Innovation at Scale: When It’s Easier Being Big

Often, we think of innovation as something that can only be done well by small, nimble organizations. But sometimes, being the trusted institutional voice can make it easier to turn that little innovation into a big success.

You know something that companies have been trying to kill for decades, without much luck? The business card, that paper-and-ink device that’s been used for seemingly hundreds of years.

We’ve seen myriad attempts to improve it—I remember a few years back that a company called Bump had a really clever mobile app where you could share your contact info with someone nearby by simply tapping devices together. But the problem was, it didn’t actually solve the problem it set out to.

“Intuitively, it might seem that Bump is best used as an alternative to swapping business cards,” VentureBeat reported in 2010. “But it turns out that the company’s traffic hits a peak on weekends, suggesting that it’s more of a casual or social app.”

Before that, people tried replacing traditional business cards with mini-CDs that you could stick into your computer (as long as you didn’t have a slot-loading CD-ROM, of course). A clever idea for its time, but not one that was destined to change the world. Heck, some folks even sell business cards with built-in USB flash drives.

Despite all these gimmicks and their relative lack of value, the business card refuses to die. Sure, lots of companies spend money on doing elaborate, clever designs for them, but these objects are often more trouble than they’re worth at times.

I have had it happen more than once that I fly somewhere and I realize halfway to the hotel, “oh shoot, I forgot ‘em,” only to survive without them during that conference. Sure, they’re good for putting into the jar at the local Potbelly, in hopes of winning free catering, but their value as business tools is on the decline.

The business card is so embedded in the psyche of popular culture that it’d take something equally mainstream to disrupt it.

They’re a device that’s in need of improving, and we have all the tools to do so. And we’ve lost other tools that made the business card worthy of our time, like the Rolodex. But the business card is so embedded in the psyche of popular culture that it’d take something equally mainstream to disrupt it.

Recently, LinkedIn decided to take a shot. As Engadget reported, the Microsoft-owned social network added a new feature to its mobile app that puts a QR code in reach at all times, right in the search bar.

What’s the QR code for? Easy: Sharing your information with others. It puts a camera and the code right there. In fact, you can even put the QR code on marketing materials if you so choose, making it possible to put one foot in the tech world and one foot outside of it. It may be the only good implementation of QR codes in history.

So what makes this different from Bump, or some other app? Easy: Scale. Ten to one, if you’re going to a conference, everyone there already has the LinkedIn app.

“LinkedIn isn’t the first to try the move, either. tried it, along with a number of other apps, none of which really took off,” Inc. contributor Tom Popomaronis recently explained. “However, LinkedIn has arguably done it best in terms of user-friendliness, especially since many of the people you’d be connecting with already have the LinkedIn mobile app (so it has already achieved mass adoption).”

Ah, the true secret sauce: mass adoption. By pulling off the hard part—achieving scale, notoriety, and success—LinkedIn is in a position where it makes the potential for adding small but innovative things a lot easier to push out.

Innovation, Helped By Authority

I don’t have an inside track on whether LinkedIn’s tactic is going to work, and I can’t see the future. But what I can see is that they have many of the elements that could lead to success in this case. And for associations, which may be in a similar place, it’s a template that represents opportunity if considered in the right way.

It’s a situation where a market leader in a related field (in this case, business social networking) takes advantage of its technical strengths to improve something that isn’t as good as it could be. If done right, it could be a game changer.

There are plenty of examples of this in the world of technology: The iPod, the iPhone, and Gmail all came to life as small skunkworks projects that improved on things that didn’t work as well when coming from other companies. They used the authority and market position afforded to them by their corporate parent to improve on things already out there on the market—CDs, for example, did the job, as did those old Nokia phones. The things that already existed worked without any issues, but by choosing to improve something established, they opened up new business lines and improved existing ones. And they made a whole bunch of other stuff obsolete in the process.

Your association may not be making computer hardware, but it is likely coming from a similar position of strength, in the way that it’s so established. Just as there are things that startups can do better than established companies, large legacy organizations are in a position where they can have a say on a big idea.

Innovation within a large organization is tough. You have to worry about harming old lines of business when introducing new technologies. (Which is why LinkedIn is trying to reinvent the business card, not VistaPrint.) You may not be as nimble as you’d like to be.

But, on the other hand, your size and authority in a specific sector are an opportunity to try something big.

You know, like replacing the business card.

(bernie_photo/E+/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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