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Knowledge at Wharton


Defining Innovation—and Converting Words to Action

We know it when we see it, but do we apply it?

Published: Wednesday, November 2, 2011 - 13:39

Innovation is a tough word to define, but most would say they know it when they see it. At a recent Wharton Women in Business conference, participants were asked to discuss their personal definitions of the term and give a concrete example from their own experiences. Here is a look at what they had to say.

Julie Anixter
CIO of MagaDesign

Anixter works for a visual information mapping and communications firm. “My definition until about two years ago was doing something game-changing,” she says. “But with the financial free-fall that the world is in today, my new definition is saving our great companies, saving ourselves, and creating our futures by doing something really game-changing.”

An example: “The last great project that we did was with the CIO of the Air Force, who has lost a lot of budget and influence with the changes at the Department of Defense, but nonetheless needs to finance his strategy for an integrated Air Force,” she says. “We worked with him to do a series of 18 maps where we got leaders in the room to co-create a visual strategy for the next couple of years for the Air Force.”

Linda C. Brigance
VP of IT customs clearance and logistics, FedEx Services

Brigance is also chief information officer at FedEx Trade Networks. “Innovation is about people,” she says. “It’s about putting an idea into motion.”

An example: “I always go back to an old example,” she says. “FedEx.com was the first to put [package] tracking onto the web. At that point, the web was just a repository of information. This wasn’t an idea that came from the board room; we had a guy who just did it….

“A more recent example is a GPS device for the health industry and a web portal collaboration that allows tracking that shows if a package has been opened and the variance in [package temperature] because a lot of health-care products are very sensitive and have to stay within a certain range of temperature.”

Brooke L. Eplee
Director of strategy for Sony Music Entertainment

As a strategist and director of corporate development for Sony’s global digital business division, Eplee has this to say about innovation: “We live in such a fragmented world these days, especially in a place like the music industry, so a lot of good ideas out there haven’t been brought together. The dots haven’t been connected, and if you have someone who is thinking about how to connect the dots, often there are ready sources of information just waiting to be tapped.”

An example: “Vevo is a property that we launched in December 2009,” she says. “The music industry had never monetized music videos; they were thought of as a promotional tool…. What we have done [with Vevo] is… built [a portal] where users could watch videos for free…. That way, we can curate the experience that people have on the website and sell ads against that. When the experience is a premium experience, premium-tier advertisers are more willing to put advertising behind it.”

Stephanie Ferguson
General manager of Windows Phone, Microsoft

“At Microsoft, we think of [innovation] in terms of inventions and reinventions that are brought to the market… and actually transform the experience for the customer,” says Ferguson.

An example: “Kinect is a sensor we built for the Xbox 360,” she says. “For the person standing in front of it, the Kinect builds a skeletal replica of you, uses software to process what the skeleton is doing and relates it to the application you’re using. There’s also voice recognition, so with those two natural user interfaces at work, you don’t need to use a controller anymore…. From a business standpoint, it is a huge opportunity to break out of our traditional 17- to 27-year-old male customer base for the Xbox and really broaden the addressable market. It also opened up possibilities in terms of what could be done in entertainment.”

Deborah Nelson
Chief of staff for global sales, Hewlett-Packard

“We think about innovation as translating ideas into a meaningful impact for our customers,” says Nelson. “When we talk about innovation at HP, we mean innovation with a purpose.”

An example: “Counterfeit drugs are not as much an issue in the United States, but when you go into Third World countries, it’s a real problem. We don’t know much about counterfeit drugs, but we know a lot about counterfeit ink. We put together a partnership, and now drugs in Africa come with an area that you scratch off and see a number. You can send a free SMS [short message service] text that goes to a database, which can tell you if the drug is actually what it should be.”

Caroline Strzalka
Business development director, Sesame Workshop

“We define innovation as taking risks to make people’s lives better,” says Strzalka. “It could be doing something that hasn’t really been done before, or finding a workaround to a problem that currently exists.”

An example: “We’re working with [Microsoft’s Kinect technology] on Once upon a Monster, a new game coming out. We work with preschoolers, and for years we’ve known that they don’t have the manual dexterity to handle normal controllers…. Sesame’s all about taking devices created predominantly for entertainment and figuring out how to make them educational.”

What does innovation mean to you? How are you seeing that definition play out at your firm?


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Knowledge at Wharton

Knowledge@Wharton is the web-based research and business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Launched in May 1999, its goal is to disseminate business knowledge and insights to readers around the world. The Knowledge@Wharton Network offers free access to analysis of current business trends; interviews with industry leaders and Wharton faculty; articles based on the most recent business research; conference overviews, book reviews, and links to relevant content; and a searchable database of more than 1,500 articles and research abstracts.