open innovation at Elmers

Innovation: Priming the Supply Chain of Ideas

Feb. 14, 2013
Elmer’s Products bills itself as a trusted brand that depends on innovative products to fuel "creativity and provid[e] outstanding product performance in the classroom, at home, in the workshop and at the craft table."

Elmer’s Products bills itself as a trusted brand that depends on innovative products to fuel "creativity and provid[e] outstanding product performance in the classroom, at home, in the workshop and at the craft table."

To help bolster innovation, the Columbus, Ohio-based manufacturer of adhesives and presentation materials has turned to open innovation. This concept, coined by Henry Chesbrough in 2003, refers to an innovation process that uses not only internal resources but also those of outside researchers, startups and other businesses. With open innovation, Chesbrough wrote in the MIT Sloan Management Review, "the boundary between a firm and its surrounding environment is more porous, enabling innovation to move easily between the two."

See Also: Manufacturing Innovation & Product Development Strategy

That's the goal of Joe Wetli, Elmer's director of Innovation and New Business Development, who says the company is in the midst of a transformation designed to make innovation "part of the core fabric of the organization." Wetli says the drive for innovation comes from the view that "whatever the market dynamics we have today are, our expectation is that the market is going to change at a more rapid pace than ever before. We need more potential wins in the pipeline than ever before."

"We are casting a very wide net. That is the power of open innovation." -- Andy Zynga CEO, NineSigma

To help drive the process, Elmer's has the active support of senior management and has established a cross-functional team of seven employees, including representatives from finance, marketing and the technical staff, dedicated to innovation. A broader group of about a dozen employees works on innovation 25% to 50% of the time. They are engaged in cultivating ideas from a host of sources, including suppliers, inventors, university researchers and other businesses.

Elmer's is also actively encouraging innovative ideas and solutions from its employees. It is providing them with a variety of education and training opportunities, such as quarterly seminars on innovation topics, offsite training exercises and training at the innovation program run by Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business.

The company developed a portal that makes it easy for employees to submit ideas. Every idea is evaluated by a cross-functional management team and there is continuous communication on the status of ideas. Wetli says employees have submitted hundreds of ideas and the "hit rate" on their ideas is "much higher than what we would get from the outside because our people are so engrained with the business." Elmer's offers incentives such as an innovation fleece to employees to recognize their efforts.

Open innovation, Wetli says, "expands our network of technical capabilities and provides access to more ideas." Moreover, he says, open innovation "can accelerate timelines" for product development and for bringing ideas to market.

To help develop the process, Elmer's enlisted NineSigma, a Cleveland-based firm that has worked with companies such as Unilever, Kraft Foods and Siemens. NineSigma helps companies frame the problem they are trying to solve, write a request for proposal and connect the company with a large community of technical experts.

"We are casting a very wide net. That is the power of open innovation. You find people that give you solutions from areas you never even expected," said Andy Zynga, NineSigma's CEO.

One of the common concerns about open innovation is the protection of intellectual property. Zynga said his company helps clients seek out information in a way that protects their identity and any proprietary technologies they are working on. Then, when they have narrowed the responses to their request, a company can do a non-disclosure agreement with any potential solution providers.

Even when clients don't select a particular solution, says Zynga, the process typically provides them in just a few weeks with "a stack of world-leading solutions." Reviewing those ideas provides them with a broader perspective on the problems they are tackling and often suggests new business potential. 

About the Author

Steve Minter | Steve Minter, Executive Editor

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An award-winning editor, Executive Editor Steve Minter covers leadership, global economic and trade issues and energy, tackling subject matter ranging from CEO profiles and leadership theories to economic trends and energy policy. As well, he supervises content development for editorial products including the magazine,, research and information products, and conferences.

Before joining the IW staff, Steve was publisher and editorial director of Penton Media’s EHS Today, where he was instrumental in the development of the Champions of Safety and America’s Safest Companies recognition programs.

Steve received his B.A. in English from Oberlin College. He is married and has two adult children.

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