Yesterday I attended the first day of the 2014 Front End of Innovation conference in Boston. There was a variety of speakers from all different fields.  A few that stood out to me included Neff Hudson from USAA, talking about the impact of technology on financial services. Rick Smyers talking about the Fidelity’s FCAT program. And Colin Nelson from Hype talked about the advantages to creating a network of “Innovation Advocates” within an organization.

Overall I thought that there was good selection of quality content, with many sessions focused on the actual mechanics of running an innovation program, balanced with some long-term, high-level strategic perspectives. I thought that the balance of approach was valuable and easily digestible.

Carlos Dominguez from Cisco at Front End of Innovation 2014

Carlos Dominguez from Cisco at Front End of Innovation 2014

There was an important focus on the changing business environment, the continued operating and competitive pressures, and the ongoing (often unfulfilled) desire to demonstrate commercial impact.

However, what struck me the most was the marked shift in the role that front-line employees appear to have with innovation activities. In prior sessions, those employees were seen as resources to be tapped into on occasion, and then kind of ignored until they are needed again.

This time around, almost ever presenter  talked about the need to continually engage employees in innovation activities, with a goal of generating broader cultural enhancement across the organization. Speaker after speaker talked about building employee networks to support innovation. These networks can be referred to as “Innovation Advocates”, “Innovation Catalysts”, etc. but the end result is the same—networking and supporting employees to leverage an innovation perspective within the business. Carlos Dominguez from Cisco put it most clearly when he talked about the need to support a culture of adaptability.

In addition, there was a fair bit of talking within these presentations about training employees in innovation skills. Once again, Mr Dominguez referenced the need to train employees around innovation skills. Honestly, and perhaps oddly, I didn’t see the training and network development efforts linked too much in conversations, but there was lots of discussion, so that made me happy enough.

Honestly, I don't recall who this was, but I saw lots of talk about culture during the day

Honestly, I don’t recall who this was, but I saw lots of talk about culture during the day

On the flip side, I was struck with how little I heard about companies focusing on innovation challenges or campaigns to drive innovation within organizations. This doesn’t mean that companies aren’t doing these kinds of activities, but what is does say to me is that the campaign / challenge model is embedded within businesses, and perhaps even commoditized in terms of the perceived value from presenters.

Within these events, there are always going to be lots of different approaches and styles to innovation efforts presented, What I do feel is that companies are now seeing the value of driving cultural change in order to support the development of new thinking. Further, they are increasingly seeing employee education and network development as a valuable part of their innovation program efforts.

So overall, day #1 down, and I feel great that much of the thinking aligns with the vision and approach of  Culturevate.

I am very much looking forward to meeting more colleagues in the days ahead.