Controlled innovation avoids re-inventing the wheel

Dr John Hinchliff

Dr John Hinchiff says coordinated approach to innovation allowed sharing of best practice

Whilst many organisations want to introduce and embed innovation into the workplace there are companies that struggle to control it. One civil engineering company found it was continually re-inventing the wheel through a lack of shared learning across the company.

Although civil engineering consultants are inherently conservative – bridge failures and tunnel collapses are simply unacceptable – they are often required to come up with innovative solutions, think about the Thames Barrage or the Large Hadron Collider. Ironically these landmark projects are often more easy to manage than the more usual, widely dispersed projects.

For a high profile projects the research, innovation and the development of new materials can be controlled relatively easily within confines of the project team unlike the day-to-day business.

The issue: Lack of shared corporate knowledge

One example of this was a large engineering consulting company with several thousand engineers distributed across over 100 offices worldwide. One aspect of the company’s business is the decontamination of former industrial facilities prior to commercial or residential redevelopment. Like many companies of its size in the sector a 300-400 of its engineers will be working on this type of project at any time.

The issue these engineers face is finding the most appropriate solution for their site.

The engineers are not very well connected globally or even nationally and client confidentiality makes it difficult to discuss potential problems outside of the company. In addition, regulatory constraints vary widely around the world and some clients have favoured clean-up techniques and a variety of technology solutions are available for each site.

These pressures and the lack of communication lead individual project managers to start designing and innovating in isolation or to seek out a quick fix. They can be convinced by a specialist contractor or university engineering department that the site is suitable for a new technique, only to discover that the method was inappropriate.

Worse still colleagues in other offices might already have known that the technique was inappropriate. New applications for existing technologies have a limited chance of success in such a closed unquestioning environment.

Although engineers are well known for learning from their mistakes the commercial and residential end uses for properties like these mean that clients do not allow sensitive information into the public domain, so it is difficult to share the learning points with others. The result was a significant number of similar projects undertaken differently with a range of outcomes.

Although taken in isolation each project appeared to have something innovative about it viewed globally it might share similarities with other projects and tried and tested approaches may already be available.

The realisation within this company that there was a problem was identified by young site engineers who were moving from site-to-site and job-to-job as part of the company’s training programme.

The solution: a virtual network

The solution was simple; give two senior engineers from each operational region some time to think about the issues with some external facilitation. This led to a virtual network being set up for all the engineers involved. Regional operating groups were organised first and then linked to create a global team, a mail list was enough to get started but it moved to social media style sharing with monthly Q&A sessions, newsletters and webinars to share successes and failures.

The biggest hit was the decision to run annual seminars that included clients, contractors, regulators and academics presenting alongside the company’s project engineers. This had the effect of periodically opening the network to new ideas and business opportunities.

The outcome: controlled innovation

The previous chaotic, often inappropriate attempts at innovation were replaced by controlled interfaces with universities and specialists where interesting research or developments had been identified as worth pursuing.