Thinking back to the state of the Internet in the mid-1990s is kind of like recalling the state of television some 50 years earlier: the more people knew about this innovative and exciting technological wonder, the more people wanted to know about it. And unlike TV, the technology behind the Internet allowed it to be manipulated and developed by the public relatively quickly.
with Shannon Ryan & Randy Woods
1. What does innovation mean to your company?
RW: For us, innovation is about understanding the business drivers for the client, and inventing a new way of meeting those drivers.
2. Is there a technology, trend, or idea that’s driving your company forward?
RW: At the end of the day, we’re driven forward by the potential of the Internet. That’s not one technology or trend; that’s about us living in a deeply networked world.
3. How has the notion of innovation changed in the past decade?
SR: The single greatest change I’ve seen is that innovation can now come from anywhere and anyone. What the Internet has taught us is that there’s no such thing as a monopoly on good ideas.
4. How do you cultivate innovation among your workforce?
SR: We’ve tried to make everyone at NLC understand that if you can find a better way to do it, absolutely go for that way, and Randy and I will be right behind you to embrace it.
5. How can a company encourage innovation without breaking the bank?
SR: We call it open innovation application—the ability for people to contribute their ideas, have the collective wisdom of the crowd, vote on those ideas, and then have a existing process in place to flush out the validity of those ideas in a way that constantly keeps the organization moving forward.
But it begs the question: how many people really knew what they were doing at the time?
“An awful lot of developers were pouring into [the Internet], but there was no one you could talk to that could really explain why it was worth investing the money,” recalls Randy Woods. “So we were able to step in and fill that gap.”
“We” refers to the partnership of Woods and Shannon Ryan that developed into an IT professional-services company known as Non-Linear Creations Inc. (NLC). The company helps organizations leverage technologies to produce different outcomes—a process that has evolved countless times since the company’s inception in 1995, but at its core remains remarkably unchanged.
“It’s about selling more, connecting more, and communicating better from within,” says Ryan, CEO, of the company’s goals for its clients. “The challenge is not so much the technology itself but how you put it within an organization that makes sense.”
With the National Gallery of Canada, Rogers, CIBC, and the National Wildlife Federation on its roster, it’s clear that NLC has developed a healthy, wide-ranging appeal for its services. What’s surely not as easy to see, though, is Ryan and Woods’s lack of technology background: Ryan spent his early years in software sales; Woods was an environmental lobbyist and consultant at the time that NLC was founded. But what they lacked in experience they more than made up for by surrounding themselves with what Woods calls “some unbelievable talent.” This gave way to full-fledged innovative team by the turn of the century, which was necessary to keep up with the rapid growth of the Internet. “One person just couldn’t do all that,” says Woods, who serves as president.
Growth allowed Ryan to work more on his business rather than in it—creating an environment that strongly emphasized idea ownership and initiative. Such a strategy keeps NLC on the cutting edge despite an ever-quickening Internet pulse. “The pace of innovation around, not only the external side [of what we do], but how it affects literally all of us on the planet—it’s a frightening concept when you think about it,” Ryan says. “But it’s a good thing—it just means it’s getting bigger and better and more exciting.”
In many cases, the Internet’s also getting a lot more affordable; what used to cost an organization three-quarters of a million dollars could now run as little as $30 thousand. However, more often than not, a company’s decision to take an innovative risk is only partly about the money. “[For example], government clients just aren’t going to swing for the fences,” Woods says. “In most cases, it comes down to the culture of the organization rather than the vertical they’re in.”
The ability to share information online is now key for many of NLC’s clients, and a couple different tools are cited for fostering that ability. Microsoft SharePoint transforms communications within a company’s firewalls, while digital-marketing platforms turn public publishing platforms into true business vehicles. It’s a far cry from a few years ago, Woods notes, when “everyone and their brother” claimed to strategize via social media but had little value to show for it. NLC, on the other hand, takes pride in being much more than a strategy group. “We are where the rubber meets the road,” Woods says. “Whatever we’re suggesting to you, it better be doable in the real world, because you might be asking us to make it happen.”