Tom H. C. Anderson Speaks with Innovation Guru, Alf Rehn
Today I’m speaking with Marketing and Innovation Guru Alf Rehn. Alf is one of Finland’s foremost business thinkers and we recently met at the Swedish Marketing Federation’s “Trends Day” where we both spoke about new ways to succeed in a consumer controlled environment. Alf has some very interesting thoughts on how to remain competitive in a more dynamic, complex and global market which is posing ever new challenges.
In a world where everyone is looking to copy the current marketing icon and become the next Apple, Alf suggests that we instead focus on new, less traditional areas. Areas such as that within the youth subculture, where creation is already occurring at a rapid pace. Even though creativity and innovation are popular buzz words in modern marketing, these words often become nothing more than words used to legitimize corporate attempts at controlled change, not in leveraging true innovative change. Alf challenges firms to ask themselves whether they are ready to take creativity seriously and understand and accept the customer driven creativity already occurring at a frenzied pace within our markets, even if it means giving up control…
Tom Anderson: Well, Alf, many of my readers may not know who you are and what you do, so would you mind starting by introducing yourself?
Alf Rehn: Sure, Tom. I feel like an odd mix, really. I am first and foremost a bona fide academic, having held a professorship of innovation and entrepreneurship at the Royal Institute of Technology (Stockhom, Sweden) and currently acting as the chair of management and organization at Åbo Akademi University (Finland). But I’m also working internationally and with leading companies as a speaker and a consultant on innovation, creativity and so on. Sometimes these two things, the academic and the more practical bit, are difficult to combine. Still, I get easily bored, so I feel I need the different arenas. Basically, I’m a free-range thinker!
Tom Anderson: You’ve raised a few eyebrows by publicly criticizing the current fascination for innovation. Would you mind explaining why?
Alf Rehn: When you look at the way in which people talk about innovation today, you can’t escape the feeling that innovation has become just another comforting word, a security blanket for the management guru set. Everyone is extolling it, and everybody is saying the exact same thing! Unless we can put some energy into the debate, it will soon become just another empty phrase, echoed by politicians, bureaucrats and CEOs alike. So I’ve started playing around with the concept, suggesting that in a world where everyone is trying so very hard to be innovative, perhaps the most creative thing is to try to be something else entirely.
Tom Anderson: Such as what, exactly?
Alf Rehn: Well, recently I’ve become more and more fascinated about issues such as copying. In a globalized world, with contemporary information technology and modern production set-ups, anything and everything can be copied. One might even say that products, in and of themselves, are becoming unimportant. Not so that the material aspect of things is becoming irrelevant - that will never happen - but that the fascination we have for stable identities and control over our products may have to go the way of other old-world forms of thinking.
Today, if you produce things, you have to forget about being sure you can control what happens to the product, and you have to make peace with the fact that you will be copied - and fighting it might no longer be an option.
Tom Anderson: Isn’t this just waving a white flag, effectively killing innovation?
Alf Rehn: I can see how it might look like that. But I actually think that by freeing ourselves from the locked-in notion of innovation we might see a more interesting world emerging. One where innovation will become a much more dispersed notion, not one tied to notions of legal barriers and the obsession with control. People have been innovating for a long time, and they will continue to do so. What we’ve seen recently is not a real interest in innovation, but an interest in controlling it. This is management taking over creativity, rather than the other way around. And we can’t go on like this for too long, for with increasing control comes increasing risk - as we’ve recently seen.
Tom Anderson: So what do you think companies need to do?
Alf Rehn: Right now, I believe the greatest challenge for corporations is learning to live in a post-control society. In an age when everyone can Twitter about how lousy you are, where advances in personal fabrication is pointing to a future beyond corporate production, and where more and more companies are realizing that customizing and accessorizing is a necessary part of the new value chain, the old ideas of a company being able to exert control over the customer and over the marketplace is becoming evermore dangerous. So companies need to ask themselves some hard questions about exactly what they want and can control in such an age, and try to reinvent themselves for a more dispersed and distributed age. Maybe the age of the monolithic corporation is simply over.
Tom Anderson: So you’re saying that we need smaller, nimbler companies?
Alf Rehn: Absolutely. Consumers are becoming nimbler, more dynamic, and companies need to follow suit. You, being in the information business, have seen this already. The fragmentation out there is increasing, and at the same time new networks are rapidly forming and morphing. We need to develop an anamorphic view of strategy, one that will enable more than just one essential understanding of the market and more than just one way of looking at innovation. The strategist of the future will have to combine the skill sets of a designer, a marketer and an artist, and never get stuck in control-centered ideas such as “positioning” or “capturing” anything.
Tom Anderson: I agree, companies who are pre-occupied with positioning and control are likely to be left behind in this new consumer controlled market. I do believe that next generation researchers need to think differently, and make business and research more nimble and fun (less controlling). I’m looking forward hearing more of your thoughts on innovation and reading some of your recent work.
[Professor Alf Rehn is Chair of Management and Organization (Åbo Akademi University, Finland) and Free Agent of Alfrigg Inc.]