Unique culture key for 3M

01 June 2011

NEW YORK: 3M, the conglomerate, believes establishing a "culture" of innovation has enabled it to gain a meaningful competitive advantage.

The maker of Post-it Notes, Scotch Brite and Nexcare boasts 10,000 R&D staff across 73 labs worldwide, between and 15% and 20% of which pursue corporate research – developing and rolling out new technologies internally.

Indeed, 3M's Corporate Technical Operations Committee officially takes responsibility for promoting these capabilities to its 63 units in 70 nations.

"Each one of those businesses conducts its own research, while maintaining connections with all the other R&D operations throughout the company," Fred J Palensky, 3M's chief technology officer, told Booz & Co.

"The reason 3M is what it is today ... is our shared, leveraged technology and innovation model."

Booz & Co publishes an annual survey regarding the firms perceived to be performing especially well concerning R&D, and 3M achieved third position in the last such study.

"We believe that no one business has everything it needs to conduct business in its marketplace without leveraging the rest of the company," said Palensky.

"Any product or manufacturing technology is available to any business in any industry in any geography around the world. We assume that technologies and technological capabilities have no boundaries or barriers."

Palensky has held 14 roles at 3M in 34 years, and suggested successfully exploiting human resources yields essential benefits.

"Every single technical employee in the company has dual citizenship - they're part of a particular business, lab, or country, and part of the 3M global technical community," he said.

"We don't restrict people from moving from one business to another, from one industry to another, or across country boundaries."

Such a model can easily extend into open innovation, partnering with third parties to deliver the next generation of hit products.

"Our corporate labs are continually bringing in new employees and technologies from universities and other sources," said Palensky.

A pioneering type of sandpaper, featuring shaped, fine-grained, self-sharpening abrasives, combined innovations from numerous places, pulled together to form a highly original offering.

Palensky also revealed 15% of its R&D staff's activity is directed towards schemes beyond their core competency, from teaching others to spreading information.

"In addition to the various programs we're developing at the corporate labs, we are working on more than 300 joint programs with various divisions and businesses," he said.

"Everyone is also a member of a team that is working alongside division members in either technology transfer or new product development projects."

Another part of 3M's policy is engaging the potential target audience in its 30 customer technology centres, allowing technical and marketing experts to gather vital insights from possible buyers.

"We ask them what their technical issues, problems, and opportunities are, and whether any of 3M's many different technologies can help them," Palensky said.

"The constant technical interaction is critical in creating new innovations."

As well as fostering a regular pipeline of goods, the collective results of 3M's outlook in this area has empowered the company with a winning approach which is almost impossible to copy.

"I think our success is driven much more by culture than it is by structure or organisation. We've been practicing open innovation at 3M throughout our history," said Palensky.

"Cultures are unique and extraordinarily difficult to duplicate. And it takes a real effort to sustain them."

Data sourced from Booz & Co; additional content by Warc staff