With the challenges wrought by financial, economic and climate change, along with loss of expertise when lawyers leave or retire, there has never been a time wh en collaboration to facilitate innovation has been so important. Simon Haigh, chief knowledge officer at Minter Ellison, charts the firm’s journey to a unified knowledge, technology and client-development strategy. Collaborate to innovate
This article will describe some of Minter Ellison Perth’s activities in the areas detailed above. It will then go on to examine the link between collaboration and innovation and what we can do not only to protect ourselves in these challenging global times, but also to propel us forward when the inevitable opportunities emerge.
Minter Ellison Perth’s story
Shortly after joining Minter Ellison, I was asked to help the firm’s management drive a knowledge and innovation change initiative, which would eventually be named ‘Thinking Differently – The Journey Continues…’. In conjunction with the Curtin University Business School Centre for Innovation in Design Quality (CIDQ), we worked with the business over six months to scope the most critical issues to maximise the firm’s competitive advantage. We boiled these issues down to the following three points:
- What more can we do to build enduring client relationships and what additional info and/or processes do we need to better understand our clients?
- What can we do (physical workplace design or otherwise) to enable staff to work better together and in accordance with our values? and,
- What additional information and/or processes do we need to make better business decisions?
The culmination of the communication process across the firm was a retreat day for all staff, during which we explored these issues candidly and mapped our culture both from an ‘as is’ and a ‘desired state’ perspective.
What we discovered was that what our employees were asking for was not just high-tech premises or management changes. What they saw as the most important issue was an enhanced knowledge base and improved communication and collaboration processes, plus a better culture within the firm and with our clients. In reaching this consensus, it was declared that culture underpins creativity and innovation. As such, the firm has since revised its core values, which now include collaboration, knowledge capture and sharing, and ‘thinking differently and experimenting’. At the same time, the firm’s knowledge management (KM) team has collaborated with the technology and business development teams to scope the firm’s first unified knowledge, technology and client-development strategy.
Having provided the backdrop of Minter Ellison Perth’s story, we can now examine the key concepts which underpinned the firm’s subsequent strategic development and enabled the firm to be successful. As you will see, innovation is more than just creativity, and knowledge sharing is more than just databases – it is all about culture and communication.
What is collaboration?
While there are many definitions of collaboration, it is convenient to describe it as constructively seeking solutions by exploring differences and similarities. To this end, there are broadly three types of collaborative arrangement:
- Team collaboration – the members of the group are known and there are explicit timelines, goals and clear task interdependencies;
- Network collaboration – this starts with self-interest, which then accrues to the network as individuals contribute or seek something from it; and,
- Community collaboration – here, there is a shared area of interest, but the goal is usually focused more on learning than on a task. Usually on sharing and building knowledge rather than completing tasks.
In my experience, there are four main ways that a firm can strengthen collaboration:
- Implement collaborative tools – technological tools, but be careful to match them to those activities you wish to support so as not to alienate your people. The tools must be completely necessary and respected/trusted;
- Set up communities of practice (CoPs) – examine the indicators of success, but don’t stifle the community by turning these indicators into targets;
- Foster collaborative leadership and support – this is very important, as supporters can recruit and promote collaborative people. A good leader needs good followers; and,
- Communicate positive results – starting with the success stories can reduce the human tendency to look for any reason to confirm an existing preconception, whether good or bad. Concentrate not only on the ‘what’ but also on the ‘how’, as it is relevant to the audience at the time – the ‘what’s in it for me?’ factor.
What is innovation?
Again, while there are many descriptions of what innovation is, a common way to describe it is that to innovate is to think in a different way, which may result in an innovation, whether it’s a new product, service, idea and so on.
The definition used by the CIDQ is perhaps even more helpful. Innovation is a creative idea realised in a relevant, valued new product, process or service. New value can be radical (breakthrough) or incremental (sustaining). Crucially, innovation is more than an invention which may have no perceived market value.
Innovation, collaboration and knowledge flows are intertwined
Through the innovation and collaboration process, new knowledge, ideas and perspectives are generated. This in turn requires a strategy for their capture, implementation, and review – a strategic approach to innovation. This then creates an environment of ‘strategic serendipity’ – the ability to notice opportunity or, as it were, to ‘make your own luck’.
This all amounts to what I call the ‘fuzzy cycle of innovation’, whereby innovation creates new knowledge, perspectives and ideas, which in turn stimulates the need for more information – thereby generating more knowledge and the basis for more innovation – and so on.
However, knowledge is power and nowhere more so than in a law firm. Hence, there is even more reason to entrench a knowledge and collaboration process into the way an organisation does business.
Innovation is the lifeblood of growth and creating value
The Review of the Australian National Innovation System1 highlighted the need for an innovation action plan for Australia. It stated that:
“Innovation is now more open and pervasive, characterised by skill in collaborating and making connections so that knowledge flows and grows. That innovation policy is central to economic development.”
This very powerful statement cleverly links innovation with collaboration and knowledge flows.So what are the risks of failing to innovate? Broadly speaking, there are three:
- Strategic risks of failing to innovate. Take the Apple iPod. The innovation was focused on the customer, but the idea was not truly inventive. It was a strategic innovation in that it successfully emerged into an adjacent business by leveraging core competencies well and borrowing the rest from the existing market. Therefore, it was a low-risk idea that was wonderfully executed, so it could be asked why this wasn’t recognised by Apple’s competitors;
- Tactical or operational risks of failing to innovate well – for example, a misalignment between a vision and resources given to it or between market reality and resources given. It could be argued that the early hype about the 3G market was too soon; and,
- Also, very importantly, there is the change-management risk of organisational resilience. The implications of change need to be considered and balanced. Innovation can add stress and can result in failure. Employees have to want to help the organisation – this is an emotional decision each person has to make. Again, this often comes down to the ‘what’s in it for me’ factor. Growth depends almost entirely on empowerment.
In actuality, there are very few ‘Edison light bulb’ moments, so it is very important to provide a kick start for innovation. In my experience, this can be best achieved through the following actions:
- Create time for thought and challenging ideas – think beyond the next most pressing issue;
- Create a culture of ‘what if’ and accept that mistakes happen – a permission for all staff to ‘play the innovation game’ but within an environment of accountability. This makes the strategy safe fail, rather than fail safe. Culture underpins all;
- Explore many ideas – and fast, but be patient with outcomes;
- Leadership is essential;
- Embed a process of bringing ideas to implementation – acknowledging and managing risk is essential. Embed the creation of new ideas into the very fabric of ‘how things get done round here’;
- Recognise that innovation is a long-term effort; and,
- Communicate, communicate and communicate.
In a nutshell, it is important to embed innovation into the context of your organisation’s overall strategic direction, but with flexibility. Then follow this clarity of purpose with a coordinated and transparent process. Finally, it is important to ensure the execution and commercialisation of innovative ideas is structured and managed effectively.
If you are not innovating, your competitors are, and if you don’t encourage ideas, your best talent will leave. Here are some key reasons – or excuses – for not delivering innovation:
- Underestimating what is required;
- Inadequate formal systems;
- Inadequate resources for formal change process;
- Inadequate strategic planning and/or governance; and,
- Lack of effective KM systems.
Knowledge sharing and innovation can generate new business initiatives and business models
If done well, knowledge sharing and innovation can create more imaginative ways of doing business and organising for business. However, what is needed is a culture that enables managed risk and learning.
Best practice organisations generate more ideas from a wider pool – more ideas up front in what I call the ‘wider funnel of innovation’ – and then focus on assessing ideas up front. They then send fewer, but higher quality ideas into feasibility and production, thereby ultimately saving on resources.
For those organisations which arguably do this best, the serious innovators (for example, GE, Apple, Sony, 3M) it is no coincidence that they are also extremely well-known brands. Innovation is built into the very framework of the way they do business.
The future will not build itself, so collaborate to innovate
Innovation and collaboration motivate people and can also be fun and exciting. If conducted in a disciplined way, they can add to the sustainable competitive advantage.
In a competitive world, it can be easy to ignore the benefits of working together. However, changes in the world today mean we will just have to learn to work better together. The formula below can be applied:
C+I=E: collaboration plus innovation equals empowerment
To this end, my advice would be to focus on what you are good at, yes, but allow space to explore. Paint a picture of the future and enable employees to make it happen. You’ll be surprised at the results.
Simon Haigh is chief knowledge officer at Australian firm Minter Ellison, where he is responsible for developing the knowledge and collaboration infrastructure in the firm’s Perth office. He is also responsible for knowledge process improvement; capturing and disseminating intellectual capital and driving continuous improvement in this space.
1. Review of the National Innovation System, Australian Government Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, 9 September 2008, https://www.innovation.gov.au/innovationreview/Pages/home.aspx