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Corporate Open Innovation: A talk with Nicole Stroj

Updated: Nov 2, 2020

caprtured by Seoyoun (Albert) Oh

On Wednesday, October 21st, 2020, the Silicon Valley Design Thinking Club hosted a virtual event with Nicole Stroj as the speaker to discuss ways to administer Corporate/Open Innovation Programs in practice. Nicole Stroj is the Head of Organizational Innovation of Raiffeisen Bank International (RBI), a universal bank with decades of experience in retail, corporate, and investment banking. With her many years of experience in strategy, corporate innovation, and agile transformation, Nicole currently leads a team of innovation experts and transformation leaders at the RBI’s head office in Vienna, Austria. During the event, Nicole introduced four programs (Innovation Garden, Innovation Lab, Elevator Lab, and Elevator Ventures) that are currently being implemented to promote open innovation within the organization.

Defined by the author of the book published in 2003 “Open Innovation: The New Imperative for Creating and Profiting from Technology,” Henry Chesbrough defined open innovation as a paradigm that describes how firms can use both external and internal ideas coming from and going out to the market, as the firms seek to advance their technology. With its wide gamut of applicable cases, open innovation has conspicuous benefits followed by its challenges. Throughout the event, Nicole elaborated on her experience in executing open innovation programs and shared her lessons learned.

Out of the four, Nicole focused on two programs: Innovation Garden and Elevator Lab. Innovation Garden operates based on RBI’s employee-generated ideas created in a start-up-like process within intrapreneurship teams to produce outcomes/solutions to problems through validated prototypes. By shifting perspectives from being problem-centric to being solution-centric, RBI constantly develops intrapreneurs who gain competitive advantages through verification and publications of products and services from the inside out in short development cycles. On the other hand, Elevator Lab is a global 16-week pilot project that aims to create a real business value together with the RBI group with the given opportunity to build customer-focused products and services.

With customers’ trust and young talents equipped with the ability to think outside the box, exploring potential partnerships in the FinTech startup ecosystem is like two pieces of puzzles fitting perfectly together:

  1. bringing new products and services which attracts new customers and employees, and thus bolstering RBI’s branding,

  2. high-speed adaptation that RBI brings to the market, and

  3. learning to embrace and be prepared for unforeseen challenges in the future in a better manner.

A successful case produced by Elevator Lab is a startup called Moxtra that provides web chat, call, video, recordings, screen sharing, and document sharing and annotation services all in one app so that RBI’s customers can benefit from having a more efficient communication and exchange management system.

Having run the open innovation programs, Nicole learned that a dedicated community that shares a common interest in driving innovations can be built within 6 weeks. Nicole noticed how no incentive was needed to prompt potential participants to submit their unique ideas, as the community itself was motivated by making impactful changes. However, due to the large volume of brilliant start-up ideas, RBI had to create a pull of experts out of the company leaders to evaluate the feasibility of ideas while having constant support from the board. In other words, as the programs tend to be communication- and marketing-heavy, the organization that executes such programs needs to be mature enough to carry out innovative ideas. The reason is that since startups tend to pivot a lot, the organization should be able to cushion impacts made by failing to realize reliable business cases.

Thanks to the CEO of RBI being so welcoming of the innovation programs, he himself took charge of appropriately allocating resources to be a part of the program management groups to be able to constantly maintain 40-50 innovation projects. The business value of executing such programs was well communicated and led by the open-minded, dedicated personnels who were committed to making changes to be adaptive and be fast-to-change in their market to lead innovations. Nicole said that opening the programs to outside of the product development team prompted a wide array of team members to approach problems with an innovation mindset and to broaden their horizons in awareness of businesses. In the programs, one’s performance was being evaluated based on one’s direct and non-direct manager’s feedback. To thwart participants from being overburdened by their course of workload on top of their regular responsibilities, RBI has allowed allotting 70% of their work hours to the open innovation programs and the rest of 30% in regular job responsibilities.

One improvement that Nicole plans on putting into action is to have better people management and promotional programs be built in the open innovation programs. As there is a high risk of such a tremendous upskill of employees who participate in the programs, their quality may be relatively different from those who have not partaken yet. Moreover, Nicole highlighted the importance of continual application of learned lessons through the program to the organization for further development and advancement.

Overall, Nicole accentuated the significance of one possessing an open-mindset to initiate innovation, finding the community that shares a common interest in creativity, and having incessant positive support from the company. The coexistence of the three aforementioned factors brings innovation.

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