Kindled Meme

– exploring the purpose of connection

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Hunting for culture – the crumbs you leave

Im one of those people that goes digging behind the ‘why’ of people and companies – I go hunting to find out what drives people and to get a sense for the energy and vision behind the people who formed and joined a company – especially in the stellar companies – the ‘gazelles and the ‘born globals’ –  businesses that have found a place to make an impact.

I blame Henley for my behaviour. We spent a lot of time assessing the values of our NGO in South Africa and also assessing local charities – how they message and connect through common values with their target benefactors. You could call it branding – but its deeper than that – its not look and feel – its about finding the beliefs.

I look into a lot of tech companies because – whether through chance or design – this is the area I grew up in. But Im not so interested in the nut and bolts of these firms (I’ve seen a lot of tech come and go in my career – its always changing) and I’m more interested in the culture and people in the tribe.  I want to know about the story as much as the growth, success, potential – because its really hard to get behind ‘a cause’ if the purpose isn’t clear to me.

So Im the one that heads straight to the ‘about’ pages on the website to see how do the people communicate themselves.

Are they focused on their product, waxing on about their organisation or talking about how their customers are the heroes in their story, with a passion for the external world they operate in.

I want to see the latter.

When I look at this info I see the companies in three groups:

  • The companies that talk product and ‘org’ – but they are closed – its all blah and grey messaging
  • The companies that tell you who are the founders – the generals in control – they have a bio and the people are impressive
  • The companies that have a human feel – as if the company is a living organism – showing all the folks onboard and telling a story.

What I want to see is some Organisational Openness – and find some real people.

This stuff is quick to get a grasp of. There are pictures – some people smile and some look sinister or earnest. Are they suited-and-booted or are they dressed for the Social Era – are they Gen Y or Gen X, or do they have a scruffy old chairman with woolly eye brows and a suit bought in a department store in the 1980’s. Are they post-academia open-shirted or california-tanned with teeth-too-white: “I micromanage-myself-as-well-as-all-the staff”.

This visual stuff is while Instagram is so powerful – it captures a thousand words.

We need clues as to who you will be doing business with and the more info I get, the closer I am to a connection and an understanding. But not everyone is ‘open’ and maybe they are actually doing me a favour – telling me to back away from the fence. “Don’t look in, James!”

I have a friend who runs one of the ‘closed’ companies – there is grey blurb on the company and why it is great – but no staff profiles – no people story. I asked him why he does this and he thought about it. It was down to the dot com bubble days – when staff were getting poached.

“If I tell people who we have and why they are good – recruiters will call them up.”

What I hear is “The only reason my people stay is becasue I keep them so busy they don’t have time to look anywhere else for employment.”

My staff are resources, a number of FTE’s. Churn is expensive but inevitable – its really not a great place to be… a “Bleak House” – where the “War on Talent” is actually the war to suppress our own staff and just keep them reliable and efficient.

Engagement comes from eliminating substitutes.

At the other end of the spectrum you have the guys who are open – and say something good about their folks in “140 characters or less”.

The first time I really appreciated a company doing this was looking into Innocent – the smoothy company. At ‘school’ we were looked into the Innocent acquisition by Coca-Cola and I was hunting around looking for clues around the companies cultures and beliefs (Surprisingly, they are a good match).

On the Innocent website they listed all their staff – show their emails and super-brief bio. Friendly and relaxed as you would expect and there is no hierarchy shown in the staff pic’s – founders Richard, Adam and Jon all listed alongside the rest of the teams (with their emails).

Innocent also did a great thing that Ive not spotted anywhere else yet – they also have a page for the people who have moved on and left the fold. Most HR folks know that the way you treat your leavers sends out strong messages to the rest of the staff – innocent grab this principle with humour, warmth and transparency – wishing their staff well in their onward journeys – often literally – there are lots of antipodeans in amongst the West London workforce.

Its was all part of the Innocent story – it was the ethical start-up spirit they had.

Are you making it easy for people to work with you – being open and transparent?

Or is strategy about winning? Are you a Prussian General with lots of medals – demanding respect and scaring off the Talent poachers?

Here are three of my favourite Open Organisations.

37 Signals


And one a bit closer to home….


Its not rocket science – its a choice.

Which way do you roll?


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Influencing the UK’s Innovation – Collaboration with the TSB

The are many factors that compel companies to work together on their innovation programmes – learning and exploration of new markets and technologies, or tapping into each others resources and capabilities. But in the UK – when asking SME business leaders what gives them the push to collaborate – the UK’s Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and its grant funded innovation schemes is a major driver for being part of the UK innovation ecosystem.

While ‘Open Innovation’ is often cited in academic literature as being tough for SME’s  – they have a “liability of smallness” and don’t have power and influence in their industry or the resources and maturity of multi-nationals – none of that is a barrier for agile and adventurous UK SME companies – and the path to collaboration is made all the easier due to the policy choices of this UK government body.

When performing the literature review for my own research, the world of innovation and collaboration throws up lots of lessons – but when trying to pin down the academic understanding of “What drives successful inter-firm collaboration?” – government intervention was not what I was looking for.

But during 12 semi-structured interviews ‘The TSB” kept emerging. I’m all for the force of innovation and collaboration – but I found that effective macro-economic policy also plays a part in supporting the UK as a place to be ‘open’ in innovation.

Out of twelve C-level interviews, eleven of the candidate use TSB funding.

This is what they said:

“I mean the Technology, Strategy board, actually is probably a fantastic example of enabling Open Innovation in UK because of all the TSB funded projects. We’ve done one –  we’ve been involved in three big ones and we’ve got a fourth one where we are putting the final application in now.  And they’re obviously, you know, you have a collaboration agreement, you have a number of companies involved and they’re very good at getting people working together.  Maybe companies are not being as open as they could be, they don’t have to be totally open, but they do get people sitting around together and talking which is very good.”

“The TSB is picking up a large chunk of the role of the US VC fund because we don’t quite have the same investment culture here. A lot of the early-stage investors have gone away. We don’t quite have the investment culture here in the UK.”

“I must keep highlighting that the Technology Strategy Board has a key role to play – they are pretty good – they could probably do even more if they have more money – but they are a big help – the key mechanism for driving businesses to work with other businesses.”

The TSB and Knowledge Transfer Partnerships and the “_connect” infrastructure also uncover potential new markets

“We are member of a couple of the knowledge transfer networks. We are just in receipt of a confirmation letter from the TSB for a collaborative activity around an innovative use of our equipment.”

While the TSB has formal programmes these can be used to support growth in venturing too

“We have used our IP to form a new company that was done with a TSB grant. We licensed some of our IP into that new company. That company was established and we together assigned a value to the IP that we took as a stake in the company as part of the funding round.”

Working under TSB requirements also give a structure to a partnership and can set out key terms, boundaries and expectations:

“You have to start to be very careful about co-creating explicit IP and if you actually expect to create protected IP. We will do that but we have to go through more detailed negotiations. It tends to be more of the TSB funded grant where you have to make sure that everything is notified in advance. This is inconvenient but we have done it and it’s fairly surmountable and were also on an EU grant at the moment where these things have to be codified in advance.”

The TSB funding is UK-centric – the world may becoming ‘flat’ – but the stimulus is local. Yet opportunity is frames by such boundaries

“Up comes this call for TSB funding and we looked at them and thought this is just perfect for the first time ever I am looking at TSB opportunity that fits exactly what we need and we’ve managed to find UK manufacturing partners and fabricators who are willing to partner in that.”

“I think what the TSB do is fine, within the terms of their remit. The problem is they are not on a firm footing – they are bounded to support UK-only partnerships – and the industrial base of this country has been so badly damaged. If you look at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany there are so many of them – such a fertile ground because there are just so many small family run manufacturing businesses within with an interest in innovation within Germany.”

Often Universities can be good partners – but more than that the TSB encourages this connection:

“There’s this one particular project I’m working on well with thinking of setting up a knowledge transfer partnership which would involve the University so we’re looking at a particular case because the university have access to a particular expertise that we want to benefit from.”

“You sometimes need a university when you go after aspects of different funding, you need a university partners sometimes to access the funding. If they see ‘multinational company’, ‘service company’ and ‘university’ together then they will fund it if you bring in all three parties.”

“We have had two TSB grants to work with Universities on for Cambridge and one for UCL and we have an ongoing relationship there.”

Buts its not just TSB funding –  early stage and highly innovative companies in the bio-tech, chemical, medical device and  software also tap into Research Council grants such as EPSRC ,and EU sources of funding permit partnerships beyond the UK.

In the future we see us doing more of our own in-house product development its just and we have programmes in place to do that but again these are grant funded through EU  funding that we have been able to secure –   we just cant justify the cost of doing that on from investor capitol.

Under the auspices of framework 6 and 7 programs of European Union funded activities we have developed new techniques  new service and products.

The choice and approach to funding was strategic and not just a form filling exercise – there are many stakeholders that can help drive your choices  and for those that scan the globe in search of knowledge you may build partnerships that allow you to tap into schemes such as DARPA – a practice that has been very successful for some UK businesses as these guys show here.

Understanding funding and its role in innovation is clearly a strategic capability in the UK and Europe.

While innovation partnerships are talked of as burdens on the SME (transactional costs) – leveraging the TSB with the right partners is a rite of passage for the UK innovators I interviewed – connecting knowledge, businesses and facilitating conversation and structured outcomes.

Having a government intervention is not the ideal of free-market efficiencies – but it does seem to making up for market failings – it gives the collaboration conversation some real teeth.

Business was always about scarce resources – with this funding strategy it seems the open innovators are finding what they need.

Well done TSB.


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Innovation jibber-jabber – is it useful?

Ive been wrapping up my dissertation this week and been reflecting on the use of language –  and especially academic language in the innovation field.

There’s lots of research out there on innovation but is tucked away inside EBSCO and ProQuest and not everyone can get access to it, and when they do get access to it it’s written in a way that many people in business would find incomprehensible – full of jargon.

A classic one in the world of innovation is the term ‘absorptive capacity’ – what on earth does this mean?

It’s all about when you work with other people, how you absorb their knowledge, see the significance in what you find and then transform it into some kind of meaning that you can take back into your own firm and see it used. Seeing it ‘used’ means seeing it applied to build some kind of value – a commercial offering. People get romantic about innovation but it’s only innovation if it’s got use and has a commercial or societal outcome.

But in a world thats becoming collaborative, it’s not just about sucking in other people’s knowledge but also sharing your own knowledge, and so the academics come up with another term  -‘desorptive capacity’ – the skill of communicating what you have so others can take it on board. It all makes good sense but the terms in themselves are obscure.

Easterby-Smith puts this in a much clearer way he says: “Good teachers make good learners, and good learners make good teachers”

People who can communicate a message, build a connection, amplify ideas and initiate some action. And it’s the action that is really important in absorptive capacity – compelling people to crack on and get things done and make things happen.

I had a conversation at Henley recently and heard about a guy from McKinsey who had recently started at Apple. The guy was a high performer and in McKinsey had been “The Man”. But when he initiated his first project at Apple, pulling together various experts from around the business, he became aware he was sat in a room with people who really didn’t need him – who were more than competent, understanding the significance and more than willing to crack on and get things done. He was asking “what am I doing here these guys are way more capable than I am?”

He ran his first meeting and people understood what was needed of them and what the vision was the project – even as he packed up his notes from the session he started seeing e-mails flying around as people left the room, picked up their actions and started to make things happen. This is a bit of absorptive capacity which is really key – when people really know how to get their shit together.

It’s not the process, it is not in a procedure, it’s in the culture – its in ‘the way things are done around here’. Apple might be a big company but from this guys experience it hasn’t forgotten what was that made it great in the early years. From my own research I can see there are many small companies in the UK which are just as focused and practical – with the need for speed and action coded into their DNA.

But does the term ‘absorptive capacity’ really help people in the real world understand what it is that researchers are finding inside these great companies?

It’s been great having the ‘obligation’ to be a researcher for a few months –  jabbering away about tacit and codified knowledge and social ties and relational capital – but now I have got to transform that learning in a way that means something to other people – through a language that’s accessible. This stuff is great but its only useful if it gets used.

You know what I mean?