A weekly newsletter on creativity, ideas, innovation and invention
Tuesday, 17 February 2004
Hello and welcome to another issue of Report 103, your weekly newsletter on
Creativity, ideas, innovation and invention. Those of you have been around for
a couple of issues will notice that I have changed the format and approach of
Report 103. Let me know what you think.
Once again, for a little cranial exercise, can you figure out why this publication
is named Report 103? I posed this question in the first issue and only one person
came back to me with an answer – the correct one.
REWARDING INNOVATION IN JAPAN
Recent court rulings in Japan have have determined that corporate scientists
may claim a share in the profits that their companies earn from their inventions.
Traditionally in Japan, corporate scientists invent things and their companies
profit. The best the scientist could hope for would be a pat on the back and
an incremental promotion at the next evaluation.
However things changed in April 2003 when an ex-employee of Olympus sued for
compensation for a device related to optical disks which he invented. The court
ruled in his favour, albeit with a tiny reward of 2.29 million yen (US$21,800).
Nevertheless, the floodgates have been opened. I predict big changes.
In late January of this year, Shuji Nakamura won a 20 billion yen (US$190 million)
share in the profits for blue light-emitting diodes which he invented while
in the employ of Nichia Corporation. Similar, but less substantial rulings have
been made in favour of scientists from Hitachi and Ajinomoto in recent weeks.
Japanese corporations are taking two approaches to these rulings. Many are
lobbying the government to revise the patent law in order to make it harder
for scientists to win big rewards for their inventions. A few, however, are
reviewing the way they reward inventors.
The former should realise that the magic box has been opened and it can never
be entirely shut again. As scientists and inventors realise they can reap substantial
rewards for their inventions, most are unlikely to be happy with anything less.
Fortunately, for them, two other changes are taking place in Japan.
Firstly, job mobility is growing. Those employees presently reaching retirement
age in Japan have probably spent their entire careers in the same company. But
their colleagues of under 35 have probably worked at a couple of companies prior
to their present job – and are likely to make more changes before retiring.
Secondly, entrepreneurship is no longer a dirty word in Japan. Innovative small
companies are cropping up all over the place and, as a result, financial tools
are available to help start ups. The situation is still far from the entrepreneurial
culture of the USA or even Europe, but it is happening.
As a result, scientists with good ideas will no longer stay with the first
company that hires them when they see they can get better rewards elsewhere.
And the most ambitious scientists will do as their colleagues in the west have
been doing for some time now: they will launch their own start-ups to market
Clearly, then, the companies which share with their inventors the rewards of
those inventions will be the ultimate winners. They may not get as much for
each invention, but they will create a workplace which promotes innovation.
That will lead to more inventions and bigger rewards for all. Clearly, the win-win
situation will win in the end.
This situation reminds me of the many times that the Japanese government has
moaned about how their school system has failed to develop creative children
who will grow up and make Japan a more innovative culture. That may be true.
But creative people will thrive anywhere; indeed look at the impressive inventions
that have come out of Japan particularly in consumer electronics. However, if
innovators are not rewarded for their creativity by their employers, all but
the most obsessively inventive will soon learn not to bother creating for their
employers. The lesson for the Japanese government, then, is ignore the companies
wanting to change the patent law. Doing so will benefit nobody.
Likewise, there is a lesson for companies everywhere that wish to become innovation
driven firms. If you do not reward your people for being innovative, most of
them will not bother. And this means not only rewarding the big inventions that
bring in millions, but also the small ideas that improve efficiency a wee bit
or which result in incremental improvements in products. Even people who have
ideas that lead nowhere should be recognised for their contributions. For they
are the innovators who, if supported and rewarded, will create the big money
winning inventions of tomorrow.
WHAT CAN JANET JACKSON'S BREAST TEACH US ABOUT CREATIVITY?
One of the bigger news items in America in recent weeks has been the début
of Janet Jackson's breast during the Super Bowl's half-time show. Here in Europe,
the news was not the exposure of the breast, rather that the exposure was news
at all. Breasts are commonplace on TV, in advertising and on most beaches where
topless bathing is acceptable and unremarkable. Most parents are not concerned
if their children are exposed to a bit of nudity now and then. But we do try
to shelter our children from images of violence.
Certainly, Ms. Jackson's performance is a reminder of how strong cultural differences
still are across the world. Adjectives used to describe the incident in America
included, “shocking”, “appalling” and “ugly”.
Yet, in spite of the shock, Ms. Jackson's breast made news in other ways as
well. It was the single most searched for image in Internet history. While many
people where appalled, many more were curious.
As I said, in America, people are offended by nudity but comfortable with displays
of violence. In Western Europe, it tends to be the other way around. In Southeast
Asia, people are more offended by nudity: even films in the cinema are heavily
censored to remove or cover any inappropriate bits of the body. (Interestingly,
in Thailand, the censors don't cut the film. They smear vaseline over scenes
of nudity). But, like Americans, the SE Asians don't worry much about scenes
of violence. In Japan, on the other hand, people are rather relaxed about portrayals
of both nudity and violence. As Japan has one of the lowest violent crime rates
in the world, perhaps the rest of us are getting overly worked up about nothing.
What can this teach us about creativity? Simply that there are big differences
between cultures, even today. What is commonplace in one culture is outrageous
in another. More importantly, by understanding other cultures and particularly
how their people react to various concepts, whether breasts, violence, technology,
religion or even feet (did you know it was very impolite to point your foot
at something in Thailand?), you can massively increase your creative potential.
Applying solutions learned from studying or living in one county to a problem
encountered in another country can be very creative – at least in the
eyes of the people of the latter country. Having numerous chunks of knowledge
from various cultures, and being able to apply those knowledge chunks to all
kinds of problems substantially enhances one's personal innovation tool box.
At the same time, it is critical to understand the cultural sensitivities of
new cultures. A foreign solution which offends the local culture will not be
perceived as creative by the locals. It will be perceived as insulting.
INVENTIONS: Ms. Jackson Again
Keeping on the subject of Ms. Jackson's chest, one of the more intriguing new
inventions I came across this week, while researching the above, is: “Janet
Jackson Breast Cupcakes”. You can find out more (if you are not offended
by such things) at http://www.amateurgourmet.com/the_amateur_gourmet/2004/02/janet_jackson_b.html.
INVENTIONS: Children Inventors
An interesting article in the New York Times points out that rather a large
number of children apply for and receive patents for everything from new games
they develop to a "brain-computer interface for the muscularly disabled."
Because the US Patent Office does not make note of the age of inventors, there
are no hard statistics on the number of child inventors, but anecdotal evidence
suggests it is not a small number.
Indeed, a new company, By Kids For Kids has been set up to help children commercialise
their patents. Daniel Gwartz, chief operating officer of By Kids For Kids says
that all kinds of kids patent inventions, but the one thing most have in common
is an adult mentor, such as a parent or teacher to help them through the patent
The lesson here is clear, parents. If you want your kids to be successfully
innovative, don't just encourage their creativity – go out there and help
them patent their ideas. After all, I can think of few things that would give
a teenager or younger child greater self-pride than ownership of a patent, demonstrating
that their government acknowledges their creativity.
Read the story at http://www.nytimes.com/2004/02/16/technology/16patent.html
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