Dedicated collaborative spaces for cross-functional and open innovation (mixing internal and external participants) teams can encourage and enhance collaboration, but can also generate their own constraints. Co-location alone is not a silver bullet strategy for seamless collaboration among diverse teams.
Companies in search of innovation-based competitive advantages recognize the benefit of innovation teams and projects that bring together a diverse set of backgrounds, skills, knowledge and perspectives. To achieve this diversity, companies create cross-functional teams that bring together team members from a variety of functions and units and open innovation teams that combine internal team members with outside stakeholders.
To support these teams, some companies create dedicated collaborative spaces where cross-functional and open innovation teams can meet to exchange information and ideas and develop solutions.
An in-depth case study of a collaborative space in a global Italian food corporation, pseudonymously called FoodCorp, showed that a collaborative space can be both an advantage and disadvantage in developing innovative ideas and products. The study was based on more than 30 interviews with participants in cross-functional and open innovation projects, and on 60 hours of observations of the teams in action.
The collaborative space was carefully designed for developing innovative food products by breaking down cross-functional and internal-external boundaries and promoting internal/external co-creation and joint decision-making. Comfortable furnishings and bright decoration encouraged informality. It was centrally located in a building that belonged to the R&D function. Its modular aspect enabled teams to configure the space as needed, for example into closed offices or open spaces.
The space raised high expectations of an innovation laboratory where team members would participate consistently and actively in the creative sessions, coming fully prepared and dedicating their full attention to the process. In actuality, team members were often distracted by their smartphones or computers, didn’t always come prepared, and didn’t show up consistently. In terms of team collaboration and project outcomes, the results were also mixed.
On the positive side, the boundaries between cross-functional team members were effectively broken down, opening the path for a free-flow exchange of knowledge and ideas. For open innovation teams, the boundaries remained to some extent in place—the exchanges were more structured rather than free-flowing, and were firmly guided by the internal participants. Nevertheless, the collaborative space offered the opportunity for integrated knowledge exchanges that yielded positive results for both internal and external participants.
The research also showed that the various tools and methods brought to the collaborative space from different functions, units or external sources were aligned and used effectively to help the teams move forward. As a result, cross-functional teams were able to mobilize around common goals, while open innovation teams developed original, fun and “ready for use” solutions in response to external events.
On the negative side of the coin, the free flow of exchanges and ideas in the cross-functional teams led to a multiplication of projects that turned the collaborative space into somewhat of a chaotic area — a “maze” is one term that emerged from the interviews. To manage this growing maze, the R&D function took control and in the eyes of some participants, turned the space into an “R&D cloister.”
Meanwhile, for open innovation team members, the structured exchanges between internal and external participants felt to some more like a “showcase” than a laboratory — that is, the collaborative space was used by the company to impress external stakeholders, rather than letting external stakeholders become immersed in the internal product development process. In addition, the status or results of the open innovation projects were rarely shared with the rest of the organization; some participants referred to the individual projects in the collaborative space to “silos.”
The FoodCorp case study offers a cautionary tale to companies seeking to enhance their innovation processes through structural initiatives, such as a dedicated collaborative space. While co-location of participants in innovative projects may enhance collaboration, it is not a shortcut to diversity: simply gathering people in one space is not enough to ensure that people with different backgrounds and experience will seamlessly collaborate. Managers must pay attention to and build up the other important factors than enhance and enable collaboration and effective relationships: an alignment on goals and purpose, and effective communication.
The FoodCorp case also highlights the challenges of multiplex collaboration initiatives — initiatives that simultaneously support collaboration among internal participants and collaboration between internal and external participants. Open innovation projects remained more difficult than projects involving internal cross-functional teams. As a result, the different types of teams used the collaborative space differently—for example, as a truly open exchange forum for cross-functional teams, but under the control of the internal members of open innovation teams. Combining cross-functional and open innovation projects in the same space also led to the need for trade-offs: resources dedicated to open innovation projects meant fewer resources for cross-functional efforts.
Structural capabilities for innovation, which can range from specific contracts to an initiative such as FoodCorp’s collaborative space, are often presented in unambiguous terms: create the structure and watch the innovation flow. The reality is more complex, involving advantages, but also constraints that need to be anticipated and managed.
Multiplex boundary work in innovation projects: the role of collaborative spaces for cross- functional and open innovation. Paula Ungureanu, Carlotta Cochis, Fabiola Bertolotti, Elisa Mattarelli & Anna Chiara Scapolan. European Journal of Innovation Management. Journal of Innovation Management (April 24, 2020).
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