Instituting Innovation

IEEE-USA’s Innovation Institute seeks to teach young technologists how to transform a good idea into reality

7 January 2008

What is innovation? Why does it happen? What’s the difference between invention and innovation? How can engineers put innovation at the forefront of their work?

Supplying answers to such questions is the focus of the IEEE-USA’s Innovation Institute. To the institute, if a new idea is not deployed as a product or service, it is not innovation; it’s simply an invention. Accordingly, the institute seeks to teach young technologists how to transform a good idea into a product, service, or process improvement with the help of proven innovators who can show them how it’s done.

To that end, the institute hosted its first forum last November where its faculty—IEEE senior members with good track records developing new products—led a series of workshops on strategies for making innovation happen. Perhaps most important for the 40 attendees at the two-day event was learning how to make innovative thinking a repeatable business practice.

IEEE Senior Member Mauro Togneri, a consultant who advises companies on management and innovation issues, led a session on how innovation differs at small and large companies. “At a large company, the innovator has to navigate through layers of bureaucracy and the attendant politics, while a small company offers direct access to top management,” says Togneri. But a corporate giant is not without its benefits, he adds. “There you may have better access to staff, facilities, and marketing expertise needed for a successful product launch.”

Attendees also examined case studies of actual development projects. Their job was to take a proposal for a new product and decide how to bring it to market. Participants were divided into groups where they played either the role of researchers looking to get their project approved or managers developing criteria for evaluating proposals.

Each group had to deal with issues surrounding innovation, such as resources, markets, costs, and corporate culture. The groups presented their approaches to commercializing the product, including the compromises they made in getting it to market. These were then critiqued by the others. “They really got into their roles as researchers and managers,” Togneri recalls. “They continued arguing their cases right through dinner that night.”

According to Togneri, the attendees learned that there were many ways to develop a new product. But any approach must make sense within the framework of a particular company. “They had to focus their product development on what it will do for the company and not just on overcoming the technical challenges,” Togneri says.

The case study approach was also used in other workshops that examined how to create an environment where fresh thinking is encouraged and how a person’s style can be made more innovative.

OTHER SERVICES The institute is, however, more than workshops. It also offers the Innovation Network, an online community that includes moderated forums on particular subjects and live chats where members can share experiences and learn from each other. The institute’s faculty is available here to answer questions and offer advice.

The institute also has two new eBooks, with more on the way. The Best of Today's Engineer: On Innovation is a compilation of articles on innovation from the IEEE-USA’s Today's Engineer archives. The second, Innovation Conversations—Book 1: The Innovation Process, is from internationally renowned innovation expert and author William C. Miller. Other books in the works deal with the history of innovation, produced with the IEEE History Center, and the innovation process and innovations in other industries.

Still being developed is the Innovation Information Clearinghouse, which will contain an online repository of articles on innovation and a catalog of innovation-focused degree programs.

A DEARTH OF INNOVATION? IEEE-USA created the institute in 2006 in response to a concern that innovation in the United States is in decline and that the country’s longtime competitive advantage is evaporating. Such concern had been spelled out in a report earlier that year by the U.S. National Academy of Engineering called “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future.”

“The report pointed out two phenomena,” says Ralph W. Wyndrum, an IEEE Fellow and 2006 IEEE-USA president, who serves as the institute’s president. “First is a change in the U.S. government’s R&D priorities. The second is the loss of major private research institutions, such as Bell Labs and Sarnoff Labs, which have shrunk or disappeared entirely.” The report also asserted that foreign-born, U.S.-trained engineers returning to their native countries are taking home skills needed to compete with the United States.

“Innovation in the United States is being diminished both in absolute terms and in comparison with up-and-coming nations, such as China,” Wyndrum says.

To counteract these trends, three years ago Wyndrum began lobbying the IEEE-USA Board of Directors to create an organization dedicated to teaching U.S. technologists how to innovate.

Wyndrum notes that because the IEEE is a global organization, membership is not limited to U.S. residents or even to IEEE members. All programs will take place in the IEEE’s U.S. regions. Three forums, for which attendees can earn continuing education units, are planned for this year, and six for 2009. Plans are also under way to make workshops like the one held in November available as on-demand Webinars. (The fee for the November forum was US $795 for IEEE members, $950 for nonmembers.)

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