Seeing Customers as Partners in Invention

Shown below is a New York Times article written by Mary Tripsas about customers being part of the invention process with an added editor’s note.

Prior to posting Ms. Tripsas’ publication, here is my take on the NY Times article.  By understanding what the customers want and need the companies are able to profit through the customers insights.  The article’s title says “Seeing Customers As Partners In Invention”, however I missed the part where the “Customers” are partners and being compensated for the invention process.  Rather the companies are taking advantage of consumers by exploiting their “Customers” needs or a way to solve the “Customers” problems.  Stop and ask yourself what is an invention?  Many inventions solve a problem and therefore the companies are exploiting the customers rather than “PARTNERING” with customers.  In a partnership is where both parties receive compensation for their efforts.  I don’t think that is happening in this case, you be the judge, the article is reproduced in its entirety below.

Andrew R. Spriegel (Patent Attorney at Moxon & Spriegel, LLC (www.mspatentlaw.com))

January 18, 2010

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Seeing Customers as Partners in Invention

By MARY TRIPSAS
Published: December 26, 2009

Editors’ Note Appended

IMAGINE a planetarium-style presentation about the future of technology, followed by a tour of dozens of hands-on exhibits — whether of sandlike microparticles that flow like liquid in a beaker, pictures that appear three-dimensional or concrete that floats.

Is it the latest science museum, or a new Disney attraction? No, it’s the “World of Innovation” showroom, a cornerstone of the 3M Company’s customer innovation center at its headquarters in St. Paul.

A 3M innovation center is at company headquarters in St. Paul.

In a world of online user communities, social media, interactive blogs and other technological means for companies to elicit customer feedback, you might think that face-to-face interaction is a thing of the past. Think again.

As a company, 3M is at the forefront of a movement that appears to be gaining traction: customer innovation centers, typically located near company research facilities, that provide a forum for meeting with corporate customers and engaging them directly in the innovation process.

When many people hear the name 3M, they may think only of canary-colored Post-it notes. But the company is applying wide-ranging technical expertise to a portfolio of products including transportation systems, dental and medical devices and electronics. One of its latest is a pocket-sized LED projector that connects to cellphones, P.D.A.’s and digital cameras.

The company opened its first customer innovation center in Sumitomo, Japan, in 1997, followed by others throughout the world, including sites in Brazil, Germany, India, China and Russia. This month, it announced that it would open its 23rd center next year, in Dubai.

The idea behind the centers is to foster innovation by combining a richer understanding of customer needs with creative links among 3M technologies. “Being customer-driven doesn’t mean asking customers what they want and then giving it to them,” says Ranjay Gulati, a professor at the Harvard Business School. “It’s about building a deep awareness of how the customer uses your product.”

Professor Gulati recently completed a book, “(Re) (Organize) for Resilience,” about how to make customers the center of a business.

A typical customer day at a 3M center begins with a team from a visiting company presenting an overview of their business to a group of 3M marketing and technology experts who pepper them with open-ended questions. The goal is to understand “what our customers are trying to accomplish, not what they say they need,” says John Horn, vice president for research and development at 3M’s industrial and transportation business.

Next is a visit to the “World of Innovation” showroom. The company has more than 40 of what it calls technology platforms — core technologies in areas like optical films, reflective materials, abrasives and adhesives — that can potentially be combined and applied to meet a range of needs in different markets. By exposing customers to these platforms, 3M hopes to prompt the type of novel connections — like using dental technology to improve car parts — that drive innovative solutions. “We never show completed products,” Dr. Horn says. “Doing that would constrain people’s thinking.”

Does it work? Dr. Horn says that “the innovation center experience isn’t just about making everyone feel good.” It has helped 3M to establish productive, long-term customer relationships.

For instance, 3M and the Visteon Corporation, an automotive supplier that is one of its customers, have worked together in the development of a next-generation concept vehicle that incorporates 3M technologies not originally developed with automotive applications in mind. Visteon’s visit to the innovation center, combined with follow-up collaboration, led to the idea of using 3-D technology from 3M for navigation displays, Thinsulate materials to reduce noise and optical films to hide functional elements of the dashboard unless the driver wants them displayed.

Working with Visteon, 3M used its lighting and film technologies in a concept vehicle

The Hershey Company opened a customer innovation center aimed at retailers in 2006. Like 3M, it has a showroom — in this case, a tasting room — where corporate scientists discuss trends and retailers can sample products under development and offer feedback.

Another part of the center is a mock store where Hershey illustrates merchandising ideas. Hershey hopes to make shopping easier by organizing the candy aisle by how the products are used (candy dish, gift-giving or family movie night) instead of by product line.

By walking retailers through the sample merchandising set-up, Hershey can better communicate the concept than it could through a slide presentation, says Michele G. Buck, Hershey’s global chief marketing officer.

Pitney Bowes, which opened its first customer innovation center this month in Shelton, Conn., uses a different model. The centerpiece is its new IntelliJet color printing system, which expands on the company’s strength in mail applications by allowing customers to integrate them with print operations. Customers are encouraged to load their own applications onto the system and to experiment.

Leslie Abi-Karam, an executive vice president at Pitney Bowes, said that working with customers “will alter our development trajectory.”

“We’re hoping to get at things they wouldn’t have thought about,” says Leslie Abi-Karam, an executive vice president who heads the mailing solutions management division of Pitney Bowes. “In the long run, we expect that working with customers in our innovation center will alter our development trajectory.”

The terms “customer driven” and “solutions” seem to be in every manager’s lexicon. But as Professor Gulati notes, “it’s an execution problem.” Companies, he says, “aren’t generally structured to access, absorb or utilize customer insights since they are organized by product, not by customer.”

By focusing on the customer, innovation centers may be a way to turn good managerial intentions into concrete, valuable products.

Mary Tripsas is an associate professor in the entrepreneurial management unit at the Harvard Business School.

Editors’ Note: January 3, 2010
The Prototype column last Sunday, about customer innovation centers, reported on a program at the 3M Company’s headquarters in St. Paul and described the company as being “at the forefront of a movement” in which corporations meet face to face with customers to elicit feedback. After the column was published, The Times learned that 3M had provided travel and accommodations for the freelance writer during a visit to the company’s headquarters in November.

Times policy prohibits reporters from accepting such expenses or other payment from companies they cover. Had the editors known of the circumstances of the trip, the column would not have been published in that form.

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7 Comments

Filed under Andrew R. Spriegel, Andrew Spriegel, Intellectual Property, Invention, Inventions, Re-Invent Yourself, Reinventing Yourelf, Sales and Marketing, Spriegel

7 responses to “Seeing Customers as Partners in Invention

  1. Matt Broder

    Attorney Spriegel —

    With all due respect, I could not disagree more with your conclusion. I don’t see the “exploitation” here. In all three examples, customers (representing their employers) voluntarily participate in the innovation process, seeking not “compensation” as you define it, but something more important — value for their business. Presumably, if they are able to deliver greater value for their business (whether its autos or chocolate or a large mailer), their employer will reward them through the employer’s compensation program. Everybody wins.

    Respectfully,

    Matt Broder
    Pitney Bowes Inc.

    • Hi Matt, Thanks for the comment. Do you happen to know how much the employers compensate the employees for providing their ideas? My point is that some of those individuals would do better to develop those ideas on their own and derive the financial benefit of their ideas rather than “giving them away”. In addition, I found the editor’s note very enlightening which I repeat here:

      “Editors’ Note: January 3, 2010
      The Prototype column last Sunday, about customer innovation centers, reported on a program at the 3M Company’s headquarters in St. Paul and described the company as being “at the forefront of a movement” in which corporations meet face to face with customers to elicit feedback. After the column was published, The Times learned that 3M had provided travel and accommodations for the freelance writer during a visit to the company’s headquarters in November.

      Times policy prohibits reporters from accepting such expenses or other payment from companies they cover. Had the editors known of the circumstances of the trip, the column would not have been published in that form.”

      • Matt, No offense intended but I’m curious why you did not mention your title at Pitney Bowes? Are you the “VP, External Communications at Pitney Bowes Inc.”? -Andrew

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