In my first post in this series, “Design Thinking 2.0: How Web 2.0 Might Foster and Enable an Innovation Revolution” I summarized the concepts of Design Thinking and raised the question of how Web 2.0 might enable increased innovation.  (For an interesting perspective on Design Thinking by Business Week’s Bruce Nussbaum, see his excellent essay based on his 2007 speech to the Royal College of Art in London.)

In my next post I will  drill down and suggest ways to use Web 2.0 technologies and approaches to increase innovativeness and business success, but for now I want to examine the Core/Edge distinction in order to focus us clearly on Edge capabilities, where innovation tends to surface – without being encumbered by the Core.

“Core” and “Edge” Capabilities

Identifying the best ways to leverage collaborative technologies for innovation require an appreciation of the distinction between “Core” and “Edge” business capabilities.  The notions of “Core” and “Edge” I think were first articulated in June 2005 by John Hagel III, a former McKinsey consultant, and John Seely Brown, former chief scientist of Xerox in a Wharton Summary interview titled “Can Your Firm Develop a Sustainable Edge?”  In that interview, Hagel noted:

The… edge… has to do with the notion of competitive advantage, but it also has to do with the view that the ability to develop capabilities involves operating at the edge. Of course, “edge” has multiple meanings as well. It means the edge of the enterprise, the edge of business processes, geographic edges in terms of emerging economies, demographic edges in terms of younger generations coming in with different mindsets – it’s a whole set of edges that create the opportunity for accelerating capability building.”

Seely Brown noted in the same interview:

… being able to listen deeply and participate on the edge, you can pick up things before anybody else picks them up, and you can use that to accelerate your own capability building… This puts a new spin on why distributed collaboration around the world might be critical in creating this sustainable edge.”

My colleagues and I picked up this theme in our multi-company research at nGenera and I covered it in some depth starting in March 2008 with my “Surfing and IT Innovation” post, followed in July 2008 with my “Edginess and IT Innovation” post.

The reason this Core/Edge distinction is so important for IT professionals in the corporate environment is that the Core exerts enormous gravitational pull – innovation activities such as business experiments at the edge tend to get pulled into the core where standards and rigid processes rule.  The Core typically consumes 70% to 90% of IT resources, starving edge activities of the resources and focus they need to flourish.

Requirements of Core Capabilities

Core Capabilities exist to support exploitation of existing business opportunities.  As such they tend to be ‘locked down’, complex and hard to change – in fact, they are designed to prevent ‘bad change.’  Core processes are intended to be highly stable and predictable, typically built on proprietary and relatively fixed architectures.

Requirements of Edge Capabilities

By contrast, Edge Capabilities exist to stimulate and support the exploration of new business opportunities. As such they must be open, agile, transparent and adaptive.  While Core capabilities must ‘prevent bad change’, Edge capabilities are designed to stimulate ‘good change.’  They leverage open, emergent architecture and open sourcing. This, of course, is the realm of Web 2.0 – social media, open source, open innovation, cloud computing, etc.

Balancing Core and Edge Capabilities

The table below further highlights the differences between Core and Edge capabilities and shows example of each type.  My point here is that most IT organizations have many years of experience in perfecting Core capabilities but have relatively little experience with Edge capabilities.  The IT leaders’ natural preference is to control rather than facilitate, to direct rather than stimulate.

In Part 3 of this series, we will look at a generic Design Thinking process and see how each step can be enabled by Web 2.0 “Edge” capabilities.

Image courtesy of Larval Subjects

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