Like so many meetings, the IfM’s Open Innovation Forum’s March workshop, was hastily reconvened into a virtual event due to the coronavirus crisis. Co-organiser Dominic Oughton, discusses some of the learning points.
Open Innovation Forum
The group, around 20 global leaders from across the whole food, drink and FMCG value chains, meets three times each year. Typically fifty participants are hosted by one of the members to share OI best practice and explore the challenges and opportunities for innovation and collaboration within the sector.
The March meeting featured keynotes from Peter Robbins of Dublin City University, Milan Samani of TIL Ventures and Mike Pinder of Board of Innovation and included presentations from Letizia Mortara, Shima Barakat and Curie Park on the IfM’s work with EIT Food on the MAKEit project, which aims to create smarter and simpler food value chains, and from Erika Minaguchi and Christina Furlong of Kerry on 2020 trends in taste and nutrition. You can read some of the background here:
One of the objectives of the meeting was to explore how we can continue to innovate collaboratively despite the challenges imposed by social distancing.
Here are five lessons we have learnt:
Maintaining inter-personal connections – One of the most valued aspects of the OI Forum are the inter-personal networks that have been established over its ten years of operation. New attendees always remark how open and trusting the ethos of the group is (despite typically around half of the participants at each meeting never having attended before) – it seems that a critical mass of such positive behaviours can quickly ‘seed’ the whole group. It was remarkable to observe the same process taking place in the virtual environment of a Zoom meeting, with people who had never been engaged with the Forum previously feeling comfortable in sharing insights with fifty strangers who they’d only met as inch-square pictures on a screen.
Effective breakout groups – The meeting experimented with a number of different platforms and collaboration models in breakout groups of around ten participants, to explore some of the priority innovation challenges identified by the member companies (for example eliminating plastic waste and achieving traceability through the supply chain). Each of the platforms (www.SharpCloud.com, www.miro.com and Office 365) enabled a productive and effective exchange of ideas, but two common factors underpinned each of these: the use of structured templates and a defined process across each group with the direction of an experienced facilitator.
Democratisation of a virtual environment – One of the upsides that participants and facilitators observed, somewhat to their surprise, was that engagement in the plenary and especially breakout activities was more evenly spread across participants than might be the case with a physical meeting. The ‘level playing field’ embodied in the fact that ’we’ve all got the same sized video box on the screen’ seemed to encourage greater input from those who otherwise might have been more reticent.
Productivity trade-offs – The agenda for the event was designed with frequent breaks and additional time for tasks like the breakout group activity, to reduce ‘screen fatigue’ and allow for the sometimes cumbersome interaction over video link. Superficially, this might be deemed to have reduced the ‘productivity’ of the online format by perhaps 30%. However, when you factor in the elimination of travelling time, a crude measure of ‘output per person hour’ might well be quite comparable. When you also consider the added benefit of being able to engage a larger group of participants, reaching people in member companies who might only have an interest in a part of the agenda, or who otherwise wouldn’t be able to justify the travel to a physical meeting, it is clear that there may in fact be overall ‘productivity gains’.
Organised serendipity – One of the biggest benefits of the OI Forum are the chance conversations (usually whilst trying to fathom how the coffee-pot pumper works) which unearth the shared challenge or scope for collaboration, which no end of sorted spreadsheets will replicate. In an effort to model this effect in a virtual world, we experimented with short 5-minute ‘speed dates’: randomly allocated 2-person breakout groups, with the challenge being to find some area of intersection of interests and to identify a follow-on action (make an introduction, share a web-link, schedule a call). These were remarkably successful in maintaining the momentum of the growing web of interconnections between members, as well as providing a useful variety in interaction modes.
In summary, both the organisers and the participants were pleasantly surprised at the effectiveness of the move to online delivery of the OI Forum.
With the continued necessity of social distancing, the summer meeting will also take place virtually, with further experiments to make this even more interactive, including exploring how we can share multi-sensory experiences (so important in food and drink!) in the virtual world.
Undoubtedly, the return of the personal interactions enabled by a physical meeting will be most welcome in due course (and perhaps there is a half-life effect to how resilient these networks are to extended separations) but it is also clear that there will be a place for continued use of virtual collaboration in ‘the new normal’.
Submitted by Dominic Oughton