to evolve.

When people  are on the same site, these things can happen as a free by-product of proximity. A number of industries in recent years have moved towards locating their R&D people in the same place in order to allow that to continue to happen.

However, in global and virtual organisations we have people distributed in multiple locations, cultures and time zones, and it may not be realistic to bring them all together except for very occasional large events. We need ways to make distributed innovation work in this virtual environment.

The challenge is to make expertise visible and create opportunities to cross fertilize ideas in a cost effective way – without sharing everything on the offchance something will be useful.

How can we get that same spontaneity and serendipity through technologies that recreate that ‘water cooler’ moment where people bump into each other?

First, we believe there is  an interesting emerging role for social networking technology such as Twitter in creating those connections, the loose ties that allow us to reach out into our network, spot emerging trends and find individuals who might be useful to talk to.

In these early stage, there is the potential to co-operate – but not a real, concrete opportunity, so we need to find economic ways to uncover the potential without incurring high levels of cost in meetings, travel and traditional co-operation costs..

Secondly, we are designing what we call ‘cloud meetings’ – networking meetings designed to allow real networking (as opposed to passively watching PowerPoint presentations of how important networking is) where people have opportunities to cluster around common issues and interests.

Thirdly, we need a structured process enabling people who find some common goal to coalesce into ‘“spaghetti teams’ (for dense cooperation) and ‘star groups’ (for a ‘lighter’ co-ordinated effort) to work on these issues – where it makes economic sense to do so.

We have found that central direction of these teams and groups from the top down is relatively unsuccessful, so we concentrate on ways of creating distributed innovation and leverage from the bottom up.

If you face the challenge of enabling creativity and innovation in your virtual teams or organization and would like to find out more please contact Global Integration to find out more.

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About the author:

Kevan Hall Kevan Hall is a CEO, author, speaker and trainer in matrix management, virtual teams and global working. He is the author of "Speed Lead - faster, simpler ways to manage people, projects and teams in complex companies, "Making the Matrix work - how matrix managers engage people and cut through complexity", and the "Life in a Matrix" podcasts, videos, cartoons and blog. He is CEO and founder of Global Integration. Company profile: .

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