2/2014

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Solution zone ahead: Ericsson’s interests are encouraging innovation at the workplace

If you’re pressed to form a sentence with “large global corporation” and “innovation” included in it, it’s all too easy to separate the terms into sentences of their own, keeping them far apart. With the continuing onslaught of fail-fast tech start-ups, who could blame you? But in reality, innovative thinking within large corporations is a must, and not only because everyone else claims to be innovative, but because it’s good for business.

“Innovation isn’t just coming up with new tech or solutions to a satisfy need. It’s also about solving mundane challenges that can come up any given day”, explains Aulis Koivisto. He explains that innovation is such an everyday process – mundane in itself, actually – that it isn’t even necessarily recognized as innovation, and the word is rarely mentioned. “Just look around.” We’re sitting in a modern cafeteria located in the new offices of Ericsson Oulu, located in the city’s technology park. He points to the exits on either end of the room: “Ericsson employees are located over there, and our local business partners are on the other side of the building. We get to share our problems and ideas on a daily basis over a cup of coffee.” But surely innovation isn’t just chatting over an americano? According to Koivisto, a lot of it is.

Let’s enhance that image

He emphasizes that enabling free flow of ideas in the workplace matters a great deal to Ericsson. “The main thing is to create a working environment that encourages social contact and conversation, without which collaboration and therefore innovation can’t happen. The atmosphere of your workplace should support finding solutions, be it to a problem in your day or a business goal. You can’t just go into a booth by yourself to create something new, but you can have an idea and share that for feedback, and we do every day.” On top of coffee conversations, Ericsson hosts employee competitions.

“Our main enabler for innovation is our Business Garden concept, which consists of three main activities: Café Friday, the Jack Bauer Challenge and the Business Lab.” The first is a bi-weekly ideation session for short inspirational talk, then an idea pitching session, and an open space discussion session around the pitched ideas, open for all, without restrictions. The second one is named for a reason. “The Jack Bauer Challenge is a 24 hour hackathon that is arranged every 6 weeks to two months. Teams form around ideas that have been pitched earlier and a prototype is produced.” Some participants bring sleeping bags, others go home to sleep. Finally, mature prototypes can be set up as demos for customers to see at BLISS, or Business Lab for us outsiders. BLISS is also a part of Ericsson’s global Business Lab network, which gives their innovators a global reach for their ideas.

Vive la difference

Although Koivisto sees socializing in the workplace as very distinctly Nordic, he pinpoints the now global phenomenon of collaborative thinking to a certain point in very recent history. “Telecommunications has been an industry of explosive growth since the early 90’s, when companies suddenly found themselves without strict rules on how to generate the products and services that the market demanded at an escalating pace.”

At the peak of the heydays, the need for talent was immense – so companies weren’t so picky about professional backgrounds when recruiting, which added to diversity in their employees. Furthermore, the industry got a youth boost as the quickly growing industry was heartily greeted by young entrepreneurs who weren’t necessarily accustomed to traditional methods of industrial or technological ways of doing business. Suddenly, younger people from different areas of expertise started feeding the innovation processes. Today, everyone recognizes the value of diversity – having people from different backgrounds to bounce an idea around on. “It works brilliantly up to a point, but you can’t formalize it – it has to be organic.”

Ideas going all the way

So: ideas crop up and are in need of feedback, and what better place to talk about them than a cafeteria? Once enough hot beverages have been drunk and people chatted with, an idea is either scrapped or accepted, and things change to a more systematic process. “Of course additions or changes come up in all phases of the development, as we adhere to agile and lean methodologies. It depends on the product itself and the economical validity of the proposed change whether we can implement the change, or at what point, but as we know, these things are never completely finished. Software gets updated, hardware is renewed. It all depends when and how changes are included, but it’s always encouraged.”

Ericsson’s vision of 50 billion connected devices by 2020 itself is a starting point for encouraging progress. And as Ericsson’s recent personnel growth by recruitment shows, the progress seems to be quite positive. “In the grand scheme of things, there’s always another goal up ahead, and that’s how it should be. The technological progress hasn’t ceased so far, and it’s only logical to assume that it won’t stop once we reach any given goal. The world is still changing, and it’s changing fast.”