He’s by no means alone. While innovation has been studied for decades, it’s still something of a thinly mapped jungle. There are clearings and villages, but the tribes that dwell therein tend to speak different dialects, with their own particular ways of describing and marketing themselves. Adding to the confusion are all manner of consultants who’ve glommed onto “innovation” as the Next Big Thing.

“The very popularity of the term has led to its own cooptation,” Rosenman observes. “Today, almost everything is called innovation, even when it’s really not.” Ideas for increasing ROI or decreasing costs can be beneficial; they don’t necessarily make new a business or a market.

Working with consultants, academics, and company innovation chiefs, Neren and his crew of staffers and subcontractors hacked through these tangled vines. One of the things they had to determine: Who really counts as an innovation consultant? Which ones have truly useful methodologies? Which have solid track records out in the field?

A year and a half after setting off on this adventure, Neren and Generate had built the World Database of Innovation, listing more than 5,200 consultants, academics, institutes, private nonprofits that study innovation, and company innovation leaders. Generate adds about five new names a week. (About 450 of the listees are based in Minnesota.) The consultants include the McKinseys and Bains, to be sure. But also listed there are product design firms as well as shops that are considered “innovation purists,” including Ideo (based in San Francisco), Fahrenheit 212 (New York), and Doblin (Chicago).

In building the database, Neren and Generate realized that if the connections they made between consultants and clients were to result in something more than a casual date, the database had to be more than a listing. Consulting with industry “guides,” Generate identified an inventory of 105 categories of innovation best practices, a lexicon that includes invention methodologies (there are 162 of those), cultural conditions (17), and how firms organize their innovation function (14).

By late November, Generate had made about 30 matches using its database. Neren says that the process between a client’s request and a signed contract between client and consultant takes from 100 to 200 hours. Generate sorts through the World Database and its various categories, sends out RFPs to the would-be matches, then continues to manage the relationship between the two once the connection is finalized. “We often act as a translator” between client and consultant, Neren says. “We find that they often speak somewhat different languages—use different terminologies.”

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