“When the cloud meets big data” is EMC’s tagline for 2012, Stephen Todd told a recent meeting of CIMS sponsors. Todd was appointed Director of the EMC Innovation Network in May 2011, after 25 years as a software engineer inventing and building storage products. He was charged with overseeing EMC’s global innovation and research, and stimulating innovation to try and solve those customer problems. Here’s how he’s doing it.
Today people are responding to the explosion in information storage by looking for someone else to manage it. However, the big problem we’re seeing is that many companies have built clouds for this purpose but they have not built them with big-data workflows in mind. If you want to deal with terabytes of information in analytics, moving that into the cloud is no easy task, so we need new solutions for how the cloud can read big data.
The mission of the EMC Innovation Network is threefold: Expand knowledge locally, transfer it globally, and leverage it strategically. So my strategy for running this innovation network has been to take my own DNA-- my own process-- and see if it applies globally. I began by looking back at my own invention experience, all the teams that I’ve worked on, all the products that I’ve delivered, and I asked myself whether I had encountered common patterns among individual contributors and their approaches to how they innovate.
Seven Habits of Highly Productive Intrapreneurs
1. The first thing I found was that most innovators inside of EMC are highly productive. Our culture is one of execution, hitting a deadline to deliver the products that customers want. So we mentor new people to get their job done first. Don’t even try and innovate. Don’t even try and come up with any ideas, but prove that when we give you the assignment you deliver early and you deliver with high quality.
2. I also learned that what differentiates innovators from employees who are simply highly productive is that innovators take the initiative to learn, generally in one of two areas: Taking the initiative to learn what our customers are struggling with, and secondly, taking the initiative to learn adjacent technologies. I believe this initiative-taking is probably the most critical activity I need to stimulate inside EMC, learning about customer problems and learning about adjacent technologies.
3. Part of that learning involves collaboration--you’re collaborating with other technologists and with customers, but then you’re working with a team of people to come up with ideas.
4. When I was working in the business unit I spent 80-85 percent of my time working on the product I was delivering, but I always figured out how to leave myself time to take initiative. That’s the hardest part of working at EMC; because we are a nose-to-the-grindstone, blue-collar type culture, being able to consistently carve out time to address your own ideas is a huge challenge. So I want to raise the visibility of that problem as high as I can.
5. As I developed a reputation for delivering products, and my visibility rose, more and more people wanted to meet with me. This took me away from delivering the idea. It became a big time sink for me. That’s a bridge every innovator has to cross. I essentially remained hidden inside of EMC for years and I was able to do what I loved; however, my horizontal visibility among people who were in the trenches with me was large. You need to think closely about your career as an inventor and where you ultimately want to land. Do you want to keep delivering products or do you want to move to the management side. If the latter, you need to become more visible. What future you want is a choice that needs to be presented to all innovators across EMC.
6. Once you’ve moved an idea far through the process you will really have to meet with executives and pitch it—try to get it on the roadmap. I believe there’s an art to that, and it’s having enough support from the people you’ve worked with that you’re able to deliver an effective presentation to senior executives. It’s better doing that as a team with a lot of people behind you than on your own.
7. Finish it! Some people never do, and they can’t be counted among the highly productive.
My strategy with the Innovation Network is to encourage the process I’ve just described. I’ve designed an innovation program that takes this model and encourages learning, initiative, collaboration, and then strategically delivers that idea in a way that benefits and brings value to EMC and our customers.
I view this job as basically two phases, problems actually (see diagram). I want to get the good ideas coming from our employee base, and then I want to deal with the incubation aspect of it--to somehow find those ideas that I can bring to the next level using these techniques. Expanding knowledge locally and transferring it globally is how you come up with ideas.
Once I determined the strategy I wanted to roll out inside EMC I asked myself how I would ever know if was successful with idea generation. How can I measure whether or not the techniques we’re trying to roll out are effective? And then, how will I know that knowledge is being expanded? You can’t manage what you can’t measure, and you can certainly measure knowledge growth and knowledge transfer.
So I formed a team called GINA, Global Innovation Network Analytics. My Innovation Network is a global network and I would like to run analytics, measuring the growth of knowledge in every location and measuring the transfer of knowledge between locations. So I tapped my existing network from my product delivery days and found people who wanted to work on this with me in a number of EMC locations around the world.
We begin our meetings very early in the morning so I can hit all the time zones. We have a virtual brown bag meeting where we all dial in and listen to what everyone is working on. It could be university research, a prototype, a conference you just attended, or anything related to innovation research.
The important thing, of course, is to be able to measure this knowledge growth. In essence, I want to build a database that shows all the growth of knowledge and innovation inside EMC and map that against our strategic direction to find those knowledge gaps we need to fill. That’s how I’m going after problem number one, idea generation.
When we make a strategic decision to leverage an idea-- perhaps we want to publish a paper, file a patent or build a particular service—we need to enlist employees around the world, many of whom may lack the particular skill set we need. So I have begun to leverage our technical elite—our Distinguished Engineers and Fellows –by having them mentor the others. In this way we can incubate those ideas and begin a marketplace of needs and talents and people who know how to deliver those in the context of EMC.
The challenge, of course, is that Distinguished Engineers and Fellows are so tied to the delivery of product that their managers won’t want to let go of them. I remind those managers that nominating someone to be a Distinguished Engineer means that person will be more involved in helping the wider corporation beyond the business unit.
I am also advertising this requirement for innovation across our entire 50,000 employees. It’s not just product and service innovation from our R&D, it’s how does human resources innovate? How does our sustainability office innovate? How does our diversity and inclusion office innovate? That’s the reason I’m continuing EMC’s rich tradition of sponsoring a yearly innovation contest. I’m responsible now for the content that is presented at this contest. It’s one day a year where every business unit, every geography inside of EMC, stops and considers innovation. In 2010, the fifth year that we had it, we received more than 1500 ideas from 26 countries.
Finally, last November I brought all my friends who helped me with the Global Innovation Network analytics program to an entire day of lectures at the MIT Media Lab on how we can work better as a corporation. That is a reward for all the people who have helped me work on our new analytics model. It is another way of incentivizing participation in a program like this.
EMC Distinguished Engineer
Director on EMC Innovation Network