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The Role of Learning in Innovation

May 2007
Author:  Eilif Trondsen
Andrew Broderick
Rob Edmonds
Marcelo Hoffmann

Innovation has long been one of the top priorities of business, and today it is more important than ever. In this report, we present examples of innovation in high-tech industries that use the Web extensively for a variety of internal and external functions, including creating or delivering their products and services. But the principles and processes we discuss here will increasingly apply to companies in all industries as organizations search for new and innovative products, services, or business models and for innovative processes that enable more efficient or effective operations. The report examines the interconnections between innovation and learning and learning technology and suggests that learning professionals need to improve their understanding of innovation, especially its relationship to business performance, so that they can play a greater role in supporting and catalyzing innovation in their organizations. Because innovation is a major element in the business strategy of most organizations, the learning and training function can gain visibility and strategic relevance if it can demonstrate ways to increase and achieve higher-quality innovation.

The first section of the report explores the strategic opportunity that innovation represents for learning professionals. This opportunity is broad based, because innovation can take many forms, and learning professionals must examine how formal, course-based learning as well as more informal and unstructured learning can play an important role in their organization's innovation processes.

The report examines innovation in the extended enterprise and looks at the ways in which organizations are pursuing innovation, including their tendency to look more broadly and widely for help in all phases of their innovation processes. The so-called open-innovation strategy is becoming increasingly common. The report describes and evaluates how the BBC, Cisco, and Google are approaching innovation and discusses the role of learning in their innovation activities.

The section about developments in and opportunities for innovation and learning focuses on two sectors: health care and energy. Both of these industries face major challenges, but they also represent significant opportunities for individuals and organizations that focus on innovation. The renewable-energy part of the energy industry has seen dramatic change in the past couple of years, attracting the interest of consumers, entrepreneurs, business executives, and others. As a result, this area is likely to see increased innovation. Although the health-care sector has not experienced the sudden and dramatic change that we have seen in the renewable-energy sector, it is undergoing rapid change as consumers demand more accessible and lower-cost—and more effective—medical services. Learning professionals in both these sectors will therefore have significant opportunities to help organizations improve the effectiveness and efficiency of their innovation activities, perhaps playing a role similar to that of the learning and knowledge professionals at Genentech, which the report describes.

The last section recommends action steps for enterprise adopters of learning products and services and for vendors of learning products and services. We suggest that vendors recognize innovation as a key business function in which learning and training can and should play a significant role.

Download the report here:
The Role of Learning in Innovation