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Cross Utilization Management and Innovation

Shortly after I graduated from Western Michigan University I soon found employment with the now fabled airline People Express (PE). The position I had applied for was Customer Service Manager (CSM) which as it turned out, meant something a lttle different in that it was not a title assigned to a person to then only perform one job for the company. When you worked as a CSM for PE, you had a primary role assignment, in my case it was with the in-flight services team, but you could also be assigned to different jobs across the company. (In my case this also included signficant training as a flight service manager which meant flying 3rd seat in 727 and 747 aircraft).

A CSM might work on board narrow or widebody aircraft for two weeks a month but then also spend a week working as a ground agent, in operations, marketing or even accounting. I quickly became a big fan of this Cross-Utilization (CU) approach to job design as it meant that employees were not always doing the same work and had the potential for development. Every employee had a manager title and employees felt empowered to make decisions and this supported the ability for different layers of employees to become involved in the decisions made across the company. This was without question a massive source of motivation for everyone despite the reality that it also meant working long hours and enduring some added complications in understanding the overall chain of command and leadership directives.

Nearly thirty years later we can now find a number of case studies examining how People Express did business and of course why in the end, it failed and became acquired. Some have argued that training employees to do multiple tasks was root cause to its failures, but having experienced it firsthand, it has always been my opinion that PE simply could not outlast the larger, more established airlines which could match low fares in key markets and spend more money outmarketing PE to maintain or gain market share. The larger airlines also had access to computer technology to support yield management that PE did not have. (The system used was clearly sub optimal, but, the upside for me was getting to learn Unix!)

I suspect the arguments for or against cross-utilization and whether it can significantly contribute to a firm’s productivity will continue, but in thinking a bit about my own experience with cross utilization and the work I do today to encourage and enable ecosystems-based co-innovation, I’ve become interested to understand if some of the priciples of cross utilization could serve to improve a firm’s innovation process and to accelerate bringing innovations to market.

In the case of co-innovation between SAP and its ecosystem partners, there exists a combination of sharing complimentary assets and tacit knowledge exchange among the firms. The SAP Co-Innovation Lab (COIL) is an enablement platform providing an orchestrated offering of cloud-delivered IT resources, an IP framework designed to support co-innovation goals, acess to subject matter expertise, project and operations management. The orchestration of these resources includes effective knowledge brokering as the means for how SAP and partners are connected in ways to engage in co-innovation projects of interest. This knowledge brokering performed is efficient and the results continue to be positive, but there is no question (depending upon the type and scope of project proposed), that the level of effort applied to discovery, stakeholder development, advocacy and securing commitments can be significant and on occasion can put even a very relevant and worthwhile project at risk if the right subject matter expert cannot be sourced.

This is what has led me to ponder how cross utilization might benefit the co-innovation model. Could one or more subject matter experts in mobility or in-memory computing from our R&D, Support, Consulting, Product Development or Solution Management groups spend one to three months (more? Less?) working in COIL to work directly with partners to develop co-Innovation projects? Could we assign current COIL staff members to work elsewhere at SAP on project teams to increase subject matter expertise that upon return to COIL would improve upon current ability to support co-innovation projects? What would be the right model and right approach? It need not be limited to product and technology expertise, but could extend to industry process knowledge and expertise. With respect to more deeply developing strategic alliances with key partners, alliance managers could pursue a brief tour in COIL in which to cultivate and explore co-innovation opportunities with partners that might otherwise remain unharvested when the focal point is largely placed upon go to market activities related only to cross licensing of existing products and solutions.

I am certain we will continue to evolve our knowledge brokering processes and capabilities and uncover further ways in which to optimize our efforts but it is nonetheless intriguing to explore how applying CU principles might benefit SAP interest to drive more co-innovation opportunities. To even explore a pilot effort could yield some interesting learnings and results.

If you have experience with cross utilization, have an idea or opinion on the topic or would in fact be interested in exploring the concept, I would enjoying hearing what others think.

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  • One thing that occurs to me after having posted this blog, is that soical networking does have the potential to further enhance knowledge brokering. We’ve certainly begun to take advantage of all the internal tools available to us but there use and overall effectiveness is still in very nascent stages. Web 2.0 technologies clearly offer an opportunity for co-workers to leverage and build on the talents of one another but managing content and information overload is a real challenge. I believe a discrete effort to employ cross utilization techniques to improve/increase knowledge sharing and to apply knowledge where needed still has a place until we possibly reach a point where the present challenges with social networks can be effectively managed.