Can you manage innovation? Large Dutch companies seem to think so, judging by the number of innovation managers who have been hired in the past two years. But how do you handle the managing of semi ideas and vague plans whose value have yet to be proven? How do you deal with the torrent of normal-is-best, as seen in traditional companies? Who are these corporate troublemakers? What drives them and what are their biggest challenges? A close encounter with innovation managers in the Netherlands.
A monthly interview series by Christel Don, and research by Martijn Pillich and Rick le Roy of Hike One | new digital product designers.
Interview with Kirsten van Engelenburg
I devoured books from a very young age, says Kirsten van Engelenburg (45), Manager Online Product Innovation at Wolters Kluwer, Legal & Regulatory International Group. “Historical romance, science fiction, nature, technology. I read everything.” Her father, a statistician, encouraged her love of books even more by giving her scientific journals to read. “The fact that I was still fourteen made no difference.” To this day, she’s characterised by her curiosity and love of books, although her 182-year-old current employer Wolters Kluwer, is no longer the traditional publisher from her youth. “There’s been a meaningful digital leap, says Van Engelenburg. “Traditionally, we published schoolbooks, atlases and magazines. Now, we’re active in several different markets, from healthcare to international law and accounting. On top of that, we offer software solutions that help our clients worldwide make their work processes smarter.”
"I’m a real tigress when it comes to process."Kirsten van Engelenburg
Take for example, a lawyer who needs additional support for a case. She’s looking for precedent cases on which she can base her argument. That’s information that can be found at Wolters Kluwer. Over the years, the company has built a large database by collecting information from numerous cases, jurisprudence, and comments. “Our tools help lawyers parse through all that information efficiently,” explains Van Engelenburg. “But we also make sure that the results we provide get better and more relevant each time. Ten years ago, legal assistants had to sift through more than 20 different sources to assemble the argumentation lawyers needed to form their cases. We’ve since then automated these processes so that finding the right information is faster and easier.”
Wearing more than one hat
Van Engelenburg’s role is coming up with new processes and above all, improving the existing ones. She works in a 40-person business unit, in which she manages Online Product Innovation together with a colleague. “We make sure that innovation processes are set up in a way that people can make time for a project and stay involved. We also advise our managers on the feasibility and scalability of projects.” It’s a position that requires you to wear more than one hat, she concludes; from business analysis to project leadership, to motivating the team.
“I’m really a tigress when it comes to processes,” she says laughing. Not an innovation manager? “When I tell people I’m a Manager Online Product Innovation, the response is usually that I’m surely an innovation manager. But that’s just a part of my work. An innovation manager is mostly busy with change management, by giving workshops or training colleagues. I don’t do that. I bring innovation to life by setting the direction of a project to come up with new tools, work processes or products, and most importantly, to improve our in-house products.” Van Engelenburg manages a whole portfolio of projects; she investigates, among other things, which internal or externals partners can be assigned to projects, or which interesting supplier or start-up could bring something new to the table. “If I see that a process isn’t working internally, I look for ways to make it better, by using known startup methods such as lean startup, design thinking and agile.”
At one moment, she saw that within her unit, there were lots of initiatives to stimulate innovation, from innovation campaign to idea box. “Except that, not much happened with the good ideas. I thought that we could do much more to implement them. I told senior management, it’s nice you say that we’re such an innovative company, but with this, we can do a lot better!” This led her to come up with how it could actually work. “After working many free weekends and late nights, during which three more colleagues joined in, we finally came up with an international digital idea box; a central place where we could unite all the plans that were good.” Also, they came up with a trajectory to follow up on the best ideas and make sure they happen. “You have to be able to apply good plans to a business case in order to finally see some results.”
182 years of experience
When you’ve existed as a business for almost two centuries, as is the case for Wolters Kluwer, you know what your clients need. But what is the actual value of this knowledge, in an era when things are changing so fast? “In the 182 years we exist, we’ve built an enormous portfolio of diverse information sources, and our clients are constantly looking for that kind of information for their work processes,” explains Van Engelenburg. “And of course, these work processes have also changed in the past 182 years. We work together with our clients and investigate where loopholes are in the business processes, so we can continue providing added value. On top of meeting clients at trade shows, or going to their office, we have product managers who use a different approach to talk with clients. They really examine the work process from beginning to end and try to find out where we can contribute.”
Traditionally, by the time a new idea would go to market, the customer’s needs would already be different, says Van Engelenburg. “The mindset that goes: we know by experience what the customer wants, has changed a lot in the past 15 years. We learned to talk to client more often, to listen well, to map out processes better and find the gaps. You can’t just talk to the client once. You need to go through your whole client database regularly and check if an issue you’ve identified with one client is also occurring with the others.”
If, after all that, there’s still something missing in a client’s business process, we try to develop it ourselves, says Van Engelenburg. “If that doesn’t work out, we look for an external supplier who can help, for example, a startup that already has a proven record in the market. This way, we ensure that we can still act swiftly within a large organisation. Recently, we started working with Alt Legal. They developed a tool that, among other things, uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to automatically plow through mountains of information. In short, this helps many of our customers complete their work processes much faster.”
Dealing with expectations
To continue guiding such a project in the right direction, Van Engelenburg needs to swim against the stream regularly. “For each project, you have to deal with internal and external stakeholders who each have their expectations on how the project will turn out. And sometimes, a project is almost completed and then someone wants to add something. There will always be something we can think about that will make the client’s process better. And sometimes it’s possible. But there are situations in which we have to say it’s not feasible because, for example, it doesn’t fall under the project’s scope.” This doesn’t keep her up at night. “I think it’s a really nice challenge when there’s all kinds of expectations.” With a laugh she adds, “If it’s doesn’t work out, this process tigress isn’t much for grieving. There’s always a nice new project up ahead.”
Kirsten van Engelenburg
- Current position: Manager Online Product Innovation at Wolters Kluwer since 2011
- Education: Master’s in English Language and Literature at Leiden University (1991-1996), specialisation in books and publishing
- Previous positions (selection): Editor at Wolters Kluwer (2002-2005), Electronic Publishing Specialist (2005-2011)
- Favourite innovation book: The Lean Startup by Eric Ries
- Essential gadget: bright yellow vintage Nokia that you can only call and text with
- Impressive innovation: The invention of the book
This is the seventh in a series of interviews with innovation managers in Dutch corporates. Follow the Hacking Innovation publication on Medium and stay up to date.
Hacking Innovation Interviews