The Relationship between Conversations and Business Innovation

On my recent trip to London, I spent a lot of time catching up with friends on a one-to-one basis. I find this useful because I get more time to ask questions, hear about projects, and share my experiences and responses. It’s something you just don’t get enough time to do at parties or at noisy networking events and venues. But it isn’t just useful for friends; it works for business conversations, too. Only in one-to-one or small group meetings is it really possible to be hear and be heard. And only in such environments is it possible to create and to innovate.

Over the past few months I have been tracking blog posts and articles on the importance of conversations. Obviously some are clearly selling services, a position and various monitoring technologies, emphasising the need for social strategies to communicate openness to transparency, responsiveness to customer issues, and the presentation of thought leadership to improve trust in a business. But beyond the mere selling there is a consistency that reflects the zeitgeist of our times for authenticity, transparency and improving customer experiences. And probably more importantly, there seems to be a growing body of evidence</> that there is a correlation between a culture of conversations and innovation, and consequently, competitive advantage.

It is not easy for me to acknowledge publicly that Australia has more of a reputation for innovation than it currently deserves. While we went through a strongly innovative period up to and including the first few years of the 21st century, our innovation capacity has been seriously compromised by rising costs of production and, somewhat perversely, the very solidity of our current economic position. This shift in innovation has been discussed by much better commentators than me, but at a time when the global economic situation is so fragile, Australia needs to take a serious look again at its fostering of innovation. And I think its attitude and failure to foster a culture of conversations may be a good place to start.

In many respects we are the ideal country for adoption and capitalisation of social technologies for business. We have a small population spread over a vast geographical area so technology-facilitated conversations are a logical vector to overcoming those geographical challenges. Instead, our massively risk averse nation is setting absurdly restrictive policies on social communications among employees, such that open conversations are virtually impossible. Further, there is a low tolerance to dedicating working hours to engaging in conversations on a one-to-one level as I described above. Conversations generally are considered productivity sinks in Australia, rather than safe venues for exploration of innovative tools, techniques, applications and services.

The consequences for this lack of a culture of conversation are serious indeed. As global business becomes more open, more transparent, more customer-focused and more tolerant of failure, Australian business risks being excluded from emergent corporate collaborations, partnerships and ventures, inevitably impacting on its competitive positioning and economic stability. It will be a case of the paradox of risk aversion; the more risk averse you become, the higher the risk to business.

This isn’t mere scaremongering; Australia has a serious problem with its attitude to conversations, and to innovation. There is strong evidence emerging that conversations are not just crucial to business reputation from a marketing perspective, but from the perspective of productivity and innovation. And unless there is a tectonic shift in business understanding of the importance of conversations, then the innovative future of the country looks bleak.

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