Many large companies who have implemented Open Innovation use “Technology Scouts”, searching the external world for interesting opportunities. This description, whilst functional and descriptive, is missing a trick. Instead, companies should be developing Open Innovation Ambassadors.
Let’s think about the role of an Ambassador in the world of diplomacy and foreign policy. An Ambassador lives in a foreign country, charged with representing the interests of their own country. They have specific items on the agenda, including trade deals; building and strengthening alliances; and helping companies from the home nation develop their business.
Ambassadors spend much of their time building relationships and networking. They must become experts about the country in which they live, not only about current events but also about history, culture and much of the unwritten subtext that really decides how governments and countries behave.
Above all, they are the representative of their nation; they are the “go to” person whenever matters concerning their country arise. They are the ones who are told off if there is a diplomatic spat, or “recalled” as a means of protest. They handle the ceremonial stuff and inevitably develop a taste for exotic food and drink.
There are so many analogies to Open Innovation. The Open Innovation Ambassador should have specific items on the agenda, the “Wants” of their organization. This will inevitably occupy a lot of their time. They should also be the eyes and ears in the external world, open to identifying new opportunities that either fill an unmet need or open up an exciting new line of business. When we started Open Innovation in one of my previous companies (called Licensing at the time), the specific brief was to spend half the time looking for things we knew we wanted, and half the time looking for the new and interesting.
The Open Innovation Ambassador should therefore spend a lot of time networking, becoming known as one of the faces and voices of the company; speaking at and attending conferences; creating awareness not just of the company’s needs but also the fact that they are “open”.
Just like a foreign ambassador, the Open Innovation Ambassador has to fit a certain profile. They should know their own company, and be well known within it. That demands experience and breadth. Social and networking skills are essential; people should feel comfortable and positive about the interactions, the social and entertainment side should not be underestimated. Whilst being diplomatic, they should also be straightforward, engaging and credible.
So, I would advocate the following;
- ditch the job title of “Technology Scout” and introduce “Open Innovation Ambassador”. It isn’t just a name change, there is a difference in what’s needed and not every Scout can be an Ambassador;
- give them the 50/50 brief to work on identified Wants as well as new opportunities;
- pick people with the right profile, and provide training and support;
- encourage them to network and be seen.
Eventually an Open Innovation diplomatic network will thrive around the relevant parts of the world, you will have excellent diplomatic relations and be well known for it. Most importantly, you will be in a great position to be the first port of call for new innovation opportunities.