End of Program Reflection: Innovation and Ideation in Brazil (updated)

(I updated this to reflect my end of program essay instead of just the week 2 reflection)

In the past two weeks, we have spent many hours studying, analyzing, and discussing the culture of Brazil and Sao Paulo’s growing economy as an emerging market for business.  The unique culture has been a key theme to understanding how to do business in Brazil, such as work ethic, currency inflation, taxation, etc.  However, the most intriguing cultural theme I have taken away from this course and my time in Sao Paulo is the interesting emphases placed on innovation or “ideation” as it is commonly called.

This was never more prevalent than during our company visits to Brasilata and Embraer.  These two companies proudly championed their innovation methods and “idea generation” as a pivotal reason to their success.  Through the visits to these companies, speaking with their representatives, and relating teachings during the classroom courses, it has become clearer to me why this works.  In today’s global and social world, doing business in Brazil has created an environment where employee interaction with the company’s innovation demands are encouraged, rewarded, and recognized.  This is seen in the business strategies employed by these 2 companies, the government’s support of innovation in general, and the work ethic of companies to support employee ideation.

The frontline of this capability relies in the company employees.  For example, using the Kaizen strategy to drive process improvements, both Brasilata and Embraer generate 15,000+ ideas a year from their employees to help drive efficiency in production, process, and methodology.  With every employee in both these companies seemingly engaged in day-to-day idea sharing, I wonder how this process would work at my office back home. The team I work for is engaged in a project to deliver a new social media tool which can help generate and measure ideas for enterprise effectiveness.  However, while working on this project, I have struggled with how we can truly maximize this tool’s adoption by our 350,000 employees. In theory, the concept is the same as popularized at Brasilata and Embraer, but the adoption of this tool and the consistency of its use (as with any IT solution) represent the greatest learning I can take away from Brazil.

While visiting Embraer and Brasilata, the biggest support of ideation practices appears to be the revolutionary shift in company culture that supports it. Innovation/ideation has become the #1 priority from leadership as a way to improve the company environment, profits, and success. Building this culture of change, like with any IT or Process project, is of course the most difficult piece. Not only are you trying to build adoption of the tools and systems in place (both technical and procedural), but you have to build adoption of the ideation process and concepts as well. When I look at most IT projects I have worked in the past, this has never been a large enough focus. The priority is too often on the IT solution (the tool, the system, the process), and rarely on the benefit of innovation and opportunity for the people and the possible future culture shift.

To build this culture towards innovation and ideation, one must truly know their current culture and understand what small shifts can be made over time to influence it.  At Brasilata, for example, one small shift was by labeling all their employees as “Inventors” on their job descriptions. At Embraer, another is how employees change assembly line positions with each aircraft completion (thus providing fresh minds to evaluate idea opportunities to the same task every few months).

Innovation and Ideation is not something you can force, nor can you expect, just because you put a IT solution (e.g. tool) in place to support it.  However, with the right “small shifts” to align people in the organization towards the concept naturally, I do think it can become a generally accepted practice over time.  At my company, for example, we have new social media tools, but now need to look deeper into our culture to see what will create the necessary environment to best utilize them.  For example, when will people want to use the tools, when will they want to generate everyday innovation, and when will they want to share these ideas more systematically with the enterprise?  When we can answer those questions, then our company culture will have moved towards this global change.

Another component that has likely helped Brasilata and Embraer drive innovation in their workplaces, is the economic stimulus/subsidy that Brazil’s government provides.  As discussed in class, it may be a complex process to qualify and leverage this government help, but the rewards are already beneficial in the long run for the company.  Creating an environment to support constant ideation now will drive further company innovation long-term.  In the short-term, Brazilian companies can leverage government subsidies, tax breaks, or stimuli, while in the long-term they can create the ecosystem for continual improvement and competitive advantage to their core business models.

Brasilata and Embraer provide great motivation to further expand innovation and ideation practices at any industry and corporation. For Brazil, this appears to be the right combination of tools, programs, and technology at the right time.  As Brazil grows its economic footprint as an emerging global economy, the technology and tools are already available and used by Brazilians today.  Social media tools such as Facebook, blogging, Twitter, email, etc., have already created a social ecosystem where people share their thoughts and opinions with others.  These thoughts and opinions are then “liked”, “forwarded” and “shared” within those tools, thus creating a natural hierarchy of ideation recognition.  Because of this, employees joining the workforce already possess the necessary culture to embrace this at an enterprise level.  At my company, we employee many older generations that naturally resist technology like this, and therefore will have a harder time embracing the culture of ideation necessary for this level of enterprise innovation.  But as more young generations enter the US work place, this culture will be more naturally acceptable nationwide.  I have no doubt the young culture that is drowning in social ideation in the US today will eventually help us transition ideation to the businesses we work in.  For Brazil, the timing was perfect to do this naturally during their booming economic growth – but for the US, we need a little more coaxing to create it more forcefully.

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