Some companies talk about innovation. Others hardwire it into their corporate culture so completely, so pervasively, that every single employee can actively take part – and get their hands on money needed to make their ideas happen.
Count Thomson Reuters among the latter group.
Thomson Reuters, headquartered in Toronto, is a US$12- billion company with 45,000 employees worldwide. It opened an innovation lab at Communitech in October of 2015, one of seven similar innovation centres the company has established throughout the world devoted to generating new ideas and processes.
The innovation labs work in concert with a program the company established in 2014 called the Thomson Reuters Catalyst Fund.
The Catalyst Fund is a pot of money available to every employee in the company. It’s also a manifestation of the notion that innovation is a company-wide pursuit. In short, any Thomson Reuters employee can submit an idea, get training on how to build and submit a pitch and, if successful, present the pitch to the CEO. If the CEO gives the thumbs-up, the employee is granted $100,000 and the training and personnel needed to explore and develop the concept.
“There aren’t many companies that have this kind of executive support,” says Brian Zubert, Thomson Reuters’ lab director at Communitech.
“It truly allows innovation from anywhere, and ideas to come from anywhere. If they’re successful on that first 100K and they need more funding to keep going, they can get additional funding. It really does create a means for allowing anybody to capitalize on a market opportunity they see staring them in the face.”
Zubert says that the fund was designed to capitalize on, and channel, the opportunities employees encounter during their day-to-day responsibilities.
“Like, how much water cooler conversation have you been a part of, where people say: ‘Well, why do we do this, why do we do that?,’” says Zubert. “Or they’ll say, ‘If I was CEO, I would never do [such-and-such].’ Well, OK, [here’s an opportunity to] take action. Stop with being the armchair CEO and start actually putting your money where your mouth is.”
The Catalyst Fund, he says, gives employees the opportunity to “literally pitch to the CEO.”
In some cases, the company’s innovations labs, like the one at Communitech, submit Catalyst Fund ideas. In others, the labs provide support for a Catalyst Fund project.
Zubert cited a project his lab was involved with that involves bankruptcy and insolvency proceedings:
“Companies entering bankruptcy protection are required to publish accounting motions and corresponding court motions,” Zubert explained.
“[But] there is a bit of a gap in terms of how the accounting groups and the legal groups submit their documents to the regulator for review approval.”
“In some cases, there was literally a zip drive of documents mailed to the regulator for review. There’s no chronology, no order, no naming of the files, or what motion [the information is] related to. So, you’ve been given a whole bunch of random pieces and you have to recreate the puzzle.”
The Catalyst Fund project aimed to harmonize the document submission by tagging the information as it comes in, identifying it and linking it to the right documents. It would then make the information available to other accounting and legal professionals. The net benefit was time and money savings and a new product that Thomson Reuters could potentially sell.
“At its worst, [the Catalyst Fund process] breeds an employee culture of ‘try,’ says Zubert. “It teaches lean methodology, and it provides that ‘prove it’ moment where staff are encouraged to stop playing armchair CEO and go solve the problems they see.
“At its best, we’re giving new ideas a chance, creating new lines of business and new product offerings, realizing new cost savings, advancing our technology stacks, and creating an environment where we’re always challenging ourselves to do better, to do more.”
Zubert says that establishing an innovation lab in Waterloo Region “was a natural” for the company given that many of its customers are headquartered nearby in Toronto. Additionally, he said, much of the lab’s research lines up with work being done at University of Waterloo, and the company is constantly looking for engagement and partnerships with startups.
But the labs, says Zubert, are not separate silos where the company’s innovation takes place. Rather, they’re centres that help in fostering a culture of innovation meant to be woven throughout the organization, the Catalyst Fund being a prime example.
“Nobody should have to have innovation in their title or their job function to work on new ideas,” says Zubert. “That’s the real message. It’s not anyone’s job. It’s everyone’s job.
“If you see something wrong, fix it. Things get systematically worse when you’re more interested in work-arounds than solutions. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been in different conversations at companies where people are complaining, but say, ‘That’s not my job.’
“Well, whose job is it? If not yours, then whose?”
In short, at Thomson Reuters, innovation is the job of every employee. There’s no reason an employee can’t get clearance to work on or fix a problem, even one that isn’t central to their job function. How? It’s simple, he says.
“Just do it.”