A quote often misattributed to Charles Darwin goes something like, “It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.”
The fact that “On the Origin of Species” is not the origin of this aphorism doesn’t make it inherently less true.
The basic idea it conveys is particularly relevant to the meta vocation of R&D—where changes in the environment are proliferated by those who must adapt to them.
It’s thanks to the fruits of R&D that we can keep more humans alive, for longer. That our monster economy is flooded with revenue-generating products and services. That 3D printers, AI and the Internet have breached the mysterious membrane between fantasy and reality.
But how are the purveyors of innovation adapting, now that they’ve created a world where problems are more complex than ever? Where more people expect better solutions to arrive faster? Where the monster economy has never been hungrier for evidence of ROI?
Amelia Gandara is a chemical engineer and community leader at GE Fuse—a General Electric spin-off with a mandate to improve the speed and sophistication of innovation for GE’s businesses.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Amelia about topics including:
- Embracing modern technologies and social change during the innovation process
- Intellectual diversity and unconventional solutions to persistent problems
- Counteracting the “Not Invented Here (NIH)” bias and staying focussed on customer needs
- Top tips for any organisation wanting to replicate the GE Fuse model
Embracing modern technologies and social change
In Amelia’s words:
“Fuse is an innovation team within GE that's focused on accelerating product and technology development, via open innovation. It's essentially crowdsourcing. We source very specific problems from GE customers—in some cases, the customers are other entities within GE. Fuse itself is a model that intends to scale throughout GE but the first sponsor is GE Inspection Technologies, which is part of GE Oil and Gas. Inspection Technology focuses on non-destructive testing and monitoring—so monitoring different industrial things, from jet engines to pipes being manufactured and pipes that are in the field.”
GE is the top patent filer in "non-destructive testing" (Source: PatSnap platform)
This goal of accelerating product and technology development is one you’ve probably encountered before.
Giampiero Favato and Roger Mills explain in their paper, “Challenging Conventional Wisdom in R&D”:
“With discontinuity in technology, it can be frustrating to gauge its influence on research and development structure. What managers need, therefore, is a framework to help them understand significant advances in technology—something that will enable them to anticipate new innovation paradigms.”
Amelia Gandara manages day-to-day, in my opinion, something with the potential to be such a framework.
Fuse lives in an offsite, co-working space—a fairly modern concept popularised by high-tech software start-ups. It has 3D printers, laser cutters and CNC machines for the rapid creation of prototypes. It has built an online community of engineers and problem-solvers, using programmatic online advertising.
Fuse not only adopts new technologies—it applies them to the enhancement of more familiar R&D tactics. Crowdsourcing is nothing new… but the use of online advertising, to widen the reach and deepen the experiences within said crowd, is to be applauded.
As Amelia explained:
“When you have people that don't grow up with the same experiences or get educated in the exact same way, they come with their own ideas to the table. And that's what you hope for.”
Just 2 decades ago, it would’ve been near-impossible to get 100 engineers—who’ve never met and are scattered across 5 continents—working together on a side project.
Now, it could come down to having a few thousand dollars in advertising budget, a website and a compelling proposition. This shift in possibilities is more than cosmetic.
For example, patents filed relating to “non-destructive inspection”—an area of focus for GE Fuse—are spread across 5+ continents.
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Geographic spread of patents relating to "non-destructive inspection" (Source: PatSnap platform)
There’s a similar geographic spread when you look at the top inventors within that technology area:
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Top inventors in the area of "non-destructive inspection" (Source: PatSnap platform)
Finding worldwide top inventors in a technology area, with a few clicks of a mouse, was unthinkable not long ago… let alone getting them working on the same problem. Today, they (theoretically) don’t have to move or share the same employer for that to happen.
Not only is such a wide geographic spread not an obstacle, Amelia says it can be an advantage.
Intellectual diversity and unconventional solutions to persistent problems
The ability to call on the resources of such an intellectually diverse crowd has enhanced the quality and range of solutions generated by GE Fuse.
Amelia illustrated using a situation where a particularly troublesome issue was resolved in an unconventional way:
“Our first challenge had less buy-in once we got to a potential solution. The problem was ultimately solved, but it was solved in a completely different way. We were trying to solve an image compression problem… and it ended up being solved with a piece of hardware that could handle larger sizes of data. And so, the problem was solved in an alternate way.”
This is the kind of solution that is so simple, it can seem blindingly obvious and deceptively simple in retrospect.
But it’s exactly the kind GE needs to be able to generate if it wants to remain an innovator in non-destructive testing—GE currently owns one of the most valuable patents in that area.
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Most valued patents in "non-destructive inspection" (Source: PatSnap platform)
However, you’ve probably noticed that Amelia also said that Fuse struggled with getting buy-in for this idea.
Not to worry—she now has an elegant solution for the looming spectre of “Not Invented Here” syndrome, which haunts most crowdsourced ideas.
Counteracting the age-old “Not Invented Here (NIH)” bias and focussing on customer needs
Amelia says there are 2 key ingredients crowdsourcing projects need:
- Early buy-in of the people whose support you’ll need to commercialise good ideas
- Relentless focus on the problems and goals of customers
She explained that every Fuse challenge now has a GE subject matter expert, who acts as a sponsor through every stage of that challenge—from inception to completion:
“Part of their end of the deal is to go along with us throughout the challenge creation process, through the judging process, through the prototyping process. So, we now don't run challenges unless we have a partner—a subject matter expert—and judges who are gonna participate in this innovation challenge with us.”
This means GE’s internal teams are as invested in the great ideas generated by Fuse, as the inventors that put them forward.
Similarly, when you focus on a problem your end users care about, they’re bound to be excited by promising solutions to that problem.
“I think the jet engine inspection challenge is a great example of that. We had some great buy-in from our partners at GE Aviation. We had a subject-matter expert, an engineer, who actively participated on our platform to answer questions. We had a group of people from Aviation who were judges, and they've been with us every step of the way… because this is truly a problem that they needed solved. And they didn't have the bandwidth and the mechanisms to solve the problem. So, we were a resource for them. And that's really what we've seen as a sweet spot.”
Combining this knowledge of where customers’ pain points lie with a clear picture of where you stand on the technology landscape, helps you create game-changing innovation.
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"Non-destructive inspection" patent landscape (Source: PatSnap platform)
Finally, Amelia stressed that the crowdsourcing community at Fuse is not meant to replace the brilliant engineers at GE. Instead, Fuse exists to support them—conveying this message, clearly and unequivocally, goes a long way.
Top tips for any organisation wanting to replicate the GE Fuse model
1.) Define the experiment you’re running
“We say we're an innovation team focused on accelerating product introduction or product development, via open innovation. So, we've decided we're using crowdsourcing. We operate in a facility that's offsite of a typical GE office. And we're tasked with iterating quickly on our prototypes. Even though it's loose and we have a lot of room for flexibility and to grow, we've still kind of defined where we play and the types of problems that this particular innovation team is available to solve.”
2.) Get buy-in at a leadership level
“…Rarely does a corporate innovation group produce results or vast amounts of revenue within the first year. Most of these take two to five years to create business-altering changes. And you have to have someone willing to let you see that through.”
3.) Align your internal and external partners
“If you're innovating for an internal team or with an internal team, where you're launching new products within your own company, you have to have that buy-in from a partner, product manager or, you know, someone who's there along with you—so you don't feel like you're alienating your internal teams.”
If you’d like to join the GE Fuse community, go to www.fuse.ge.com.