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The Age of Innovation

I just returned from Frost & Sullivan’s annual Growth, Innovation and Leadership (GLI) conference, where I led a panel discussion on the impact of social media on the enterprise. Several questions came up in the session, but the one that seemed to resonate the most among audience members and participants alike was the issue of openness: How can a company share information in the public sphere without risking a loss of intellectual capital and a competitive advantage?

The question comes from what is often described as one of the key benefits of social networking: The ability to share information and ideas with employees, business partners and even customers. When we discussed the issue on the GIL panel, several responses came up:

1. Kathy Heilmann, Director, Voice & UC Solutions at Siemens, stressed the fact that information sharing should be a two-way street. If you are giving up important data to your partners or customers, you should expect some kind of benefit in return--perhaps an exchange of data from their organization, for example, or a willingness to offer suggestions and advice.

2. Several participants represented enterprise-grade social media software companies, and they made the distinction between using public services versus private social networking tools for business collaboration. With private tools, the enterprise controls who has access to the system, and the information and discussions that cross it. Of course, that also limits who can participate in the collaboration.

3. Marco ten Vaanholt, Vice President, SAP Community Network, stressed that if you have concerns about sharing information, well, don't share it. But he also noted that for companies as large as SAP, it's unlikely that competitors can move any more quickly than SAP can to actually take advantage of seeing what might be proprietary information.

I think Marco's point is the most on target, and the most relevant. I would argue that, if the "information age" has defined business for the past 20 years, we are on the verge of a significant shift--one that moves us into the Innovation Age.

These days, information is essentially a commodity. The Internet makes it possible for everyone to see the same information at any time and from virtually any place; now, thanks to social media, even tacit knowledge--some of which may have been indirectly protected in the past--is out there for the taking. What matters today isn't what you know; it's what you do with that knowledge once you have it. Innovation, not information, is the currency of the 21st century.

Of course, some industries, and some companies, still vigorously protect their corporate data. Some have good reason to do so. Others won't change because they are still operating on the assumption that secrecy is sexy, and adds to the cachet, or value, of their products. But the most successful companies of the future will have figured out how to leverage collaboration within their organization, and outside its boundaries. Because, if getting access to information was a challenge, it pales in comparison to innovation--and that difficulty is exactly what makes it a competitive advantage.