Leveraging global centers of gravity for digital disruption

Those of us who have spent our careers in global industries used to face the “not invented here” challenge of resistance to ideas from the outside.  Americans traipsed around the world trying to convince their international counterparts that they had all the answers related to marketing and technology. Sometimes it worked. In many cases, it resulted in global enterprise culture clash.

But the world has changed to one of worry that technology is “not disrupting here,” and the search is on at corporate headquarters around the world to find where real innovation is occurring. And in a world of globalization, that innovation can happen in the least likely places, thus rocking U.S.-based headquarters that still operate with that old cultural imperialist mentality.

Many innovation indexes reinforce the fact that hotbeds of innovation have shifted. For example, the reputable Global Innovation Index, co-produced by Cornell, INSEAD and World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), now shows the top countries for innovation across their aggregated indices are:  Switzerland, Netherlands, Sweden, UK, Switzerland and then (drumroll), the U.S. as number 6. Japan and Korea ranked 12 and 13 respectively.

But innovation lists can only help us so much. The fact is that finding and, more importantly, setting centers of gravity in an enterprise can have no geographic rhyme or reason. In my pre-internet years, I found that disruption actually happened in the operations that were the furthest away from U.S. headquarters, since corporate management would have to make an extreme effort to visit places like Australia and New Zealand to get a feel for the dynamics of their local media business. That changed when the international media business shifted to web sites and digital distribution, and observing the market was simply a matter of a mouse and keyboard.

From an innovation perspective, the shift to digital media was a blessing for headquarters and a curse to many of the local subsidiaries who operated on a “need-to-know” basis with headquarters. Headquarters finally had a window into many of the skunkworks projects that were previously done on the sly until they warranted an award at industry events or at annual global managers’ meetings.

Smart enterprises started leveraging the web to develop global innovation centers of excellence, or what are sometimes known as disruption studios. In the past, corporate management needed to physically travel to a country or city to experience the innovation culture. However, in the world of collaborative software, much of the digital transformation is being done, by definition, online.

History tells me, though, that even with the accessibility of online communications, many of these disruptive strategies are still shared with HQ only on a “need-to-know” basis. Without a risk-reward culture at the center of the business, these innovations will remain sequestered in a country or region.

The companies that prize innovation will reward the risk takers and incentivize them to publish innovation best practices. Some of the most successful enterprises go one step further. They develop “worst practices studios” so that other countries and divisions can avoid costly investments in half-baked platforms or services. In the spirit of “everyone slows down for a car wreck,” these tend to receive some of the highest engagement on enterprise portals.

Last, one of the most powerful aspects of leveraging global best practice centers is that commonality on certain digital disruptions can be found across what might seem to be totally disparate markets. Cultural imperialism in enterprises leads many innovators to cater to the reaction from a U.S.-based headquarters. But my experience is that the power is in how smaller markets can leverage innovation strategy because they share similar budget and staffing limitations. In the media world, we would see such strange bedfellows as Chile and Bulgaria finding some common ground on a transformation that the well-endowed UK and US country managers would never be interested in.

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