WIRED Inspiring Innovation Efforts

November 9, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — A portion of the multi-layered Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development Initiative is tasked with a daunting mandate to facilitate creativity in the West Michigan work force.

While similar to efforts by the state’s Cool Cities program and other “creative class” endeavors, WIRED has accepted that the region must do more than woo creative talent — it needs to make its own.

“We’re trying to get our people to think outside the box in terms of product and process and service,” said Mark Lindquist, president and CEO of Grand Rapids metal fabrication and tool shop Rapid-Line Inc.

“We’re looking for innovation and something more than the same old, same old.”

Rapid-Line is currently the test case for the beta offering of WIRED’s Innovation Curriculum, an education and training program designed to facilitate creative thinking and innovation. It was developed by Grand Rapids Community College in partnership with 22 other community colleges and the Continuous Quality Improvement Network.

The curriculum is built around 14 competencies identified as essential to innovation, gleaned from months and countless interviews with creative professionals and innovators from West Michigan and beyond.

The program is broken down into three prototype modules with a dozen or so diverse activities that should help workers with any learning style better recognize patterns, identify combinations, and create new products and concepts.

In October, Rapid-Line introduced the first module, “Synthesis,” to a mix of 20 professional and shop-floor workers.

“Innovation really comes in three forms: product innovation, improved service and process,” said Lindquist. “In Michigan, manufacturers have typically been good at process: We’ve been hammered by the furniture and automotive guys for so long to be smarter and take costs out. So we’re good at process innovation, but we need to keep working at that if we’re going to be able to compete in the world market.”

At first glance, creativity and innovativeness might not seem to be necessary traits for the typical machine operator, but Lindquist and the WIRED stewards disagree.

Already workers are reporting changed perspectives toward their roles. Typical feedback has included discussion of how to apply the synthesis principles to quality improvement, lean manufacturing, human resources and customer service.

Last week, WIRED launched the second module, “Iteration,” and in the coming month will roll out the final piece, “Self-Reflection.”

“It’s a whole process that you can build skills around,” said Liz McCormick, project manager for GRCC. “What users should be looking for in terms of benefits is a different way of thinking and a new mindset brought to solving problems in their organization.”

The same principles are being used in developing the curriculum, McCormick said, as comments and feedback from participants are immediately applied to the program for potential improvement.

“We are continuously making it more relevant, engaging and understandable,” said Burt Peachy, a California-based consultant affiliated with Continuous Quality Improvement Network who has been helping with curriculum development. “The point of the whole process is to more closely match what the customer wants. And that is going to be different for every company.”

When finished, there are a number of different audiences WIRED will seek to get its curriculum into the work force. Currently, the model is being tested on employed workers, but WIRED intends to deliver the training to displaced workers and college students, as well.

Another aspect of WIRED is also approaching innovation in the corporate world, as The Right Place Inc. leads the development of the InnovationWorks program. This effort focuses primarily on the commercialization of innovative ideas as they occur.

“There is a statistic out there that only one out of every 30 ideas will ever be commercialized,” said William Small, InnovationWorks director of technology and growth services. “We’re not trying to move the needle on that, but instead of 30 in the pipeline, we want 300. That way we can get 10 ideas out on the other end instead of just one.”

Designed to grow businesses, employment and the region’s reputation as a center of creative thought, the pieces of InnovationWorks connect people and companies with innovative ideas to training and potential partners, investors and intellectual property experts through collaborative networks geared around advanced production, sustainable business, life sciences and design.

The cornerstone of the effort is a Web-based portal that will launch officially in the first quarter of 2008. It will be online during a build-out and membership recruitment phase as early as this week.

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