THOU SHALT TINKER

The Australian - The Deal - - First Up - Alec Foege/ TheWall Street Jour­nal

It’s the lat­est trend in re­search and devel­op­ment: pen­cilling in tin­ker­ing time on the com­pany clock. This craze started out with Google’s well-known “20 per cent time” ini­tia­tive, which en­cour­aged em­ploy­ees to spend 20 per cent of their work­ing hours on a project not re­lated to their job de­scrip­tion.

Then came Ap­ple, which early last year launched an in-house tin­ker­ing pro­gram known as Blue Sky – ex­actly the kind of thing fa­mously pro­hib­ited by its late founder Steve Jobs. More re­cently, LinkedIn cre­ated In­Cu­ba­tor, an in-house pro­gra­men-courag­ing the com­pany’s engi­neers to de­velop their own ideas into projects with the lure of be­tween 30 and 90 days away from their reg­u­lar work to fos­ter them.

The un­der­ly­ing idea is the same: Com­pa­nies need in­no­va­tive ideas and prod­ucts, the kind that usu­ally come from start-ups. So why not nur­ture the start-up men­tal­ity in-house and reap all the glory and the prof­its?

Even if done right, in­sti­tu­tion­alised play­time has its lim­its. Manyof to­day’s com­pa­nies have the best of in­ten­tions when they at­tempt to in­spire even the lowli­est drones to step for­ward with their bril­liant pet projects. In prac­tice, how­ever, th­ese struc­tured “fun time” ac­tiv­i­ties can end up the equiv­a­lent of the dreaded cor­po­rate re­treat.

Of course, sched­uled play­time at work is noth­ing new: 3M started its “15 per cent time” pro­gram in 1948. And Hewlett-Packard had tin­ker­ing time sched­uled for Fri­day af­ter­noons af­ter lunch from its ear­li­est days. Both com­pa­nies squeezed key prod­ucts from such free-form cre­ative ses­sions, from Post-it notes to laser prin­ters.

To­day’s cor­po­rate em­ploy­ees are heav­ily mon­i­tored, in terms of both time and re­sources. For­most of them, be­ing com­manded to tinker at the com­pany’s ex­pense is un­der­stand­ably

EM­PLOY­EES ARE HEAV­ILY MON­I­TORED, IN TERMS OF BOTH TIME AND RE­SOURCES. FOR MOST OF THEM, BE­ING COM­MANDED TO TINKER AT THE COM­PANY’S EX­PENSE

IS UN­DER­STAND­ABLY TER­RI­FY­ING.

ter­ri­fy­ing. In­no­va­tion, at its heart, is a tor­tur­ous and an­ar­chi­cal act. True tinker­ers tend to be dilet­tantes, freeform cre­ative types mo­ti­vated more by cu­rios­ity than by the bot­tom line.

So, if we can­not in­sti­tu­tion­alise tin­ker­ing, how do we get more of it? One rad­i­cal pos­si­bil­ity could be to let the tinker­ers profit more from their in­no­va­tions than the com­pa­nies that are spon­sor­ing them. AToronto-based soft­ware com­pany, Fusenet, al­lows its tech­ni­cal staff to spend ev­ery Fri­day work­ing upon projects of their own de­sign. In­di­vid­ual em­ploy­ees re­tain the rights to any­thing they de­velop. In re­turn, they give Fusenet the right of first re­fusal to in­vest in any re­sult­ing com­mer­cial ven­ture.

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