Saul Kaplan: Innovators, Break Down Those Silos

How many capabilities are locked away, underleveraged in organizational or industry silos? Who hasn’t suffered a severe case of innovator’s envy, coveting access to information and capabilities that seem so tantalizingly close?

Most innovation doesn’t require inventing anything new. It is often just a matter of combining and recombining capabilities across disciplines, organizations, and sectors. The problem is that those capabilities are often impossible to access. The biggest opportunities in health care, education, security, and energy lie in the gray areas between silos. We need to think and act more horizontally.

In doing so, we’ll connect unusual suspects in purposeful ways. Take spies and environmentalists. Recent news of the CIA reviving its MEDEA (Measurements of Earth Data for Environmental Analysis) program and providing access to data from national intelligence assets for environmental research really got my attention. What a great example of the power and politics of collaborative innovation.

Saul KaplanMore Data Sharing

With no security risk, disruption of agency activities, or incremental cost, the CIA has opened up a treasure trove of valuable data to scientists from academia, government, and industry for environmental research. To replicate the capture of this information would be silly and cost-prohibitive, and I was encouraged that the data were being shared to make progress on an important social issue. But then naysayers and politics entered the conversation. Instead of garnering praise for the program, as I would have expected, the CIA was criticized for mission creep.

Admittedly, news of the collaborative program came right on the heels of the U.S. terror threat on Dec. 25. Talking heads across cable news accused the CIA of negligence, arguing that sharing data with environmental scientists was a distraction from its core mission of minding the American public. But the pundits have it wrong. The CIA and all Homeland Security organizations should be doing more, not less, cross-agency collaboration and data sharing. The protection of data, capabilities, and turf has gotten us into the current mess. Perhaps if the focus had been on networking capabilities and sharing data across silos, America would be a safer country today.

In 1986, the Federal Technology Transfer Act created the CRADA (Cooperative Research & Development Agreement) process to enable public-private partnerships around promising government technologies. CRADA may just as well stand for “Can’t Really Access Developed Assets.” Government rhetoric claims to support technology transfer, but the painful bureaucratic process in place makes it nearly impossible to leverage existing government capabilities. I get a headache just thinking about how hard it is to access all the valuable information and data that have been created by government agencies and paid for by taxpayer dollars. Many of these assets could be leveraged to unleash new value and to help make progress on our big social challenges.

Combining Capabilities

Private-sector organizations are similar. We are so busy pedaling the bicycle of today’s business models that there is no capacity to explore new ones. The secret sauce of business model innovation is the ability to explore new ways to deliver customer value by combining and recombining capabilities, in and out of the organization, across silos.

One story that sticks with me is from my friend Alexander Tsiaris, founder ofAnatomical Travelogue, who has built a successful company creating human anatomy visualization tools to help us better understand health care. When Alexander was starting his digital media business he needed access to hospital MRI equipment. He was willing to pay for access to the equipment during down times to capture the scanned images he transforms into a beautiful art form and health-care education tool. The initial hospitals he asked all said the same thing: We are not in this business and can’t provide access. Alexander is persistent and ultimately found willing partners in New York City, but it wasn’t easy.

This pattern repeats itself over and over. It is not the technology that gets in the way of innovation. It is humans and the organizations we live in that are both stubbornly resistant to experimentation and change. If we want to make progress on the big issues of our time, we have to look up from our silos and become more comfortable recombining capabilities in new ways in order to connect with the unusual suspects.


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