I just had the chance to attend the "Front End of Innovation" (FEI) conference at the World Trade Center in Boston May 3-5. This event is sponsored by variety of innovation management suppliers, and included some great speakers like James Surowiecki (author of "The Wisdom of Crowds") and Sophie Vanderbroek (President of Xerox Innovation Group). Though I was only able to attend two of the three days at this event, I was able to leave with a solid impression on the innovation management marketplace.

A few of my notes from this event:

  • There is a unique innovation marketplace. With the sheer diversity of innovation discussions taking place at this event, I found it interesting to question whether the there is such thing as a common innovation management marketplace. I think there is. Everyone I spoke to at this event was either trying to unlock innovation potential within their own organization, or was trying to help their clients unlock their own innovation potential. In this regard, the marketplace for innovation is quite different with the boarder market of social collaboration tools and technologies -which I do not think has the same mission.
  • The market is broader than many realize. Despite the common objectives, the companies in this "market" bring a wide variety of different capabilities to the table. For example, at this event, I interacted with:

    • Companies like Spigit, Imaginatik, Idea8, and Kindling who have software tools focusing on idea management (but each with unique strengths)
    • NineSigma and Innocentive who are leveraging their "open innovation" heritage to bring new business models and a distinct offerings to clients
    • Innosight, which brings more management consulting offerings and thought leadership to lead its strategy consulting engagements
    • Seek, Futurethink, and Maddock Douglas which do not focus nearly as much on technology, but instead on methodologies, thought leadership, and workshops that can help clients clarify innovation objectives.

This was only a partial list of the companies I interacted with at this conference – but you can see how this market is evolving in many different directions. Further (as I will note later) there are other players in this innovation marketplace that were not represented at this event.

  • The interest in this market is strong. I was impressed to see such a diverse group of innovation stakeholders come together to discuss common innovation interests. In general, I see more CEOs looking to innovative companies – like Apple and Procter and Gamble – and saying "if we're going to remain competitive in a global market, we need to be more innovative" – and perhaps this trend was partially behind the large and engaged crowd at this event. For most event attendees I spoke with, this objective means that they must gain access to more innovation best practices, and increasingly manage innovation as a cross-functional discipline.


But all is not roses in the innovation management space. I have a few questions that could impact how this event and this market will look in coming years:

  • Where's the business value? I found myself disappointed by the fact that many end-user companies, and innovation suppliers, were eager to talk about how they changed their internal innovation processes, but short on the ability to describe the actual business value that was generated from that change. This was particularly true when people spoke about social technologies, which I think we can all agree are cool and may inspire collaboration, but have yet to work their way into the mainstream business processes of most of my clients. I've no doubt that businness value is hard to measure, but it should be in the disucssion.
  • What's the long term outlook? From the vendor perspective, I wonder how much disruption this "market" will experience when the "gorillas" of the technology marketplace (Microsoft, IBM) and collaboration providers (Tellgent, Jive) make their way into the innovation space. Some companies at this event clearly have differentiated models or thought leadership that will be hard for these larger companies to replicate, but others do not. I wonder how many of these same companies I will see at this event in five years – and which companies will emerge as the leaders.
  • Where are those "gorillas" anyway? I'm curious why I saw many software tool providers and small/mid-size consultancies were sponsoring this event, while leading brand name companies I follow in the innovation space were less visible. I would love to know why companies like BCG, McKinsey, IBM, Accenture – companies who pride themselves on their innovation offerings and are very much part of the innovation management marketplace – do not make themselves more visible at events like this (I know several had representatives at the event, but their companies were not highly visible). I suspect there are a variety of reasons for this, but to me none of those reasons really justifies sitting on the sidelines of cutting edge innovation discussions.

Overall, however, this is a great space to watch. Look out for my coming document on the future of innovation management in which I'll try to take a holistic view, to tie together the diverse business models in this space.