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An Unorthodox Catalyst for Innovation: Data


LightbulbNew ideas often arrive at the most inconvenient of times.  As I sit here writing this blog, I’m reminded of the seemingly hundreds of blog ideas that have occurred to me over the past year whilst I’ve been driving my car.  I don’t keep a notepad in the car (as I try to avoid being distracted as I drive), but I always make a mental note to write the idea down when I reach my destination.  Sadly more often than not, I have forgotten it by the time that I arrive.  I am also renowned for waking up in the early hours of the morning, having a fantastic innovative new business idea, but falling back to sleep and forgetting it by morning.  Perhaps you find similar things happen to you too…


It seems that ideas and innovation are often triggered by the most surprising of stimuli.  A left-field idea can be triggered by a seemingly unrelated insight.  It’s tempting to think that we are at nature’s mercy, and innovative ideas can only be created by a serendipitous coincidence.  Yet there is much we can do to stimulate innovation – and much has been written discussing the virtues of creative thinking, brainstorming and many other ways of cultivating innovation.


Yet, it strikes me, that when we are looking for innovative new ideas we often overlook a real asset that our organisation holds: Data.


Before I continue, I should be very clear – I’m absolutely not trying to suggest we should force innovation nor am I underplaying the importance of those happy innovative coincidences that do occur.  However, when organisations need to innovate – and in many industries innovation becomes a pre-requisite for survival – data can be a rich source of inspiration and insight.  We can draw on our data for potential scenarios and ideas for the future.


Data as an innovative catalyst

Organisations often hold a wide range of data about their sales, clients and products.  It’s likely that we’ll have access to some data about our competitive environment, and most organisations will also carry out strategic analysis to predict the ways that their business environment might change in future.


All of this data and insight can be used—alongside creative thinking and similar techniques—to generate innovative ideas.  Here are just a few ways:


Market innovation – who is using your product and why?:  Close examination of customer data might yield the insight that some customers come from unexpected segments or backgrounds.  Perhaps your product is being used in a way you’d never envisaged – and with a slight tweak to the product, positioning or marketing you can reach a whole new customer base.  For example, did you know when a famous brand of tissues  was launched, it is reported that the manufacturer assumed the product would be used for removing make-up?  A few years later, they changed tact and positioned their product as a disposable handkerchief – and arguably changed the way that we use tissues!

Problem finding:  Trends in data can help identify previously unrecognised problems.  Perhaps there is a nagging problem affecting certain orders with particular products.  Data can help us to zoom-in on the problem, and by thoroughly understanding the problem we can think creatively about possible solutions.  (But always, always, find the problem before settling on a solution)

Synthesise data, analysis and insight:  Left-field ideas can be generated where data, analysis and insight are brought together.  Imagine we’re a high-street bank.  Perhaps we observe that “Generation Y” are generally more tech-savvy and reliant on mobile devices than other generations.  Yet, our data also shows us they are less likely to visit a branch than other demographics, often choosing to switch accounts if there is a problem (or a better deal) rather than speak to a representative.  These considerations, when considered together, might lead us to creating some kind of secure ‘social banking’ app that delivers alerts securely to the user’s phone, and lets them send money electronically to their friends.  And perhaps it allows a video-chat with a representative if there are any queries.  Of course, this is just a hypothetical example, but ‘mashing up’ data analysis and insight and thinking creatively can lead to interesting ideas.


These are just three ways that we might use data as a catalyst for innovation.  Companies of all sizes can benefit from this type of innovation, whether midsized or multinational.  The key is to carry out robust business analysis mixed with a healthy dose of creative thinking.


Of course, we should still create a climate where serendipitous inspiration hits us.  But while we’re waiting, data can be an excellent catalyst.



This post was brought to you by IBM for Midsize Business and opinions are my own. To read more on this topic, visit IBM’s Midsize Insider. Dedicated to providing businesses with expertise, solutions and tools that are specific to small and midsized companies, the Midsize Business program provides businesses with the materials and knowledge they need to become engines of a smarter planet.

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