Monday, July 9, 2012

Designing Innovation Workshops for Students - (a) The Problem Statement



 I have been organizing a series of innovation workshops for engineering students at IITs and IISc. The images are from the innovation workshop, that i conducted for masters students in Product Design, at the Indian Institute of Science recently - read a detailed account here - The workshops were designed to bridge the gap between the University training and the Industry needs. The unique style of this workshop is that students work in small groups on real life technology problems during the course of the workshop. I teach them the innovation concepts, train them to apply the tools & techniques for innovative problem solving and by the end of the workshop, each team has a bunch of ideas to pursue further. Many of these teams had worked on the MIT Technology Review's Grand Challenge for Technologists in India - innovation domains include Energy, Infrastructure, Healthcare, Education, Governance etc. I had my friends Bala and Sridhar to co-facilitate the sessions and  there were  10 teams with 3-4 members each - - 

There exists significant gap today between the technical skills that Universities impart to engineering students and what the technology companies expect when they hire these students. Most Universities impart good subject knowledge and the best Universities further train their students to be creative thinkers and inventors. However the Companies expect the new hires to be good innovators i.e. people who can not only create insightful ideas and also take it to the market successfully. In order to become successful innovators, the engineering students need to (a) hone their observation and analytical skills to understand the critical needs of customers and (b) focus their knowledge and creativity to create value to the customers in new ways. One way to bridge the knowing Vs doing gap is for the Universities and Companies to partner and  train the students in a structured and systematic approach to innovation. When students with this specialized knowledge of systematic innovation joins a Company, they may still find some barriers - the environment in the company not conducive enough to create and sustain systematic innovation. Typical innovation killers include lack of risk taking culture, dearth of mentors, ineffective use of idea management system etc. Hence the responsibility of training and engaging innovators and making Innovations happen rests with both the University and the Company.

 What is the Problem ?

Year on year the number of graduates, post graduates, PhDs and Post-Doctorates (subsequently referred to as graduate) is increasing. Most Universities, through their good teaching and evaluation methodology, ensure that the graduates who join the companies have rich engineering knowledge. However these students find themselves unable to deliver value to the companies in their first few years The companies spend their resources in training these fresh hires and have to wait for at least a couple of years to induct them into business critical programs. Most companies express concern over their fresh hires from reputed universities being (a) unable to identify and solve problems that are critical to business and (b) lacking a structured approach to combine their knowledge and creativity to create innovative solutions.

For instance, in product development organizations the typical idea-to-innovation cycle is: idea generation, screening, product formulation and implementation. The fact remains that less than 5 % of ideas generated in an organization get converted in to innovations. The other 95% ideas get lost in the system for a variety of reasons and this has a strong negative impact on the motivation levels of the idea creators. Universities and Companies have to partner and understand: 

(a) What are the skills that are needed to improve the idea conversion efficiency? and 
(b) How do we impart these skills to the fresh graduate technologists?. 

A practical knowledge of innovation is currently lacking among the fresh graduates and technologists. The students lack the exposure to productizing and commercializing an idea. Inculcating the practical knowledge and execution discipline that are needed to convert new ideas into innovative engineering solution is the critical need of the hour.

Why is it critical to solve this Problem ?

The three pillars of the innovation ecosystem are the student community, Universities and the Companies.  Let us first look at the current scenario from the student’s perspective - it is easy to visualize the fresh graduates who enter the corporate world with bubbling energy and ideas (most of us have gone through that experience).  The graduates are eager to share their idea and contribute to the Company at the earliest possible opportunity. Initially most of their fresh (but raw) ideas get rejected. It takes a few year years for an individual to covert one’s idea in to an innovative solution or a product and deliver value to the customer. The current situation de-motivates the fresh hires, reduces their tendency to take risks with new ideas and ultimately kills their creativity. Despite the rich engineering knowledge and technical skills, one is unable to bring fresh ideas to fruition.  The industry is currently suffering because of the eighth type of waste that TPS describes as ‘Unused Employee Creativity”.

Next, let us look from the Company’s perspective by taking the example of a product company. The time period between two NPIs (New Product Introduction) could vary from 2 Year to 20 years or more, depending on the industry. These companies would like to strengthen their ideation, accelerate the new product development and improve the return on their investment on innovation. Currently they are suffering on all these three fronts due to the poor conversion of ideas to innovations. 

Finally, let us see how the Universities are affected. The University’s engineering and science departments pursue active research and create many technology breakthroughs – they either publish their work in journals or patent their inventions. Very few universities are able to successfully commercialize their inventions and incubate technology startups. When Universities participate in open innovation networks, they find that many of their ideas and inventions are not aligned with market needs or business aspirations. Hence the Universities struggle to monetize their ideas and inventions.

Proposed Solution

I believe that a solution that can address all these three problems is to train the students in a structured approach to innovation. Based on this learning, the students will be equipped to systematically grow their ideas into innovations. The solution will benefit :

(a) the students by improving their employability and intellectual productivity (improved conversion of ideas to innovations) in their new job 

(b) the University by enhancing their ability to monetize their ideas and partner with the Industry 

(c) the Companies by accelerating NPD and increasing the return on investment on innovation. 

This is the first in a series of three blog posts - you will the sequels in the next two days.

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