Jamming: The Art and Discipline of Business Creativityby John Kao
What value does your company put on creativity? John Kao has challenged management to exploit the most valuable asset in the corporation: the creative minds of its people. Like jazz musicians in a jam session playing off one another to create new sounds managers themselves must master the skills of creativity to reap unprecedented returns. Kao shows how high-performance companies around the world have learned the lessons of creativity to leap ahead of their obsolete competitors. They practice a new managerial mindset, & they have learned to leverage information technology to enhance creative collaboration.
- DIANE Publishing Company
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The business world is already launched on a new quest. The ancient pursuitsfor capital, for raw materials, for process technologyremain eternal. But now business seeks a new advantagedelicate and dangerous, and absolutely vitalthe creativity advantage.
Breakfast in the Camillia Cafe in Tokyo's Hotel Okura. Coffee costs $6, an omelet $20 (and this is before the dollar's latest nosedive against the yen). I'm here to speak with a business professor named Hiro Takeuchi. When I tell him I'm writing a book about creativity, his expression turns quizzical. Not a man to blurt out his opinions, Takeuchisan informs me in his own good time that "creativity is not a major issue in Japan." He pauses again, then adds: "No, it's the only issue."
Now we are at the end of a long day of interviews at the Paris headquarters of Renault, where a fighting-weight company is emerging from a state-subsidized bureaucratic blimp and is en route to privatization. I ask Yves Dubriel, project director in charge of compact cars, and champion of the Twingo, Renault's snazzy new automotive child of the twist and the tango, if he has a secret for the car company's future success. "We think a lot about creativity," he answers, adding with French culinary flair, "It's a team cocktail. How we combine the mentalitiesthe perspectivesis everything."
Here at Sao Paolo's Hotel Imperador, where I've just finished speaking to two hundred Brazilian executives, the reception is gratifyingly noisy. A young woman pushes through the crowd surrounding the podium to hand me a gift: A bumper sticker with her company'sslogan, "Boas ideas nacem aqui": Portuguese for "Beautiful ideas are created here."
Red and white explosions light up the Aegean Sea's evening sky. Standing on the fantail of the good ship Sea Goddess II, I watch a battery of flares launched from the shore spell out a greeting to Pepsi. The senior management of PepsiCo Foods & Beverages International has gathered at this ultimate executive retreat to discuss high-performance leadership. The critical skill? Creativity.
I'm at a resort hotel in Westchester County, New York, working with a team of Tiffany & Company executives. The subject of the seminar? Learning to think out of the light blue box.
Today's meeting with cabinet-level representatives of Singapore's government takes place in a glass and steel tower overlooking this dynamic city-state. Its business policies have been so successful that astute visitors observe and listen carefully. What they hear is Singaporeans speaking of creativity as integral to corporate and national strategy. Today's meeting is about how to teach creativity to children. The idea is to inculcate the necessary skills in primary-school pupils by including the subject in the required curriculum. "We must start early," confides an earnest official, "if we want to keep up with the creativity race."
These are just a few stories from my own experience, but they should be enough to suggest that the business world is already launched on a new quest. The ancient pursuitsfor capital, for raw materials, for process technology, for all the usual sources of competitive advantageremain eternal. But now business seeks a new advantagedelicate and dangerous, and absolutely vitalthe creativity advantage. The focus of human history has evolved from soil and rainfall and iron and coal. Now it's about the chemistry of the brain and the people whose neurons fire fastest and best. We're moving beyond preoccupation with the physical and financial to a concern for the purely human: imagination, inspiration, ingenuity, and initiative.
My obsession over the past decade has been the pursuit of the remarkably creative. I have found people and companies that know something distinctive, something too fresh to be reduced to academic principles. The expert practitioners remind me of the fabled Zen master chefs whose knives, it has been said, grow sharper as they slice ingredients. Creativity is the knife that grows sharper in the hands of the astute business practitioner.
If this is the age of creativityand you had better believe it iswhy has it come about now, in our time? And what got it going?
1.This is the age of creativity because that's where information technology wants us to go next.
The Nomura Institute classifies four eras of economic activity. The first three are the agricultural, the industrial, and the informational. The fourth? The creative. Just so. It is information technology that has enabled this new creative era, dramatically expanding the space for speculative thought. Information technology is evolving into the technology of relationships, facilitating the flow of creative interaction through computer-based communication networks, groupware, increasingly intelligent agents, knowledge representation and management systems, videoconferencing systems, and the convergence of different forms of traditional media.
Using their computers to access the riches of cyberspace, people tap into a host of new stimuli, challenging input, and dissonant opinions that form the raw materials of the creative process. Information technology is a medium for representing, organizing, and deploying knowledge. It can also amplify corporate awareness, allowing us to monitor our environment and to position ourselves to perceive what is genuinely new.
Everyone has a shot in cyberspace. Those new technologies qualitatively improve the basis on which people collaborate and increase everyone's potential to gain insight, share knowledge, draw from a wide range of creativity inputs, and consider and develop the widest possible array of ideas.
All companies, as Percy Barnevik, chairman of ABB Asea Brown Boveri, the $30-billion Swiss/Swedish engineering firm, observed, are information technology companies. The big difference is between those that are good at using those technologies and those that aren't.
Throughout history, commerce and manufacturing have undergone enormous change whenever information has become more widespread. The world changed radically when Gutenberg printed his first book in 1450, when Luca di Pacioli published the first double-entry bookkeeping system in 1494, and when the British Parliament passed the Public Libraries Act in 1850. The present leap has had even greater impact. Suddenly everyone everywhere has unprecedented access to information and ideas, regardless of social position or organizational rank. Everyman, Everywoman, even Everychild, can download a Library of Congress's worth of data onto a personal computer in his or her workroom or bedroom and create new value from itfor mere information is more a commodity than ever before.
Information technology has also fundamentally altered the nature of collaboration. Groupware, software that supports collaboration, brings about a phenomenon similar to the multiplier effect in economics: Moore's Law set the stage by providing the economic foundation for the information age; the cost of computing power decreases exponentially over time. Enhanced computing muscle in turn gives rise to Metcalfe's Law, which postulates that as the number of users on a network increases, so the value of the network increases at an exponential rate. I would suggest that there is another law as well: The power of creativity rises exponentially with the diversity and divergence of those users.
In traditional companies, organizational charts map the circuitry of permissible conversations and commands. Information technology abolishes the hard-wired routes, substituting flexible networks that enable people to communicate instantly and freely. Linear sequences give way to simultaneous and iterative processes. A good idea can provoke an uninhibited cascade of reactions in a hundred expected and unexpected places. These technologies of connection, and the ease with which we can change boundaries, also streamline the processes by which people interact. Boeing is only one example of a company whose information technology, in the form of design, simulation, and prototype-testing systems, enables it to reduce labor costs by eliminating unnecessary portions of the production process.
Furthermore, information technology greatly enhances institutional memory: a retrievable account of what an organization has donewho did what, with what resources, at what cost, and with what results. Even well-managed companies can suffer from a kind of corporate amnesia that allows them to persist in error, ignorance, and missed opportunities. A product development team rushes to the patent office to file, only to discover a preexisting patent filed by another group in the same company. Business comedy? No, true story. How can they do otherwise with no "past" to learn from? Information technology can become a business's single greatest path to wisdom and inspirationto a digital remembrance of things past.
Yet mere access to information does not automatically bestow power, as it sometimes did when corporations employed intricate control systems to supply, ration, or deny such access. The crucial variable in the process of turning knowledge into value is creativity. Always more important than the tool itself is the use to which the hand directs it.
Meet the Author
John Kao is academic director of the Managing Innovation program at Stanford University. A former Harvard Business School professor, he is founder of several companies in the fields of biotechnology, film, and multimedia. A lecturer and adviser to numerous companies, Kao is also a member of the Global Business Network. He lives in San Francisco, CA.
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