Entovation International - Delivering Knowledge Innovation Strategies for the Millennium
Leading Lights:
Author and Strategist Debra M. Amidon

An interview with Knowledge Inc. editor Kimberly Merline, Knowledge Inc., Vol. 3, No. 4 (April 1998)


Debra Amidon is the founder and chief strategist of ENTOVATION International Ltd., a global virtual network spanning 48 countries. The network is a forum for sharing information and ideas on innovation and knowledge management. Amidon is a prolific author, most recently publishing a trilogy of resources on KM:

  1. Innovation Strategy for the Knowledge Economy: The Ken Awakening;
  2. Creating the Knowledge-based Business;
  3. Collaborative Innovation: Toward the 'World Trade of Ideas'.

Her ideas will also soon appear on an interactive software application by LearnerFirst.


Knowledge Inc. Senior Editor Kimberly Merlin spoke with Amidon recently. Here's what she had to say:

KI: Could you start by telling me a little bit about your company?

AMIDON: ENTOVATION International is a virtual network I initiated five years ago when I left Digital Equipment Corporation. The network started with 400 people, and has grown to 2200 colleagues from 48 countries. We are sharing information and leveraging one another. It's really a symbiotic relationship. It means that we're building upon each other's competencies, and creating something that none of us could have done individually. This is represented in the business tagline - "Innovating our future...together."

KI: When did the focus on knowledge strategy begin for you?

AMIDON: In 1987, I coordinated a Roundtable for 'Managing the Knowledge Assets into the 21st Century.' At that time, I identified that we must better manage the knowledge base of the United States in education, government and industry. We published the results and thus began our pursuit to redefine the process of innovation. Now the agenda is international in scope reaching every corner of the globe.

KI: You have written three books about innovation and knowledge management in the last year. Can you tell us about them?

AMIDON: The first book - Innovation Strategy for the Knowledge Economy: The Ken Awakening - represents the state-of-the-art. It includes the evolution of the knowledge movement, a description of the 'community of knowledge practice', the foundation for a management architecture and ten dimensions of innovation strategy - complete with a 70 question innovation assessment. The second major research report - Creating the Knowledge-Based Business, was co-authored with Dr. David Skyrme (UK). It captures profiles of leadership in thirty-three case studies. It outlines the management architecture with chapters on measurement, culture, process, roles and responsibilities, and one on technology. It also includes the analysis of a recent survey performed in consort with Ernst and Young contrasted with surveys that had been done by Dr. Karl Wiig, The Knowledge Institute, and Rob van der Spek, CIBIT, eight years earlier. The third monograph, Collaborative Innovation: Toward the 'World of Ideas' outlines work being done by the Economist, the OECD, the National Research Council and the World Bank.

KI: Why is innovation important to business today?

AMIDON: Innovation has always been important. What has changed is the realization that there needs to be more of a focus on knowledge and the value of 'real-time' learning. People are beginning to define the future we want to create. By unleashing opportunities to fulfill unserved markets and unarticulated needs, the economy may well turn bountiful. Innovation is being redefined - at the enterprise, nation and societal levels - according to the flow of knowledge, not the flow of technology or finances.

KI: Which means that it's faster and more central?

AMIDON: My definition, my simple definition of innovation is 'idea to action.' What good is knowledge if it's not put to the use of society? What good is all the knowledge and all the good ideas that people have in organizations if they don't somehow get put into products and services that benefit that particular enterprise? Yes, innovation is integral to the business strategy.

KI: How can a company determine whether it has the foundations for successful innovation?

AMIDON: Here is a quick Litmus Test from by book. These are the ten dimensions of innovation which have been very rigorously researched and tested in various parts of the world.

(1) Has one person been chartered with the overall responsibility to manage the corporate-wide innovation process?
(2) Are there performance measures - both tangible and intangible - to assess the quality of your innovation practices?
(3) Do your training/educational programs have provisions to incubate and spin out new products and businesses?
(4) Does your local, regional, or international presence operate as a distributed network of expertise that learns from as well as distributes to customers?
(5) Is there a formal intelligence-gathering strategy to monitor the positioning of both current and potential competitors?
(6) Does the rate of production of new products and services exceed the norms of your industry and create new markets in which you can excel?
(7) Has a strategic alliance manager been designated to create and manage the network of partnerships and joint ventures to leverage your firm?
(8) Does your marketing image portray an organization with the capacity to create and move ideas into the marketplace to make your customers successful?
(9) Have resources been allocated to articulate a compelling vision internally and share company expertise externally through publications and participation in major forums?
(10) Is your computer/communications capability treated as a learning tool for internal conferencing and external business leverage on the World Wide Web?

Seek out peers who have the answers if you don't have them yourself. If you can answer 7 out of 10 of these questions in the affirmative, chances are your company has a pretty good capacity to create and commercialize good ideas.

KI: What has been the effect of the quality movement on innovation?

AMIDON: There is an upside and a downside. The good news is that people recognized the importance of process and the behavioral aspects of management. The downside was the compounding effect of re-engineering and the compulsion for profitability and short-term results. Now that executives have experienced downsizing, rightsizing and attempts to rationalize, they are ready to refocus on growth. We're going to shift the pendulum now from profitability focus to growth. Right? Wrong. Success requires a balance of the short-term and the long-term, competition and collaboration, entrepreneurship and teamwork, operations and strategy formulation - simultaneously. Driving a company to one extreme at the expense of the other is a sure prescription for failure. Most important is a realization that creativity does not equal innovation. Innovation requires a combination of creativity and quality to ensure sustained profitable growth. Remember, it is not only the ideas, but what is done with them.

KI: So you say the problem with just focusing on growth is that sometimes they lose sight of quality?

AMIDON: No. They lose sight of the value of quality communication and what we have come to call knowledge-sharing. Re-engineering has squeezed responsible risk out of the system. People at all managerial levels have become protective of their ideas and fearful of losing their jobs - and rightly so. Reengineering also called for companies to essentially discard their past. 'Obliterate your processes' was the line. In the process a great deal has been lost - perhaps forever. This was the inherent danger. So, when people lost their heritage, they lost their roots; they lost the value of what came before, and so they started all over again - in essence, re-inventing the wheel.

KI: What are the greatest obstacles to innovation within companies?

AMIDON: The word that comes to mind is trust. With all that's transpired over the last five years, the past decade, and is still going on today, people have lost the sense of trust, not only in their organizations and their peers, but in themselves. People need to learn to trust that they have good ideas, that they have talents that can be leveraged, and should be leveraged. But right now they're fearful. Even the successful ones are fearful. Recently, we did some work with the oil and gas industry. We asked a number of retired individuals what they would do differently if they could go back in time. They said they would have 'pushed the system harder.' In other words, they would have experimented more, taken the chance to promote ideas they believed in, enabled processes to change, had the courage to be different, etc. They would have trusted their intuition as well as their knowledge and been willing to accept the responsibility for putting their ideas into action.

KI: What is the difference between innovation and change?

AMIDON: What a difference one word can make. What if I say to you, "You must change. You must change." How do you feel? Usually the audience reactions - if they are honest - are negative: "I don't feel very good" or "I'm tired of changing. Haven't I got it right yet?" Or, "What's the next fad I have to participate in?" When I suggest instead, "You must innovate. You must innovate. You must figure out a way to take your good ideas and put them into action." The reaction is generally far more positive...and the effect is considerably better. People feel like they have value, are valued and what they have created and learned in the past is worth something. It's the difference between being hit over the head with a sledgehammer and being inspired to action.

KI: What is the difference between innovation and invention?

AMIDON: Thank you for asking. There are two ways of looking at innovation. In the new book I actually have 25 definitions of innovation. This year alone there are numerous new books on innovation. The definitions, though, generally boil down to two categories: (1) you either believe that invention is separate from innovation, so you invent and then you transfer; or (2) you believe that invention is the first stage in the process of innovation (i.e., one dynamic process). Our work prefers the second - that innovation must be viewed as a value-system, not a value-chain of activities. If fact, one has not innovated until the market demands more of your technology. For example, Post It Notes was a good idea. But just researching, manufacturing, and getting the product to market it is not innovation. Innovation occurs when the marketplace puts demands on the technology such as, "Hey this is great. Do you have it in different colors? Does it come in different sizes? Can it be produced with our company logo?" That's innovation.

KI: Is there communication across departmental lines about the future of innovation?

AMIDON: Innovation used to be the business of the R&D function. Ideas were created in the labs and transferred for manufacture and distribution in a linear, time-consuming process. The knowledge economy, however, affords us the realization that ideas can and must come from anywhere - both inside and outside the corporation. To manage such a complex process requires a system in sync. Many initiatives, such as concurrent engineering, agile manufacturing, learning organization, and customer innovation, are coming to a common focus on knowledge innovation.The problem is that many of these initiatives are competing for resources. Are we going to have IT with a knowledge management focus, or is quality going to take on the innovation focus, or from the human resources sector are we going to focus on leadership, from manufacturing are we going to become an agility enterprise, or from finance are we going to manage our intangible assets, etc., etc? And the resources for which they are competing, by the way, are not financial. They are the mindspace of the leadership.

KI: And your real point is that they're all the same?

AMIDON: They're all the same thing. So if we could just agree that the focus is innovation, but innovation according to the flow of knowledge, not the flow of technology, maybe we wouldn't have to compete. Knowledge Management is an oxymoron and could run the course of a fad. Knowledge Innovation is fundamental to sustaining collaborative advantage.

KI: How does the customer play into your ideas on knowledge innovation?

AMIDON: There is a significant difference between 'customer knowledge' and 'knowledge of the customer.' It's the same difference between 'innovating with a customer' and 'delivering to the customer.' One treats the customer as a true source of knowledge. Ken Olsen, Founder of Digital, at one point said, "We will not give the customers only what they want." He was right. Digital had the largest User Society in the industry. This forum was used to test new ideas in the marketplace providing feedback otherwise unobtainable. Only through a symbiotic relationship - a dialogue with customers - can you discover profitable ways to provide for unarticulated needs and unserved markets. Customers have insights about the technology, markets and competitors that remain unknown unless the right questions are asked. For the most part, quality surveys focus on the satisfaction of customers - not what makes them successful - and so their knowledge goes untapped. The dynamics of the knowledge economy afford us the opportunity to create these innovating relationships where the results of your customers' innovation process - in other words how successful they are with their customers - actually fuels your innovation process. So it's a seamless process between you and the customer when you look at it from the perspective of innovation. One example is Dr. Bill Miller, vice president of Steelcase, who once asked me "How do I create a business plan for a market that does not yet exist?" They've figured it out and, in the process, transformed their company and the industry as well. Markets and the industries are converging so quickly that this can only be done in consort with the customer knowledge, and it needs to be managed very systematically. That's the secret.

KI: What do you mean by a holistic view of an enterprise and why is this important to innovation?

AMIDON: The picture on the cover of my book is Claude Monet's garden where the book was launched in Giverny, France. When you're looking at an impressionist painting closely, it makes no sense. It's only when you step back and you see the whole do you see the interrelationships of the parts. We have moved into an era of micro and overload management which is causing innovation paralysis. Furthermore, we are measuring the wrong things - only what is easily measured - not the real hidden, intangible value.

Managerially, that we must step back and see the whole. We cannot continue to operate where the ideas don't flow and one person's explicit knowledge doesn't become another person's tacit knowledge. As a world and as a society, we must leverage the interdependence between the East and West. We are successful only when we all are successful.

KI: One concept you've discussed in your work is 'ken'. Can you explain the importance of this concept?

AMIDON: Ken is a term for me that captures the essence of the focus on knowledge and innovation. The dictionary definition of ken is both a verb and a noun - to have 'understanding' and a 'range of vision.' Ken is also an international term. Not only does it have German, Scottish, Celtic and Dutch roots, it comes from I-Ching - the Chinese system for divining the future. Kendra in Sanskrit means 'center.' In Hebrew it means 'yes,' and it also means 'nesting.' In Japanese, it means sword, which is considered the 'soul of a Samurai.' So no matter where you go in the world, this little three-letter word captures the essence of what I believe is needed to carry us into the next millennium.


Copyright 1998. Used by permission.

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