Social networking for innovators

Here’s an interesting idea: an August 13, 2010 article in ICT Results, titled “Social networking for innovators,” suggests that companies should be focusing on networking tools for specific categories of people, rather than the generic-Facebook approach that aims to connect every living person on the planet, along with a few stray cats and dogs. Since most companies prize innovation quite highly, and since “innovation remains a fundamentall mysterious process, often the outcome of unexpected Eureka moments,” why not provide collaboration and network tools specifically aimed at innovators?

Apparently, a project to do just that is underway, with funds provided by the European Union’s Sixth Framework Programme (don’t ask – I have no idea what it is, except that it’s presumably more advanced and more wonderful than the Fifth Framework Programme. Heck, anything that’s a “programme” instead of just a “program” has got to be good, right?). The project is known as Laboranova, and it consists of a suite of Web 2.0 innovation tools rather than a single platform; the tools can work together or alone. Thus far, the project has 10 “core tools,” which provide support for what the project has identified as five “innovation phases” — consisting of innovation games (to foster creative thinking), representational tools for presenting ideas in different media, support tools (e.g., mashups, for combining different core tools with a single interface), evaluation tools and community tools for sharing and innovation.

One of the “representational” tools is called InnoTube, which operates like a private YouTube for business. Another representational tool is called Melodie, which creates visual maps of concepts or idea submitted by its users, so that other users can comment or elaborate on the initial ideas. These and other tools are summarized and displayed on the Laboranova website, and some of the tools (e.g., Idearium, IDeM, and InnoJam) can be demoed or invoked directly from the website.

It’s probably a little too early to tell whether this research program will really lead to practical, productive results; however, the ICT Results article says that the Laboranova tools got a positive reception when they were tested at companies like Fiat, Lucent and L’Oreal; it also indicates that Agilent Technologies is marketing one of the tools, called GreatLinks (which focuses on developing an innovation community, with an enterprise-wide social bookmarking mechanism).

From my admittedly chauvinistic American perspective, all of this sounds like the sort of thing I would expect to see going on at the MIT Media Labs, or at Xerox PARC — and who knows, maybe such projects are underway at those well-known institutions. But Laboranova is obviously European, with nearly a dozen academic institutions and half a dozen industrial collaborators involved in its activities. It’s just one more reminder that exciting new computer-research initiatives are underway all over the world, and that no part of the world — least of all the United States — can afford to be complacent about whatever competitive advantage it might think that it currently enjoys.

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