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Innovation starts here: How collaboration will drive new ideas and customer experiences

(Image credit: Image Credit: Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock)

Making innovation part of the fabric of an organisation is key to sustained growth. If cultivated in the right way, it will not only have a significant impact on the bottom line, but it will also redefine the way teams and departments interact.

In the digital age, innovation is more important than ever. How customers perceive and interact with brands has radically changed in the last decade. Digital is now the first port of call. This is not news, but it’s worth mentioning because many processes and operations still aren’t fit for purpose when it comes to the customer of today, never mind the customer of tomorrow.

No industry is exempt. Take the automotive sector – the next two decades will see more industry change than in the past 100 years. Most of the attention to date has been on innovation in the car and on the driving experience. From autonomous to fully electric, the ideas that capture headlines are how the next generation will drive – or be driven. What has not captured as much attention is what is needed to enhance the overall customer experience.

Companies need to focus on improving the whole customer journey. But to do so, they have to build a culture of innovation across the business. One that uses both internal and external experts to share knowledge and create new or improved solutions that are focused on customers’ requirements and demands.

Creating unique customer experiences

Just like any IT project, designing an innovative solution from scratch can be difficult. Many processes are reliant on legacy systems, and this is compounded by the siloed nature of big corporates.

So, while these firms often have the resources and talent to disrupt the status quo and develop new, exciting customer-orientated solutions, these solutions are often developed in isolation. This means they go only part of the way to solving the challenge. The biggest challenge will be to create a collaborative environment in which great ideas can flourish.

This is an attitude familiar to anyone who has worked in, or with, a start-up. These businesses need to move fast to grow and thrive – all teams working together for a common purpose. They are built on innovation.

But as businesses grow it becomes more and more difficult for them to retain this culture. Departments and divisions develop their own solutions and ways of working. The question is, how can large corporates adopt a start-up mentality?

An incubator for ideas

Many businesses now run their own innovation labs, or accelerators, the aim of which is to tap into the start-up ecosystem. The best innovation labs have been successful in harnessing the entrepreneurial spirit and technology of smaller, more agile tech start-ups. But companies need to go further – beyond a ‘me too’ approach to innovation. They need to create a platform that brings together the best of both worlds. The expertise and insight from external teams should be combined with internal experts – employees who know their customers and have ideas about how to improve services to meet their needs.

The result of this is not just the product, service or improved operational process: it is the creation of a new culture. A culture that’s able to move and innovate faster, while responding to the needs of the customer and future-proofing the business.

But, as with any cultural change, it won’t endure if it’s embarked on as a standalone exercise. Top-down sponsorship is key to ensuring it is promoted across all divisions and locations. We have taken this to heart for the BMW Innovation Lab.

Innovation at the heart of our enterprise

When we launched the BMW Innovation Lab for the first time in 2016, we focused our energies on bringing in start-ups that could not only deliver real business value for us, but also get us to think and operate more disruptively. It was successful. We now have ongoing business relationships with four out of the five firms brought into the BMW Innovation Lab.

For the second iteration of the Lab, launched in September 2017, we wanted to expand our remit to focus on internal innovation.

Working alongside the start-ups in the BMW Innovation Lab, The Intrapreneur Lab has been designed to radically change our culture. With it, we aim to eliminate the suggestion-box approach to employee engagement by inviting any of our 1,300 BMW Group UK employees to submit a proposal for a new commercial venture. The ones we choose to take forward will be given all the support they need to make their ideas a reality.

We’ll be giving teams time away from their day jobs to work on their proposals. With access to the Said Business School at Oxford University, candidates will learn how to develop and implement their ideas. After this, the next step is helping them launch their businesses. We’ve ensured that each team will have one-to-one coaching by specialist mentors, and will have the chance to pitch for investment from a ring-fenced fund at the end of the programme.

While this whole exercise will help our company build and implement new solutions that will have a real impact on our customers and the bottom line, this is not the principle intention of the BMW Innovation Lab. We want the focus to be innovation itself. The aim is to inspire a real attitude change towards innovation, making it an intrinsic part of our culture and building it into all BMW Group businesses and services. In short, we want innovation to continue to be part of our DNA.

But this exercise will be largely futile if we don’t succeed in breaking down the siloed nature of big business. While fostering collaboration between external innovators and among internal teams is going to be crucial in fostering innovation across the business, it can only work if the internal teams gain a better understanding of what each department does. By breaking down disparate legacy systems between teams, even the largest corporates will be able to move at the speed of a start-up and use their expertise to create customer experiences fit for today and tomorrow. Collaboration will be key.

Jonny Combe, General Manager of Product and Channel Development, BMW Group UK’s Financial Services
Image Credit: Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

Jonny Combe
Jonny is the General Manager of Product and Channel Development for BMW Group UK’s Financial Services arm, and the architect of BMW’s Digital and Innovation Programmes in the UK, including their Innovation Labs; the first of its kind within the Automotive Finance Industry.