The first innovation challenge for an international business is that at least a portion of its customers are in other countries. Finding out what they want or need or are unhappy with is more difficult if those customers were at home.
The challenge becomes even greater if the company is also operating a number of offshore subsidiaries. The dispersion of operations requires special initiatives to ensure that there are suitable lines of communication, between headquarters and subsidiaries, as well as between the company and its customers around the world.
Using technology as a tool for international business innovation
What is more, communication has to be sensitive to and accommodate cultural differences that can have a significant bearing on what is important and what needs to be improved
Thus the first priority for the innovating international business is to set up stable and effective linkages between different parts of the organization, and this includes linkages between different functional units as well as geographical locations.
This has become easier today with the proliferation of communication technology that supports e-mail, teleconferences, video conferences and net meetings.
Such technology needs to be used, however. This means that there should be a variety of formal and informal channels through which new ideas can be heard and incorporated into the company’s operations or planning.
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Formal channels might include regular meetings, workshops or retreats that are specifically focused on reviewing progress, identifying problem areas and brainstorming solutions. Teleconferences or video conferences can be used to support weekly or monthly meetings and thereby minimize the time and expense of executive travel between different company locations.
Innovating your international business requires face-to-face meetings too
On the other hand, it is also a good idea to organize a face-to-face meeting at least once a year so that managers can develop a personal rapport with each other that can support more open and useful exchanges of opinion.
Some of these sessions will probably take the form of regular reviews or planning meetings, but others should be devoted specifically to brainstorming.
One cardinal rule in brainstorming is that there are generally no rules about what can be put on the table (subject, of course, to civility and social propriety).
To get people thinking outside the box, all ideas should be given some consideration.
It is also important that senior managers do not stifle creativity at this stage: employees should be free to propose anything, however unlikely and discuss it thoroughly. Even if an idea seems completely bizarre, it may get others to think “outside the box,” which is precisely how the most transformative innovations arise.
The other basic rule is that all meetings should end with next steps or action items assigned to participants. This is because at all times, participants should be forced to think about how to move from their initial creativity to implementation; as emphasized already, it is creativity plus implementation that is the foundation for innovation.
Informal channels for gathering ideas can include e-mail, and discussion areas on company websites. They can also include talking at the water cooler or at social gatherings.
Many innovative international businesses actually set up common areas where employees can meet to relax, play games and chat. The psychology behind this is that when people are relaxed and together, they are more likely to think creatively about what they do.
Whatever the method, managers should create opportunities for staff to interact with each other.
It is only through bringing together ideas and opinions that opportunities for innovation can be identified.
Ultimately, innovation arises from a combination of serendipity and structure. Managers have to allow their employees the freedom to be creative, no matter how outrageous.
On the other hand, they also need to maintain a structure that can test and validate ideas prior to determining whether or not to implement them.