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Concrete Lessons in Innovation

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In an effort to understand the potential to enable innovation within people everywhere, I've started an interview series at Lovely Day that speaks with some of the most well know, inspiring, and cutting edge companies, agencies and experts in the space.

One of the first of our series is with a company that works in something very, well, concrete. CEMEX is one of the largest building materials companies in the world. Yet while their product is very physical, the company has developed outweighed intangible value by developing the innovation capacity of its people by creating systems that enable individuals and communities of employees to lead everything from development of new products and services to how the company operates.

Over the years, CEMEX has produced some remarkable case studies in innovation. One of the most notable among these, specific to social innovation space, is the story behind the creation of low-income financing and community supported home building models that are now being replicated internationally. But like many companies today, the development of operations within vastly different geographies presented the challenge and opportunity for their employees to better connect and collaborate. We spoke with Arturo San Vicente and Gilberto Garcia, Innovation Analyst and Innovation Director (respectively) at CEMEX to learn about how they're addressing these issues and facilitating new means of working, collaboration and the flattened management hierarchy of the 21st century. Much of their work and insights revolve around a newly adopted internal social, digital platform called SHIFT that facilitates networking and collaboration across physical borders. But more than just a technology, the implementation of SHIFT and the attempt to "break the barriers of collaboration" revealed some interesting insights and stories into the role of culture and principles behind collective social action.

Community: (Emergent Pursuits)

CEMEX has fostered a quick adoption of the SHIFT platform, currently with more than 18,000 internal users. But if external social networks are any indicator, any platform is only as good as its communities. It's no wonder then that the stories of how individuals use SHIFT describe emergent communities popping up around areas of interest, large scale events, and even company initiated campaigns. These communities range from topics as disparate as nano-technology for concrete to the collective creation of sustainability measurement indexes for the company. "The key aspect is that the platform is very self-guided," said Gilberto.

One of the example communities is based around health and safety, and has grown virally to over 1,000 members actively sharing new ideas for keeping workers and consumers safe. Yet while interest is the core component, the key factor for virility and dynamism was that the groups had very clear innovation objectives.

"When you have a clear objective of your goals, it is easier to bring more people because they know what you are trying to achieve in short term, medium, long term," said Arturo. "Sometimes it starts with discussion forums, to know each other and their points of view, then can lead to next steps."

Smart Cloud: (Efficiency and Structures)

Another interesting parallel to the world of social media has been the speed, intelligence and efficiency of thousands of globally networked individuals.

New measurements for alternative fuels and delivery systems that are being collaboratively developed for local contexts have been scaled and/or adapted and applied in wholly different contexts. But more than just innovation, one of the key drivers for SHIFT has been its ability to drive sheer efficiency via the social cloud. The most startling example given was in their "Construction: 21st Century" initiative through which self-organized groups developed a rigorous set of sustainability measurement protocols for the entire company over the span of just two months. Even stragglers in adopting the platform have given in to the system, realizing the efficiency with which the community can answer questions, Quora style.

Having a background in tech, I found strikingly similar the way they talked about sending out questions into the ether and getting back many responses to the way open source junkies talk about the beauty of systems like Wordpress or Linux. They're now looking to build in more social media type tools (including an Aardvark-like people seeking system to more easily find individuals and information on topics of interest).

All of this is allowing innovation to rise to the top, with openness playing a (bit disruptive) role in flattening management structures. "It's making the management system flat" said Arturo, "removing the chances for an idea to get blocked by management." But while technology is an enabler and opportunities are now open, CEMEX's work seems to really thrive thanks to its focus on technology for the sake of its people; focusing on a strong brotherly culture of support and collaboration that infiltrates and guides the interactions.

Social Interplay: (Culture and Human Bonds)

"When you ask someone a question, you find out a little bit about them, and then you want to learn more," says Gilberto. This humanizing of the workplace has been the driver of CEMEX's successful open innovation work, which focuses on developing a "culture of recognition," offering people appreciation within the company and even peer support. We found this particularly compelling (as the agency for human brands) as it really seems that their culture change and connective working method has started to make employees more human and socially aware in their work.

The challenge for CEMEX (as with many companies) has been an origin in engineering, which is often skeptical of the benefit of new trends to technological developments. But the recognition-based approach has built on an approval and reputation system that rewards the generation of new ideas by management and peers alike. "Your ideas can't be blocked off by just one person anymore. It's much more social and about sponsorship too -- getting your ideas posted and voted on, finding a team to work with you, making new networks with new people" says Arturo. "Interaction begins to happen at new and different levels of the company, between different generations, cultures, and areas of expertise. Once you start to make those mixes it starts to get very interesting and will be very powerful."

This culture of innovation gains weight, legitimacy and impact from strong backing by company and high-level leadership exemplified through efforts like the development of nine global initiatives directed by the CEO and investment and trust in the power of collaboration to undertake objectives as massive and important as the branding of the first global brand of ready-mix concrete: Promptis.

But the heart of the culture may be as bottom up as it is top down. One hypothesis on the pervasive culture of innovation and collective action is a unique origin of the company in an "emerging market," Mexico. The culture is what CEMEX describes as "like family", but that this culture is now inherent internationally from Eastern Europe to the Middle East. CEMEX perhaps benefits most from a pro-active culture that is not content with waiting and hoping for the market to get better, but determined to evolve to become more adaptable and resilient.

Conclusions

CEMEX presents a highly systemic case study for best-practices and lessons in the evolution of organizational development as a driver for innovation. From culture to community to technical tools, the company is experimenting with many key factors for new structures in global C21st companies. What we love most about their approach is the development of this capacity through a holistic investment in the power of people to co-create value for the company and society as a whole.